Is waste the new theft?

Nicholine Hayward


Posted in: Speaking Out, Waste

Is waste the new theft?

June 28, 2013

Nicholine Hayward says the key to getting consumers to waste less is knowing who the villain and victims are.

In times of plenty, there is no such thing as waste. Just ask the Victorian trophy hunters. Even today, when we look at a well-lit motorway, a deli salad or a flushing toilet, we don’t see waste, we think how lucky we are to have so much choice and convenience, to have so many luxuries and labour saving devices at such reasonable prices.

We are relieved rather than annoyed when cinemas, swimming pools, planes and trains are half empty and love getting something for nothing with a buy-one-get-one-free offer. It never occurs to us that the empty space or the free offesr are a waste of resources.

Even when waste is right under our noses, we tend to give ourselves and others an easy ride.  We know that millions of gallons of water are lost every day through leaking pipes but we don’t want higher bills.  We can see for ourselves that household items are over-packaged so we recycle.

There are signs that this is changing. But what we haven’t seen yet is any challenge to the view that waste is a victimless crime. Like smoking in the 1990s, waste is increasingly been seen as anti-social but not an actual offence. Waste is expensive – we understand that – but it’s not against the law and until that happens there will always be people prepared to pay the price.

We can learn a lot from the anti-waste propaganda of the Second World War, when our burgeoning throw-away society became one of ‘waste not, want not’. The US and UK governments’ approach is still a brilliant study of mass behaviour change. It quantified the benefits of reducing waste, whilst making it clear it what the consequences could ultimately be. At the same time, it gave people step by step instructions on what to do and made it look fun and fulfilling at the same time. Reducing waste was positioned as an exercise in creativity and self-expression. Side by side with this, the introduction of rationing equated waste with injustice and, as the black market developed and people grew weary of endless scraping and saving, eventually escalated into the portrayal of those who subverted the system as traitors, not spivs.

What this clearly shows is the war on waste needs to be fought on two fronts against a common enemy.

On the one hand, there needs to be policy and regulatory change. Waste needs to be penalised, not necessarily with criminal charges (at first) but with higher costs, greater operational barriers and restrictions. The penalties for waste could provide a useful source of revenue for national and local government in the same way that parking fines make a valuable contribution to council coffers which help to fund services. If we apply this to say, the use of water, energy or paper, we might see a system whereby homes and businesses are allocated a ‘ration’ and need to give a good account of why they need more. There needs to be a fundamental difference between this and the carbon trading system whereby companies can effectively pay a premium to neutralise their footprint.

On the other hand, there needs to be powerful cultural and social change to collectively drive, support and help enforce these new policies. The public needs to be shown the hidden waste that’s all around us, the worst offenders named and shamed and conversely, those who are taking active steps to reduce it should be celebrated. People need to be told exactly what to do and be rewarded with stories and social status to recruit others to the cause.

If we look at more recent behaviour-changing campaigns, it’s very interesting to see, for example, how the concept of the ‘enemy’ has changed over the years. For example, the first ‘stop smoking’ adverts portrayed smokers as anti-social, stupid and unattractive.

But more recently, campaigns have shifted the blame away from the smoker to the cigarette as the enemy. So, in the war on waste, it won’t work to make the consumer the ‘villain’ but the brands that are cheating us, our communities and wider society in the interests of profit.

When it comes to giving consumers precise instructions on what to do, the ‘five a day’ gives people an easy and simple plan to eat more fruit and vegetables. Ditto the campaign for alcohol units.

So, what history teaches us is that if waste is going to be the new theft, the consumer needs to be the victim not the villain, and have a plan of action they can follow.

The thief can be an attitude or a culture, a government or a competitive brand. We can’t go around telling people they’re stealing from the earth, or from each other. But we can tell them that ‘others’ are stealing from them – and it’s time to fight back.

Nicholine Hayward is a Planning Director at Good Relations Group