We asked new MCFly writer Vicki Ramsden to “interview herself” about her MSc dissertation.
Why did I do the research?
My interest in the issue of waste relates to its relationship with the consumption of natural resources. The focus of my dissertation and MSc is environmental; however my professional background is within a social setting. For me, waste serves as a useful lens through which social and environmental issues can be considered together. For example, the presence of excessive litter on streets or in public areas is often linked to areas experiencing high levels of deprivation.
I am also interested in social processes and relationships and whilst my research did not focus on this area specifically, my hunch and one that I would like to explore further is that the constructs of modern social processes, systems and norms and a tendency to use market instruments in the delivery of public services has detached individuals from the waste they generate. It was my initial hypothesis that this detachment forms the nub of the problem of ‘excess’ waste.
I was therefore keen to examine the processes and different groups of actors (such as households, waste collection companies, local authorities, the waste disposal authority) involved in the creation and disposal of waste which could then set a platform from which some of these other aspects may be explored further.
What was the study about?
As the aims of the project were refined the research focussed specifically on Local Authority Collected Municipal Waste (LACMW) in Greater Manchester (GM) and considered a possible disconnections between EU waste prevention policy – the Waste Hierarchy (Fig. 1) with domestic waste policy implementation; and a disconnection with the link between waste policy with natural resource conservation.
Figure 1: The EU Waste Hierarchy (Source: EC, 2008)
The study also sought to consider the role of the market mode of governance (that is use of the market or market instruments) in achieving waste prevention.
The research was grounded in a number of opposing concepts which make waste a complex problem to tackle. In summary:
- Firstly, that the physical generation of waste is associated with levels of consumption. Consumption is an indicator of economic growth. This means that tackling waste can have implications for consumption levels. In theory, less waste means less consumption, making waste prevention politically and economically unfavourable as an outcome.
- Conversely, waste is also said to represent inefficiency in production and production processes, a drag on the economy. In this case, less waste improves productive capacity, or reduces material inputs, a positive outcome.
- A third more abstract view of waste creation is that the creation of waste is a social process in which individuals are inherent in its generation. In this conceptual scenario, reducing waste as a policy aim requires social measures, rather than the use of market instruments.
What was the most inspiring this that I discovered?
The research unravelled some of the on-going debates of:
- Weekly or fortnightly collections;
- Segregated waste vs. one bin for all types of waste (co-mingled);
- And creating energy from waste (EfW) vs. recycling.
The research revealed that in areas where additional bins were provided to households which supported the segregation of domestic waste into 4 categories (green bins for food waste, blue for paper and card, brown for glass and cans and black for everything else that currently can’t be recycled) and collections of residual waste had decreased to fortnightly, that whilst the overall bin ‘capacity’ had increased, levels of domestic waste had actually decreased. This suggests that the act of segregating waste raises households’ awareness of overall waste that is generated and seems to instil in households more sustainable consumption habits as well as awakening them to other environmental and social agendas.
In short, the research indicated that the process of waste segregation and recycling reduces overall waste which means saved budget for domestic waste services. In turn, this means it may be possible that by reducing waste, the total budget for domestic waste services can be reduced, and crucially redistributed to other local authority services.
What is the most useful insight that I uncovered – for policy?
The UK government devolved responsibility for waste prevention to Local Authorities (LA’s) via the Waste Minimisation Act of 1998, meaning that LA’s are accountable for domestic waste prevention yet are not directly responsible for its creation. Other producers of waste were identified as manufacturers and retailers and similarly, there are no rigorous measures applied to these actors to reduce waste.
The study revealed an ‘accountability gap’ for waste prevention. Individuals being (in part) responsible for the creation of waste and therefore have the ability to reduce waste. Yet individuals hold a lack of binding responsibilities to reduce waste and possess in general; a lack of awareness of the significance of waste as a problem and therefore, the benefits of waste prevention – environmentally, economically, socially and personally.
Additionally, the landfill tax (LFT) is an example of a market instrument. In the UK the LFT was introduced in response to specific problems of reduced capacity of landfill sites and raised public concern about the health effects of landfill. Whilst the LFT was the first environmental tax, the study revealed that the landfill tax is primarily a fiscal tool to raise government revenue (introduced through the Financial Act 1996). The tax is in effect levied on waste already created which means that it is not a tax which directly affects the process of the production of waste – meaning that it is ineffective in reducing the creation of waste. The landfill tax is payable by producers of waste and by businesses, but specifically for Local Authority Collected Municipal Waste (LACMW), the burden of tax falls to local authorities who, as the research confirms, are not the direct producers of domestic waste.
I’m keen to explore some of these issues further particularly around the frequency of bin collections and the number and types of bins provided to households and the impact on total levels of waste generated.
Considering the EU Waste Hierarchy and carbon emissions from waste, it would also be interesting to undertake a detailed analysis of the waste creation process through to different waste ‘disposal’ options to include:
- Burning waste for energy (WfE) or energy from waste (EfW)
- Recycling waste
- Reusing waste
- Waste prevention
The research signalled that burning waste is a viable solution for waste that can’t be reused or recycled. However if EfW is used without being part of a hierarchy of disposal options (as the on-going debate illustrates), it could be more carbon intensive than other disposal options (reusing or recycling) because of the associated activities of having to intensively mine to extract more raw materials, as well as the continued overuse of scare resources themselves.
Anything else that I’d like to say?
In the midst of central government funding cuts and pressures on Local Authority budgets and a rising population, I’d urge authorities (both in and outside of Greater Manchester) to be brave and stick with measures which aim to reduce the creation of domestic waste rather than opt for waste disposal measures which might appear cheaper in the short term.
Victoria L Ramsden
MSc Environmental Governance
University of Manchester