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Engagement brings promise for the future

Robin Latchem

Have you seen the new Coca-Cola advert? Filmed with stop-go motion like Wallace and Gromit, it makes a decent fist of emphasising the virtues of recycling the drinks company’s bottles.

It is timely because there appears to be a growing consumer backlash against ’unnecessary’ waste: food, coffee cups, plastic bags and so on, as well as the tidal wave reaction to plastic litter in the oceans (pun intended).

Individual targets such as plastic bottles frustrate many who worry that it undermines wider issues such as product design, materials resilience and so on. And politicians seem to love latching on to them.

Until recently, I had used that view to raise an eyebrow at the column inches and broadcast minutes devoted to, for example, the six billion coffee cups we don’t recycle – a tiny fraction of the modern waste stream. There have been decent-meaning advocates of innovative technologies for whom I have rather intolerantly countered that I wished the same time and effort went into more widely used materials such as plastic-aluminium composite packaging.

Then I read a blog on the Green Alliance website by CIWM chief executive Colin Church. A crosshead sums up a key passage: ‘Personal experience is more engaging’. Church questions how humans consider big issues (such as sustainability). A personal engagement piques the interest, he points out, and makes the person want to find out more. But starting out with a more abstract concept, such as the circular economy, runs the risk of alienation, he argues. 

That seems right to me and, in fairness, I already believed that in general terms – it is often how journalists explain issues. But, on reflection, I think I’ve been too quick to criticise politicians who run with the particular. For example, the various waste ministers for England have been lambasted for barely making an impact before moving on. And yet there has been some progress on the harmonisation of bins. We have not yet got to a definitive position but it will interesting to see if the strategy does indeed boost recycling. (Even so, I still think the level of ministerial ambition has been low in this sector).

So perhaps the moral for me from the Church blog is “you are never too old to learn”, although I’ve never worked out how that homily squares with “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.

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