Reports warn over waste prevention messages

Broad-brush waste prevention initiatives are unlikely to succeed, according to two government-commissioned reports. In the absence of pay-as-you-throw schemes, they suggest focusing on specific issues like junk mail.

Waste prevention initiatives should focus on specific issues such as junk mail and reusable nappies, according to two reports for the environment department (DEFRA) issued in November.

The main report reviews waste prevention initiatives in the UK and abroad.1 It was written by consultants Brook Lyndhurst and the Resource Recovery Forum.

Campaigns aimed at cutting junk mail or boosting home composting can reduce waste by 0.5-1 kilogram per household per week, the report estimates. However, it identifies many barriers to encouraging participation.

"The most significant… is the lack of consumer understanding of both the idea of ‘waste prevention’ and the actions that might be associated with it," it says. "There is in particular a tendency to equate the idea of ‘reduce waste’ with recycling." Some people even equate waste prevention with reducing electricity use.

The problem is compounded by a "lack of visibility" of waste prevention measures. Many are conducted within the home, like reusing food scraps or signing up for the Mail Preference Service. "You don’t see yourself [preventing waste] and you don’t see others doing it," said Jayne Cox, a director at Brook Lyndhurst.

To overcome these barriers, waste prevention campaigns should focus on specific issues rather than providing general messages. DEFRA could be accused of failing to heed the report’s advice. It is currently running an information campaign under the rather vague slogan of ‘remember: reduce, reuse, recycle’.

Ideally councils would introduce pay-as-you-throw schemes for waste collections, the report says. These could cut arisings in England by up to 2.5 million tonnes a year. This echoes earlier reports for DEFRA on waste prevention (ENDS Report 392, p 19 ). But such schemes are unpopular (ENDS Report 408, p 6 ).

The second report reviews a project in Dorset run by the county council.2 Waste prevention measures were trialled in five areas between 2005 and 2008, with most activity focused on the town of Corfe Mullen near Wimborne. Residents received doorstep visits where waste prevention was explained to them, they were encouraged to sign up to the Mail Preference Service, buy home composting bins and think about waste when shopping.

These visits "are mostly likely" to have been responsible for weekly waste arisings in Corfe Mullen falling by 0.5kg/household, compared to a 0.5kg rise across the rest of the county, the report says. It does admit that differences in waste collection systems across the county could also have had an effect. "Isolated campaigns [such as home composting]… were easier messages to ‘sell’ than waste prevention in general… with doorstepping the most effective method of engagement with the public," it concludes.

Many of the government’s ‘zero waste place’ schemes are following a similar approach, focusing on nappies, junk mail and compostable materials (ENDS Report 417, p 22 ).

Speaking at a conference on the reports in November, Roy Hathaway, DEFRA’s head of waste regulation, expressed concern at the difficulty of measuring initatives’ success. "I don’t feel confident as a policymaker that we can measure waste prevention very well and that makes me nervous when people talk about setting targets," he said.

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