November 15th, 2013

Waste prevention: an article of faith?

6 minute read

by Chris Sherrington


A friend of mine was walking in the countryside with his children when they came across an interesting array of characters. Dotted around a hillside, facing out to sea, with their hands held chest high and palms facing out, they seemed to be conducting some sort of prayer ritual. When they’d finished, they were happy to chat about what they’d been doing.

They believed that under the hill on which they stood, there was a giant battery, put there by the being they worshipped. In their ceremony, they recharged it through the power of thought, and then focused its energy on troubled areas across the world so as to stop bad things from happening.

They seemed very sincere and very nice, but the inquisitive children were quick to ask the obvious question – if what they said was true, why was it that things like hunger and war persisted? The unhesitating response was: “If we weren’t around, things would just be so much worse”.


Preventative measures

As someone whose work focuses to a large extent on waste prevention, I saw an odd parallel between the worshippers’ situation and my own. The hardest problem to answer in any work whose aim is prevention (whether of waste or of “bad things”) is what would have happened in the absence of an intervention; the ‘counterfactual’ situation.

While I find the confidence of this group in their counterfactual admirable, I operate in a field where belief, no matter how fervent, is not sufficient. For cash-strapped local authorities, it is of the utmost importance to understand the likely impacts of any investment that they make, based on the best available evidence. Expenditure on measures to prevent waste is no exception.

However, one of the greatest difficulties for local authority officers in seeking to roll out waste prevention initiatives is to find clear evidence of their effectiveness. There are a number of reasons why evidence is so thin on the ground.

  • First, there is the inherent difficulty in measuring something’s absence. While an increase in the recycling rate can readily be identified, waste that never gets created can’t be weighed;
  • Secondly, many waste prevention measures are implemented without consideration of how impacts might be evaluated. Measurement is frequently an afterthought; and
  • Thirdly, compounding the above two factors, it is often very difficult to disentangle the impacts of a specific intervention, e.g. a food waste prevention campaign, from impacts that may result from ‘background’ changes, for example in food waste collection, and the wider economic situation.


Inverted hierarchy?

While waste prevention is at the top of the waste hierarchy, it is often bottom of the heap in terms of resource allocation. Moreover, where a local authority has an officer with specific waste prevention responsibility, they are often less senior than the importance of this role might warrant. Greater seniority tends to be associated with a focus on ‘proper’, more measurable waste management activities. This is unfortunate, as the size of the waste prevention prize for councils in terms of reduced collection and disposal costs could be considerable.

A study by Eunomia for Bruxelles Environment reviewed the effectiveness of a number of different instruments for waste prevention. The most compelling evidence of waste prevention effects came from Direct and Variable Rate (DVR) Charging, also known as Pay As You Throw (PAYT). The best performing schemes in the case studies reviewed led to a fall of 10% or more in the quantity of household waste collected.



If I had a hammer…. Councils need all the tools they can get to show the value of waste prevention. Photo by Per Erik Strandberg, via Wikimedia Commons


Importantly, a comprehensive PAYT scheme can provide a strong financial rationale for households to engage in, and continue to undertake, further waste prevention activities. Moreover, in most parts of Europe, it is an instrument that can be implemented at the local level, without the need for central government action.

The exception is the UK. Unfortunately, under Section 47 of the Localism Act 2011, local authorities are now explicitly forbidden from introducing PAYT, despite it being the single most effective measure they can take to apply the waste hierarchy; and the fact that doing so would save a good deal of public money being spent on waste disposal.


Tooling up for waste prevention

However, a number of interventions remain that can be implemented by UK local authorities. In 2012, Eunomia was commissioned by the Welsh Local Government Association to develop a Waste Avoidance Toolkit, with the specific aim of providing local authority officers with responsibility for waste prevention with robust evidence that could be applied to their specific circumstances. The Excel-based tool includes data on the following measures:

  • Reusable nappy schemes;
  • Restricted bin size;
  • No side waste policy;
  • Home composting;
  • Love Food Hate Waste;
  • No junk mail campaigns;
  • Paint reuse;
  • Community swap days;
  • Zero waste challenge; and
  • General communications


The toolkit draws together the best available evidence in terms of the effectiveness of such initiatives, supported with case study examples.  Users can input some basic details about their local authority, select from a number of possible interventions, and calculate the likely financial and environmental impacts. This includes the tonnage of waste prevented, and the carbon impacts.

To date this has only been available to Welsh local authorities, but a more streamlined version has now been developed that is freely available to local authorities across the UK.

A preview of this Waste Prevention Toolkit (WPT) was given to a number of local authority officers at the recent LARAC conference in Nottingham. It was revised based on their comments, and the WPT is now available for local authorities to download. Eunomia intends to keep updating and improving it: as more local authorities implement waste prevention measures and gather evidence of their effectiveness, it is hoped they will share the results. This knowledge can then lead to a virtuous cycle of further measures, building both the evidence base and the effectiveness of the tool.

Next week is the European Week for Waste Reduction 2013, and Eunomia’s WPT is intended both to support the efforts of those already working in this area, and to help gather data that will evidence the value of waste prevention. While I may not be able to promise that the WPT will reduce the incidence of terrible events around the world, making it easier to evidence the likely effects of interventions means that waste prevention need not be an article of faith restricted to true believers.


Chris Sherrington


Dr Chris Sherrington Senior Consultant


Leave a Reply

1 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
1 Comment authors
Andrea Windisch Recent comment authors

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Andrea Windisch
Andrea Windisch

A very hands-on example for one effective (and potentially also measurable) way to prevent waste is charging people for plastic bags at supermarkets. Last year I read a study that this reduced the usage (and waste) of plastic bags in e.g. in Wales drastically…