No time to waste
The current economic situation is a worry for us all, but these uncertain times are having some unexpected benefits for the environment that should be exploited before it’s too late. The latest Defra statistics for the period between October 2007 and September 2008 show recycling levels rising higher than ever before (at 36.3 per cent) and levels of household waste arisings dropping from 25.3 million tonnes to 24.9 million tonnes, with average residual household waste decreasing to 314 kilogrammes (kg) per person (from 328kg in 2007/08).
If that’s not enough, the London Borough of Lambeth attributes the five per cent decline (equivalent to 80 tonnes less per week) in household residual waste in April 2009 compared to April 2008 to the recession and associated changing public habits.
This is heartening news for everyone in waste management, particularly those tasked with persuading the public to minimise, reuse or recycle rubbish. Finally, the public has a very real incentive to act responsibly with respect to its rubbish – economic uncertainty and the need to be financially prudent are encouraging changes in consumer choices. We have an opportunity, probably unique in recent times, to encourage and reinforce these new-found frugal behaviours before the economic situation improves and everyone reverts to his or her old wasteful habits. As we know, habits die hard once they’re ‘set’, so let’s get to work!
A Waste Improvement Network survey in December 2008 found that the English authorities with the lowest total waste arisings per head in 2007/08 were Hyndburn DC, Purbeck DC and Weymouth BC – all below 300kgs per household. The most impressive decline in arisings was noted in North Cornwall DC, South Lakeland DC, Berwick-upon-Tweed BC, Barnsley MBC, West Devon BC and Rother DC – all showing a 10 per cent decrease. The survey showed that councils could impact waste arisings by restricting residual waste through alternate weekly collection and ‘lid-down policies’ (meaning all rubbish must fit into closable bins), and by using enforcement measures and consistent campaigning to ensure messages stay fresh in householders’ minds.
Other anecdotal research suggests that food waste collections also help minimise waste by making the wastefulness of consumer choices more evident on a weekly basis.
As part of the ongoing debate about how to control waste arisings, Defra has commissioned Resource Futures and AEA to investigate waste growth trends. The emphasis has been on developing robust case studies with quality data sets and overlaying local policy decisions, campaigns and wider economic conditions on to the data to help draw conclusions about what authorities can do to positively impact their waste arisings. The data analysis is now complete and we expect Defra will publish the report in the autumn.
Our work has shown that the weather has a significant impact – garden waste grows significantly in warm and wet summers. In addition, many authorities have identified the ‘Ikea effect’ when a new out of town shopping complex encourages mass replacement of furniture and fittings at home with a marked rise in arisings – particularly at HWRCs.
The most striking finding has been that previous trends in arisings have been overtaken by the current economic recession, with decreases of 10 per cent over the last 12 months commonly reported by authorities. This decrease has been partially attributed to the economic situation in every case, and so decreases may continue in 2009/10 as the economy continues to struggle and consumers become used to making different choices.
It’s a little early to draw any firm conclusions from the work on waste arisings, but it appears that there are a number of activities we can develop to positively curb the growth of waste. If steps are taken in parallel with the current economic situation, we could have a significant impact on household waste airings for the foreseeable future. The next 12 months will be critical for building momentum and driving home waste prevention, resource efficiency and sustainable consumption messages to residents – it is clearly time to act!