On Tuesday I spoke at the Westminster Forum event entitled: “Reducing and managing waste: implementing the Waste Prevention Programme and moving towards a ‘zero waste’ economy”.
With five minutes to speak, I thought I’d say five things. I decided to make my remarks from a demand side perspective, drawing on a mix of Brook Lyndhurst’s back catalogue of research in this area and my own heterodox meanderings.
1. ‘Waste prevention’ is not a single behaviour, like recycling, but a multiplicity of behaviours [see Note A, below]. This makes it much harder to address. Recycling is the easy part.
2. Engaging with the public on the range of behaviours implied by ‘waste prevention’ means thinking about the differences between re-using something, repairing it or buying a second hand version; it means thinking about the differences between washing machines, smart phones and lunch. Just because waste and resource professionals think that these are all ‘waste-related behaviours’ it should not be assumed that the general public conceptualise the world in this way [see Note B]. And if you do not speak to the public in terms that make sense to them, they will simply not hear you.
3. An interesting illustration concerns food. [Delegates had already hear about the significant waste challenge posed by our collective habit of throwing away edible food.] As we have found during various research projects for WRAP [see Note C], people are ashamed of wasting food and do not admit it even to themselves, never mind researchers or questionnaires.
Food behaviours are highly habitual; indeed, eating is so elemental, so basic, that confronting people with ‘mere facts’ about their food habits is often incomprehensible to them. (‘Shame’ is not only a very deep emotion; it is a very difficult thing for people to discuss.) Since food attitudes and/or beliefs are frequently not amenable to rational enquiry (even by the individual that has those beliefs!), this also means people often maintain conflicting beliefs.
For example: people may ‘complain’ about the big supermarkets, but when we asked them [see Note D] whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “I enjoy the fact that supermarkets are always coming up with new choices for me”, 53% of the public either agreed or agreed strongly.
And while people may hate the idea of food waste, when we asked – in the same survey – whether people agreed or disagreed with the statement “ I buy more than I really need most times I go to the supermarket”, a third either agreed or agreed strongly.
4. With people either unable or unwilling to identify or confront the real reasons for why they do things, they – we – rely on stories to explain our behaviours. These stories function as ‘myths’, not in the sense of being ‘lies’ or of being wrong; a myth is a story we tell ourselves to explain things we don’t understand or we find too difficult [see Note E]. They are a way of enabling us to function in a big, scary world. It is crucial to appreciate their power and importance. Simply showing someone some facts and telling them that they are wrong merely encourages them to recoil, to retreat further into their existing beliefs. (Who among us likes to be told we’re wrong?)
To challenge myths requires not ever more impressive or persuasive facts; but new and better stories.
5. The biggest myth we have these days is that buying things will make us happy. And the myth of consumerism is the deepest challenge facing those of us engaged in ‘waste prevention’. If people repair things and re-use things, if they hire things and use things for longer, then they are not buying a New Thing. And, at the moment, our entire economic model is predicated on consumers buying New Things. If enough people stop buying New Things, then the consequences for our economy will be profound. We’ve only just begun to tackle this particular issue; but it’s something which, in my view, we can only circle around for so long before we absolutely have to tackle it head on.
A ‘Household waste prevention evidence review’, Brook Lyndhurst for Defra, 2009
B ‘Exploring catalyst behaviours’, Brook Lyndhurst for Defra, 2010
C See, for example, ‘Household food waste: attitudes and behaviours’, Brook Lyndhurst for WRAP, 2007; or ‘Consumer insight: date labels and storage guidance’, Brook Lyndhurst for WRAP, 2011
D Survey of a representative sample of 1,000 UK adults, conducted online by GfK on behalf of Brook Lyndhurst , September 2013
E See ‘Mythbusters – investigating public perceptions of the contribution of packaging to waste‘, Brook Lyndhurst for Packaging Federation et al, 2012; and ‘The Language Game of Sustainability‘, Fell, 2013