3 ways to change behaviour on waste

Whether authorities want to increase recycling or reduce littering, public participation is a must for better waste management. Experts at the CleanEnviro Summit Singapore shared some ideas on how to get people to change their ways.

singapore road recycling bins
Recycling bins along a road in Singapore. Image: Alex Steffler, CC BY-NC 2.0

No matter what measures policymakers deploy to collect, recycle, and process waste, they will never achieve truly clean cities unless there is a fundamental shift in public mindsets and behaviour towards producing less trash and not littering, said waste management experts on Tuesday. 

Industry professionals at the CleanEnviro Singapore Summit (CESS) 2016, held in the city-state from 10 to 14 July, said that while governments and companies have an important role to play in solving problems such as litter, low recycling rates, and unhygienic public spaces, they cannot solve these challenges without the community’s participation.

Here are three ideas from global waste experts on how to get members of the public on board with efforts to keep cities clean and free of waste.

1. Put a price on it 

One of the best ways to  divert waste from the landfill is to create a financial incentive for people to recycle plastic, glass, and aluminium containers, said conference speakers. 

Peter Wadewitz, chief executive officer of the Australian Organics Recycling Association, shared that South Australia’s approach to putting a price on waste is a Container Deposit Scheme, in which a refundable fee of 10 cents is added to the price of bottled and canned beverages sold in the state.

Consumers can get the deposit back by returning the empty containers to collection depots.

This programme is a key reason why South Australia has a higher waste recovery rate than other states in the country, except for the Australian Capital Territory, said Wadewitz. From 2010 to 2011, the state recovered 77 per cent of its waste, compared with 65 per cent in New South Wales and 62 per cent in Victoria. 

Launched in 1977, South Australia’s scheme was for decades the only such programme in the country until the Northern Territory introduced a similar programme in 2012 and New South Wales last February announced it will implement its own initiative from next July.

But despite the proven success of the scheme, companies like Coca-Cola have lobbied New South Wales premier Mike Baird to reject the current model in favour of one where the beverage industry sets up a fund to support litter reduction programmes.  

But companies should support the scheme, as in reality, an extra 10 cents on the price of a drink is not significant enough to dissuade consumers from buying them, noted Wadewitz. 

He added: “The Container Deposit Scheme is an important tool to get people to recycle”. 

2. Champion the cleaners 

Making the cleaning profession more attractive by providing full-time jobs and decent wages, and showing recognition to workers is essential for ensuring a high quality of work and staving off labour shortages in the industry, noted experts. 

Chris Cracknell, immediate past director and treasurer of the World Federation of Building Service Contractors, shared that one effort by the Federation to change this is a move to employ cleaning workers on a full-time basis in the United Kingdom, a departure from the traditional part-time model. 

In the latter scenario, employees cleaned buildings during working hours instead of the usual dawn or night shifts, received vocational training, and were paid a full-time salary, shared Cracknell.

This provided greater job security, better wages, and opportunities for skills upgrading, he said. It also brought building occupants face-to-face with cleaners, and prompted office workers to tidy up after themselves as they did not want cleaners thinking they were dirty. 

Countries such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore also celebrate an International Cleaners Day on June 15 every year.

But while such efforts foster respect for the profession, cleaner’s wages do not always reflect an understanding of how crucial their work is. In Singapore, for example, the basic pay for cleaners is set at S$1,000 per month or S$33 per day, and cleaners in many other countries have even fewer protections. 

Cracknell acknowledged that “morally, a minimum wage is the correct thing to do”. But this practice could have negative consequences such as an increase in the number of illegally employed staff being paid under the table or a drop in work standards as employers tried to cut costs, he noted.

“Ultimately, we need to spend more time changing public attitudes,” said Cracknell. “There is a cost involved in employing workers to keep our communities clean, and people need to recognise that”. 

3. Technology tricks

Technology such as social media and smartphone applications can help local authorities engage with residents on issues such as recycling and littering, shared Kathryn Warren, principal consultant at United Kingdom-based sustainability consultancy Ricardo Energy & Environment.

For one thing, spreading the word about the importance of recycling through social media is much more cost effective than methods previously used in the UK such as knocking on doors or phone-calls to residents. 

Second, Warren shared that social media messaging is also good for reaching people who are otherwise difficult to reach out to and have a lower-than-average recycling rate, such as students and temporary residents. 

Mobile applications, or apps, are also essential tools to promote cleaner communities, she added.

For example, many councils in the UK are launching apps which allow residents to check which day of the week their rubbish is collected, which materials are recyclable, and where their nearest recycling centre is. 

Some countries are also setting up instant messaging services for residents to report litter and other environmental problems, noted Warren.

Making effective use of software and media technology is a must for better waste management, she said.

She added: “Beyond logistics the logistics of waste management, it is also a communications business.”

About 200 people attended the CESS 2016 session, which was held at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre from 10 to 14 July. The event was co-located with the World Cities Summit and Singapore International Water Week, and also featured an integrated expo.

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