Waste collection is essentially the only service we receive that is not charged proportionately to the amount we use, yet we still wonder why it is so hard to bring about positive behavioural change.
The general focus has been to use persuasion to initiate change, for example, ‘please do this to save the environment’ or ‘recycling this saves carbon’. We have also tried other incentives to get households to recycle more – note: not to produce less waste. The trouble with many such incentives is that they are either targeted at a particular group or involve financial incentives and so are not sustainable in the long term.
I am old enough to remember the TV campaigns for seat belts, showing small children and others being thrown through a car windscreen on impact, followed by a happier portrayal of what would have happened if they had worn their seat belts.
But there was not a major change in attitude among vehicle passengers until a financial penalty was introduced, despite the clear message that wearing a seat belt may save your life or that of a loved ones.
Walking around on collection day it is apparent that waste reduction and recycling messages are not having the impact they should. So is it now time to try something different?
Should we be pushing householder responsibility rather than castigating the councils that cannot persuade residents to change their behaviour?
‘Bags for life’ and reusable bags have been around for a long time with clear messages about the environmental benefits of using them. Yet it is only the introduction of a charge on single-use carrier bags that has brought about a change in behaviours and a big reduction in carrier bag use.
I was expecting the introduction of the charge in England to cause discussion and quite a lot of complaining, but it didn’t. In general, people seem to have accepted the change and the charge.
But why do carrier bags get special consideration over other aspects of our household waste that will have similar impacts, such as food plastics, disposable batteries and small WEEE?
Pay as you throw (PAYT), or waste charging, is condemned as a stealth tax but this argument is not logical. Nobody expects to have their energy bill increased because the neighbours do not turn off the lights or pay a share of next door’s water bill so they can wash their car every week, so why are we expected to subsidise people who produce more waste than us?
Rather than try to bring about piecemeal change in behaviour through a charge here and a tax there, let’s just apply PAYT. Paying for your waste is common across Europe, and is being introduced in some developing countries as a way to make people take greater responsibility for their waste.
PAYT would let householders make informed decisions about their purchases and give a greater understanding of the impacts of their waste. PAYT does not need to cost the householder more – indeed it rewards responsible behaviours.
If we do not have PAYT, or a similar system of householder responsibility, there is concern as to how we will meet the 65% recycling target for municipal solid waste (MSW) by 2030. The first UK bottle banks were introduced in 1977 yet, in the past few decades, we have not yet managed to average 50% recycling.
Within this time period, collection and recycling systems for glass, cans, paper, card and so on have become widespread, with associated campaigns encouraging more participation. We have tried asking nicely, tried explaining the advantages but, clearly, something more fundamental is needed.
We need to explore new ways in which we can make householders responsible for their own waste and perhaps stand some chance of achieving our recycling targets. PAYT is an option that should be available.
Margaret Bates is professor of sustainable wastes management at The University of Northampton