Lifestyle scenarios: the future of waste composition

Start date:
October 2005
May 2007

In this major scenario-planning exercise for Defra’s Waste R&D team, Brook Lyndhurst developed a set of three scenarios to 2020 in order to better understand future waste arisings and composition

Approaching the issue from the household perspective, the research combined qualitative and quantitative analyses of the factors that shape the composition of the domestic waste stream. The research was informed by an extensive literature review, formal modelling, expert interviews and workshops. The results were geared to assist Defra in both assessing the risks associated with potential treatment options, and exploring possible interventions to reduce household waste arisings.

The purpose of this predominantly qualitative research programme was:

  • To highlight and explore the relationship between lifestyles, households and household waste;
  • To explore possible future development paths for lifestyles and the possible consequences for household waste composition; and
  • To identify possible longer term priorities and risks for waste policy.

Phase 1 – a review of lifestyle trends and drivers. The first phase comprised a detailed and extensive literature and data review, drawing on a wide range of sources, culminating in the production and circulation of a large reference document.

Phase 2 – preparation of initial lifestyle scenarios. Drawing upon the research from Phase 1, and using a range of scenario development techniques including brainstorming, facilitated working sessions with Defra and liaison with other scenario development projects, the project team then developed the basic parameters of the scenario planning element of the research.

Phase 3 – full development of lifestyle scenarios. During the third phase, the initial scenarios were refined, finalised and fully written up. A programme of seminars was conducted with experts from the “lifestyles”, “waste” and “packaging” sectors, to test and explore the scenarios.

Phase 4 – assessment of waste implications, quantification and conclusions. In the final phase, the waste-specific implications arising from the lifestyle scenarios were developed, and quantified. Conclusions and broad policy implications were also developed, and a final report prepared.

The scenario-planning exercise revealed the sheer complexity of the relationship between the kinds of lifestyles lived by modern householders and the scale and kind of waste that emerges from households.

Three waste sources, by virtue of their size, dominate the overall picture in 2020: food waste, garden waste, and household items. Of these, garden waste volumes emerge as relatively invariant between the different scenarios we looked at. Even where strong government intervention is presumed, waste volumes remain high by 2020. More and more households mean more and more waste – particularly from the three dominant waste sources. Food waste and household items, by contrast, exhibit very different patterns under the scenarios.

The research highlighted the importance of particular types of waste in terms of tonnage. Organic waste – food and garden - and household items, make up a significant proportion of household refuse. Small lifestyle changes in some areas can therefore make a big difference to quantities of waste entering the household waste stream. Equally, major changes in other areas – disposable PCs for instance – would have less effect due to the fact that electrical waste makes up a relatively small amount of waste overall.

All the scenarios looked at show the importance of behaviour change if substantial reductions in waste are to be achieved. This is a difficult area for government policy, which has traditionally (and particularly since the 1980s) shied away from telling people how they should conduct their lives. This research emphasises the urgency of the question – what role should the government have in changing our behaviour if such changes are key to reducing waste?

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