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Landfill bans are too negative to get people involved

Bob Gordon

Landfill bans are the talk of the town. At the moment, the Welsh and English Governments are consulting on landfill bans and conversations continue within the Scottish Parliament. I am fully supportive of policy proposals that reduce the environmental impact of our waste and increase recycling. I’m just not sure about the idea of introducing a ban. It is arguably a blunt and inappropriate tool, but my objection comes at a more philosophical level.

The idea of banning something does not inspire. Barack Obama did not capture the collective American consciousness with “No we can’t”. Neither did Martin Luther King inspire the civil rights movement by declaring “I have a nightmare”.

“Selling the benefits of more materials recovery will win stronger consumer support”

So why do our Governments think it is progressive to introduce a policy with negative and punitive connotations? Why are we not following the world’s great leaders by capturing the imagination? And are the proposals actually about improving communication? The fact that such long lead times are proposed makes me think that the purpose of introducing a ban is, in reality, to send a message to local authorities and waste management firms that the infrastructure needs to be developed.

If we are to improve communication, we need to embrace a positive message. We have been berating the public for years to increase the amount of material they recycle. Rates have indeed increased and local authorities should be lauded for their progress. But it took a while for the message to get through, many people still haven’t got the message, and there remains a long way to go. Are people not listening or are we not telling them in the right way?

Futerra recently produced an insightful report on communicating climate change entitled Sizzle: the New Climate Message. The report argues that painting a picture of ‘hell’ to raise awareness of climate change adopts the wrong approach. “Hell doesn’t sell,” it said. “Although these Armageddon climate scenarios might be accurate and eye-catching, they haven’t changed attitudes or behaviours nearly enough”. Rather, the report suggests that we should be adopting “a narrative that changes hearts, minds and even behaviours…and it’s the opposite of climate hell. We must build a visual and compelling vision of low-carbon heaven.”

In a nutshell, bash people and you will turn them off. Excite them with visions of a brighter future and they are more likely to act on your message. It’s not a new idea.

Peppa Pig has figured it out. One of the children’s character’s books is entitled Recycling is Fun. It’s a simple but highly effective way to encourage our little ones to recycle. It has had a profound effect on my two-year-old daughter, who now wants to recycle everything. We don’t need a landfill ban to encourage her to do more. If anything she needs to recycle less - I’m struggling to get the message through that we only recycle something when it is finished with.

If we continue to tell people what they should not do we will continue with low rates of participation and engagement in environmental activities. It’s selling the economic and environmental benefits of increasing material recovery that will win stronger support from consumers.

Bob Gordon is head of environment at the British Retail Consortium

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