Improving food waste recycling in Norfolk: a final year project

Guest blog by Hannah Treacy

Hannah is in her final year of studying BSc Environmental Science at the UEA. Her final year research project, based in Norwich, looked at improving local authority approaches to household participation in food waste recycling. http://www.linkedin.com/in/hannah-treacy

Food waste is a large-scale global problem. It is estimated that every year one-third of edible food is wasted, mounting up to 1.3 billion tonnes of food. A colossal amount equivalent to 21.5 million planes; or 100 million double decker buses; or in food terms: 1.6 trillion loaves of bread!

There are various policies aimed at reducing this ridiculous amount of waste – such as the UN Sustainable Development Goal which says global food waste must be halved by 2030. UK local authorities are rolling out more food waste collection services to households to reduce the amount of food entering the residual waste stream, and potentially ending in landfill.

The study focused on food waste collection services in Norfolk, specifically Norwich City Council who are experiencing low household participation in the scheme; and Broadland District Council who recently expanded their collection service to an additional 3,000 households. Both local authorities tried out a series of public engagement techniques to householders: Norwich’s to improve participation, and Broadland’s to introduce new households to the scheme.

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One of the food waste caddies!

I decided to question householders receiving the public engagement techniques on their food waste recycling habits and opinions of the local authority engagement. The study used questionnaires to target over 700 households across the two local authorities 3-4 weeks after the public engagement techniques were released.

Just to add – these were all hand-delivered and collected by myself and with the great help of my wonderful boyfriend, Harvey. I don’t think my step count will ever be so high – we had walked 20 miles in one day delivering just half of the questionnaires (in the full heat of 2018’s summer). We hit the road again three days later to collect any completed questionnaires and were completely overwhelmed at the response rate – 153 residents had completed the questionnaire! There were some great responses which made for some interesting analysis.

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Enjoying a well-deserved drink after distributing questionnaires!

After collection, the next task was to input all of the responses into an Excel spreadsheet. Here, I produced various graphs and descriptive statistics which gave a great insight into household opinions and habits. On the whole, people who responded were aware of the food waste recycling scheme, and 70% were keen recyclers who put their caddy out every week for collection. Just 16% never recycled, although nearly half of this group were into home composting. I then confronted my fears and started statistical analysis on SPSS, which allowed me to analyse these results in greater depth. I used Value-Belief-Norm theory as a framework to see how biospheric, altruistic and egoistic values faired predicting household behaviour.

It was found that biospheric and altruistic values were directly linked to people recycling their food waste. In other words, people were recycling because of the environmental benefits and because other people do. Contextual factors, such as not recycling food waste due to composting instead or finding the process to be a bit smelly were also important influencers for food waste recycling. The hot weather had raised many concerns surrounding hygiene – the heat had brought maggots, fruit flies and even foxes to resident’s food bins!

The second part of my research was to consider how these results can be useful for local authorities. The key messages were that all of the public engagement techniques used (i.e. leaflet, free caddy liners) improved food waste recycling – Norwich City Council reported that both high and low performing areas improved as a result of the campaign. Other factors to consider were ‘nudge’ techniques which frequently remind householders to recycle and using public engagement techniques to demonstrate how barriers can be overcome – such as getting rid of that lovely rotting food smell.

It is very rewarding that my research gave many useful conclusions that will be of use to local authorities. It also opens questions for further research – I am delighted to hear that Broadland District Council are using a similar questionnaire design to reach a larger number of households. And finally, I am most pleased to have obtained a first-class grade in my dissertation!

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Picking up the first-class dissertation after marking!
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