The good news is that recycling rates have risen and the UK is on schedule to meet EU targets. However, the issue of waste is an escalating problem whose solution lies in changing the nation’s buying habits and our attitudes to consumption, according to the authors of a new report.

Consumption: reducing, reusing and recycling, by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), says the benefits of recycling risk being undermined by the sheer quantity of waste being generated. The stark warning is 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 harmful methane emissions will double by 2020.

Experts have come up with many ideas to encourage consumer recycling over the past few years, but all agree that more needs to be done to reduce the amount of waste produced. While the onus is on manufacturers and supermarkets to reduce the amount of packaging on consumer products, experts still maintain that consumer attitude towards waste needs further change.

Professor Ken Peattie, director of the ESRC Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability and Society (Brass) at Cardiff University, says, “Guilt messages are ineffective. 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 of the Environment Group, Policy Studies Institute takes a harder line. He says that the UK is still a long way behind the best resource-efficient countries and regions where taxation and household waste charges have been used to reduce landfill. 

There seems to be no easy solution to reduce the amount of waste produced. Shaw admits that even the toughest penalties have not been enough to prevent a significant accumulation of waste. Like many environmental experts, he believes that waste reduction must be tackled higher up the chain of production and consumption.

There is a suggestion that the UK use elements of ‘zero waste’ schemes practiced overseas, such as those in operation in San Francisco and the Philippines. Some recommended initiatives are:-
Setting a per capita residual waste target to drive both recycling and prevention, backed up by variable charging of householders;
Taking steps towards tackling consumption by drawing up producer responsibility agreements to reduce waste at production level;
Setting more ambitious targets for recycling targets;
Developing recycling systems for organic wastes, such as returning composted food waste to the land as fertiliser rather than losing this valuable resource.