Recycling is not enough

Recycling alone is not enough to meet the UK's escalating waste problem and people must change their habits to consume less in the first place, according to the Economic and Social Research Council.

The report, Consumption: reducing, reusing and recycling argues that the progress being made by increasing recycling rates is being undermined by the sheer volume of waste being generated and advocates ‘social marketing’ as part of the solution.

It estimates that if household waste output continues to rise by three per cent a year, the cost to the economy will be £3.2 billion and the amount of harmful methane emissions will double by 2020.

The report highlights the many ways that social science can contribute to waste policy development, either by devising initiatives, by providing tools to evaluate their relative effectiveness or by helping understand why they did or did not work.

The ESRC’s Professor Ken Peattie, said the commercial marketing tools could be used to influence public behaviour for the benefit of society as a whole.

This social marketing, he said, can be successful because it focuses on the target audience’s point of view, taking account of any emotional or physical barriers that may prevent people from changing their behaviour.

“Guilt messages are ineffective,” he said.

“A focus on the benefits of a greener lifestyle has been shown to be a better way to encourage people to reduce their consumption.”

Ben Shaw, senior research fellow of the Policy Studies Institute’s environment group, added that while countries which have brought in variable charging for waste production have seen a marked reduction in volume, even the toughest penalties have not been enough to prevent a significant accumulation of waste.

Waste reduction needs to be tackled higher up the chain of production and consumption, he said.

“Waste reduction must be a goal of UK environmental policy, and not tackled through waste policy alone,” he said.

The report also gives examples of zero waste initiatives which have been tried – from the high-tech, large-scale waste management systems of consumerist San Francisco, to the locally based, small-scale initiatives in the Philippines.

Sam Bond

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