Behind the bins in Hugh’s War on Waste

Karen Cannard, co-founder of The Rubbish Diet, shares her experience of working behind the scenes on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s new BBC programme.

Behind the bins in Hugh’s War on WasteSitting at a roundtable meeting at KEO Films discussing Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s new programme for the BBC was most certainly one of the most surreal points in my ‘rubbish career’. Hugh asked: “Who in their right mind throws away a whole chicken?” The question was rhetorical, but I raised my hand to confess that I had indeed done this. Before I woke up to waste, I was just the kind of person the programme wanted to influence.

It was clear that the key thrust of the programme was going to be on supply chain food waste while asking people to take responsibility for their own waste too.  

This was home territory for me. Since 2008, when I slimmed my bin from an overflowing wheelie to just a plaster, I’ve been on a mission to motivate people to reduce their waste. It was clear that Hugh’s community challenge approach, tried and tested in his other programmes, had huge potential, and I was really chuffed to be invited to join KEO’s team in Prestwich, Greater Manchester over the summer.

The principles Hugh used were sound: finding out what was being thrown away and showing people the value of it; building people’s trust in recycling by taking them to see the local materials recycling facility; and having lots of one-to-one conversations to tackle the issues that were stopping individuals recycling. That was where I came in behind the scenes.

Behind the bins in Hugh’s War on Waste
Karen speaks to Michelle
The most rewarding experience was meeting Michelle, whom Hugh described on-screen as “having the most notorious bins in the neighbourhood”. When I met her, her bins were just as you saw on TV, recycling bins contaminated with rubbish, rubbish bins full of recycling, and off-screen so many sidebags of ‘rubbish’ that the council refused to collect them.

Michelle’s lack of interest in recycling was typical of many households around the country. She wasn’t interested in being better organised or trying to get other members of her household on board. For a short while, I thought it would be impossible for her to commit to change, let alone being filmed. Michelle was definitely in the hard-to-reach category. I was pulling out all my well-rehearsed reasons for reducing waste. The turning point was when we discussed how recycling better brings benefits to the economy. That was the spark that ignited Michelle’s interest.

It was fantastic to see how the community got behind the challenge, with people passing on the message and motivating residents to get their friends and neighbours to join in the action. One woman, Gilly, who wasn’t featured in the programme, became a local hero, helping other residents through ‘rubbish’ conversations and passing on recycling information.

Hugh’s rubbish revolution in Prestwich was a great success, with the community of Gardner Road doubling the amount of tins, glass and plastic it recycled in just a couple of months, bringing their efforts into the top one per cent of Europe.

It took three ingredients: leadership in the community, a great ambition supported by clear goals and education – work that recycling officers and community groups are chipping away at every day. But the context of the programme was really important too. People are more motivated to do their bit if they know that others are taking action too, and thus Hugh’s talent for taking the issues to big food companies was key and should make it easier for all of us working with communities to get the message out.

The Gardner Road street party to celebrate the campaign
As Hugh highlights towards the end of episode two: “Here in Prestwich we have mobilised a small community to really care about waste. It’s not the easiest subject in the world to care about but now to this group of people it really matters. And of course it needs to matter to everybody right throughout the UK so now it’s time to ramp it up and take it up to another level.”

For anyone who thinks, “Yes, but this is TV – it would be impossible to recreate something like that in our backyard”, Ashley Road in Shrewsbury did something on a smaller scale in 2012. So Hugh’s War on Waste has the potential to inspire hundreds of Ashley Streets or Gardner Roads to spring up with the right mix of leadership and conversation to build on and embed further the hard work of local authorities and community groups.

It starts with a conversation with people on the street. Inspiring, not just educating, showing, not just telling and working together on a shared goal, one that is theirs to achieve. It doesn’t have to be a physical street, it might be a series of communities with shared interests, empowering local heroes.

Whichever way you look at it, Hugh’s War on Waste is a call to arms, and for a rubbish revolution to take place in towns and cities across the UK, and time to capture the shock and enthusiasm for action that follows to reduce food waste and recycle better – and, at last, to make the most of all that people power.

In Hugh’s words, “If we all make small changes, big things will happen.”  

Karen Cannard is the Co-founder of The Rubbish Diet, the UK’s slimming club for bins. Take the Rubbish Diet’s latest Food Challenge to halve your food waste in just three weeks.

Residents of the UK can watch Hugh's War on Waste on BBC iPlayer until 9 December.

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