June 28th, 2012

Acorns, not oaks

5 minute read

by Peter Jones


I’ve come across two very different eye-catching green ideas in the last couple of weeks, both with the aim of switching young people on to more sustainable living. Their sources couldn’t be more different – two local authorities collaborating to inspire young people to recycle “on the go”, and iconic punk designer Vivienne Westwood promoting sustainable fashion. And while each is doing something exciting and ambitious, I fear that neither is reaching its full potential.


Whole lotta litter

Let’s start with the councils. Westminster and Camden are pretty exceptional areas. Their half a million residents are matched by their daily number of visitors and so around 20% of the domestic waste they collect is street litter – around 25,000 tonnes a year. Half of the material is readily recyclable, but barely 10% is actually recycled. There’s a big financial incentive to get material out of landfill – hence the introduction of 800 or so street recycling bins, but these are plagued by high contamination rates.

A major proportion of the daily visitors to central London are under 35. The anecdotal view that young people tend to drop more litter has recently been lent credence by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Their research found that “more young adults” was one of the factors that predicted lower neighbourhood cleanliness scores.

Getting young people interested in street litter is a pretty tough nut to crack, but if you made it to the CIWM conference earlier this month you will have heard about Bin, Scan, Win! The joint project between Westminster and Camden Councils aims to promote “recycling on the go” by putting a Quick Reference (QR) bar code on street recycling bins. People who scan the QR code with their smart phones can enter a daily prize draw to win a voucher worth £20. Since younger people make the most use of QR codes, the project targets just the right audience.

I applaud the councils’ innovative project – and it’s great that it received £30k match funding from Defra’s Reward and Recognition Fund. But how successful is it proving at reaching its raising awareness and or affecting behaviour?

Well, the councils can monitor how many people have visited the site (which is only accessible to mobile devices) and entered the draw. in May 2012, the first month of operation, there were 236 entries. That’s nearly 6 per day – not a huge number, but encouragingly ahead of the project team’s estimate of 500 over six months. Yet there’s a crucial flaw – they can’t tell whether entrants have actually used a recycling bin. That wouldn’t be important if there was another way to track changes in litter volumes or recycling rates – but the small number of site users means it is unlikely that there will be a discernible impact.

Bin, Scan, Win!

The innovative London scheme’s logo

Brook Lyndhurst will be evaluating of the project, and I hope it is able to secure funding beyond the initial six months. But the consultants will need better information if they’re to do more than comment on are the number of entrants and the press coverage. Ideally they need contact with site users to find out about their experience.

At the presentation at CIWM, Andrew Cook of Westminster Council was completely candid about the evaluation challenges, and I can see the tension between trying to make it as easy as possible for people to enter the prize draw and capturing information. But the greatest value of Bin, Scan, Win! seems to me to be the opportunity to learn about the reach of this technology and the effect of an incentive-based scheme as a means of engaging with young people. I find it frustrating that if no more information is collected, at the end of the project we may be none the wiser.


The only way is ethics?

Vivienne Westwood’s ‘Get a Life’ talk has attracted even more press coverage than Bin, Scan Win. As she explains in her blog, she has been speaking about the need for action to prevent “mass extinction due to climate change” and to improve our lives by refocusing on human values rather than abstract financial ones.

Vivienne Westwood Aoyama

Vivienne Westwood’s flagship store in Aoyama, Tokyo. Picture by Wikisepia via Wikimedia Commons

Since her conversion to Gaia theory, Dame Vivienne has started to use her position as one of the UK’s most influential fashion designers to talk about political and environmental issues. She has lent her support to the Ethical Fashion Programme, and started spreading a message of “buy less – choose well”. I completely agree that weaning society away from disposable high street fashion would strike a blow for sustainability – although I confess that my idea of “choosing well” is more likely to involve vintage shops and army surplus than new designer gear.

According to friend who saw Westwood speak at the Cheltenham Science Festival this month, she several times mentioned the need for people and ideas to achieve their full potential like “acorns turning into big oak trees”. But asked about whether she was trying to source all of her materials sustainably, she responded that it was too difficult and she didn’t have time to check everything she used. Hardly an inspiring message!

It feels as though Westwood, Westminster and Camden have found acorns bursting with potential, but neither has yet yielded more than a tender sapling. The local authorities, while alert to the need to evaluate Bin, Scan, Win! appear not to be giving the collection of the necessary information as a high priority, when it is fundamental to understanding whether is serving its purpose. Meanwhile, Dame Vivienne has hit on an important message for the fashion industry, but seems to be missing the opportunity to be the game changer who shows that sustainable fashion is possible. I hope both seize the opportunity they have to achieve still more.


Peter Jones


Peter Jones


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