Meeting in the Middle on Waste Reduction

I recently watched Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani’s three-part BBC series War on Plastic. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth catching on iPlayer: not only does it make the point that the UK is basically fly-tipping its plastic waste halfway around the world, but that EVERYONE, at all levels, has a role to play if we want to reduce the flood of waste that is hitting our communities and our coastlines.

Back in my days as a researcher, we would talk about whether a solution would be better top down (e.g. imposed by government) or bottom up (coming from individuals or grassroots organisations).

I realise now that this is the wrong way of looking at things, at least when it comes to the environment. Both sides are absolutely needed, and we must meet in the middle if we want to have any hope of actually fixing the country’s broken waste management system.

Government

Recycling needs to be uniform across the country—it shouldn’t be a guessing game as to what products go in which bin. This sheer lack of logic in the UK’s waste management system has always done my head in, and if we as a nation want to take waste reduction seriously, we must convince our politicians to take action now to improve the process. Not by 2050. Not in a decade or two. But now.

Likewise, the government needs to stop strategising and start acting. It feels like every time an issue is raised, whether it be litter or plastic pollution, the government produces a new strategy and points to that as an indication that they are taking it seriously. Don’t get me wrong—strategies are important: they show the direction you want to go in, give you an opportunity to think things through, and hopefully connect where you are now to where you want to be in the future. However, without action and implementation, strategies aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. 

For example, in War on Plastic Hugh highlighted the launch of the recent strategy document on plastics that said that 100% of the plastic recovery costs was to be paid by the producers. Sounds great … except is there actually a plan in place for how that is going to happen? It’s a bit like New Year’s resolutions—how many people resolve to get fit and lose weight, maybe even write it down somewhere, but then fail to act on their intentions?

Instead, I believe the government has a vital role to play in changing the current waste management infrastructure through enforced policies and laws. It is this that will help the necessary behaviour changes to flourish—not simply stating a desire for how things should be.

Supermarkets and Industry

Steps need to be taken to completely re-invent the packaging infrastructure and make it easier—not more expensive or less convenient—for people to use less packaging. The feeling I get, both from watching the show and my own observations, is that shops are operating about 15-20 years behind the curve. There is a failure to recognise that consumers have far greater choices than ever before and that many of us are willing to shop for our values. Let’s keep reminding them of that by supporting businesses who are genuinely doing their bit, not engaging in greenwashing or temporary fixes while the cameras are rolling.

After all, this is not a problem that we can recycle our way out of. I think War on Plastic made the point quite well that we simply can’t cope with the sheer amount of plastic waste that is being produced. You can see it for yourself: next time you walk into any standard supermarket or store, check out how many products are wrapped in single-use plastic. Doesn’t it make sense to reduce what we can so plastic can be used for the products where it is absolutely vital, such as healthcare?

While recycling is not a panacea, I would like to see companies redesign their products to make them easier to recycle and with less chance of contamination (Lucozade, I’m looking at you with your impossible-to-recycle outer wrappers). This programme and research coming out of both the UK and US is showing that so many people think they are doing the right thing by adding products to the recycling bin … but so much of it is the “wrong type of plastic”. Why can’t we ensure that if plastic is used, it can genuinely be recycled easily? This seems to be a change that can be made right now with very little disruption to the status quo.

That being said, genuinely is a keyword in the preceding paragraph. I beg companies to stop greenwashing their products to make them seem more environmentally friendly than they really are. Claiming that an item is recyclable—when only one county in the country recycles it—doesn’t help matters. Nor does the compostable label: is it compostable at home or does it require an industrial composter to actually break it down? Be open, be honest, be transparent … and be willing to make the actual changes that are necessary.

Consumers

Also known as you and me. While there are a lot of things that are out of our hands, we can make sure we keep our voices raised to put pressure on the government, supermarkets, and other businesses so that the necessary changes are made and enforced. And, of course, there are the things we can do in our own homes to cut back on disposable waste.

There are the basics:

  • Bring a reusable shopping bag to the stores and your own containers to put things in. This is especially true of loose fruit and veg: ditch the single-use plastic bags and bring your own mesh bags instead.
  • If you can remember to bring your phone and keys with you when you leave the house, you can also remember a reusable coffee cup and/or water bottle. Many places are participating in the City to Sea Refill scheme, and locally, check out participating Refill Chippenham locations or download the Refill app.
  • And many, many more ideas in the Reduce Your Wasteline series and Lindsay Miles’ Treading My Own Path

For some, convenience and cost will always trump values. But for many of us, there is a willingness to think long-term about our actions and the type of planet we want to leave behind. Plastic Free July kicks off next week and I’ll be sharing the things my household has done to cut back on waste over the past 18 months or so, as well as the things that I am struggling to switch. Keep an eye on the blog or social media for details.

Leave a Comment