Recycling’s up in Surrey: now for further behavioural change

A graphic which popped up from Surrey County Council on social media caught my attention for several reasons, not least for the huge aid to the vulnerable right now during the Covid-19 crisis, but naturally on the recycling statistics.

The couple that stuck out were:

  • 92% of household waste and recycling collection services in Surrey are still running
  • 23% more waste and mixed recycling is being collected than normal

I am going to use these statistics as a platform entirely to speculate and to shape an optimistic argument about how we might reshape our thinking and change our behaviours to help the environment, in normal times. The statistics might even be incidental to thinking about changing habits.

Firstly, let’s assume – we should never do that, of course – that the 92% figure is a reduction from 100% and includes the fact that some councils have suspended garden waste collections. Reigate & Banstead Borough Council certainly have. Not all boroughs or districts across the county have done so, though.

Secondly, the 23% increase in waste more than likely has several factors: 

People who are not working at present might be taking the opportunity of a long-overdue clearout while in lockdown. Some items might be destined for charity shops when they reopen, but some items will simply be past their natural life and be binned.

As we are encouraged to stay home – and with most shops apart from food outlets closed – internet-based deliveries will have increased, meaning more packaging to be recycled (hopefully). And anything now being delivered to private addresses instead of commercial ones means more packaging from domestic waste, too. Commercial recycling will surely be down.

Maybe – and this could be an optimistic view – more people are thinking more about what can be recycled and using the appropriate facility more.

All come under the potential heading of: we’re at home more, so there’s more household waste.

So what’s the nod to the future? One of the experts on a fascinating Earth Day sustainability talk podcast from, a business to business sustainability company, I watched last week ventured that now is the time to do planning for how to press the sustainability angle.

Businesses are open to ideas – and the successful businesses of the future will have a model that includes sustainability. The presenter described the panellists as confirmed optimists. The doors to businesses on environmentalism is a lot more open than it used to be; technologies mapping biodiversity, the podcast also referenced, are being run by global entities; wide collaboration about sustainable futures is possible and many are willing.

Separately, the Guardian had reported a week before that economies could be improved, worldwide, with climate commitments.

While the boardrooms plan the bigger picture, however, we can all take responsibility for our own actions.

Take lunches.

Even if we are travelling to work at present, there are fewer stores open for us to “grab a bite to eat” at lunchtime. Most of us are staying at home to eat. Which means that bite to eat comes from the fridge and cupboards. There is likely to be some packaging, but that can be avoided, largely, on your fruit and vegetables if  you buy from the right places.

This is in contrast to the proliferation of single use packaging when buying a sandwich or salad in a convenience store. If we make a pledge to ourselves to build in time to make our own work lunch – as we are doing now at home – instead of buying it from a shop while at work, it would not only spare the environment having to deal with excess packaging but save us money.

Have you compared your average weekly food bill now you are working at home to the ones of your time working in an office, plus the cost of lunch? One tupperware box will last you years and save you and the environment a great deal.

Perhaps you can encourage your workplace to act environmentally responsibly in other ways, too? Ask them to commit to sourcing their energy from renewable sources; start a recycling scheme via Terracycle; encourage them to use wipes for keyboards – which will be in vogue when we return – that are non-plastic; if they have milk delivered, can it be in glass bottles? Are there recycling schemes for anything other than paper and card?

According to the news, Covid-19 has led to behaviour change in that we are now shopping once a week again, like a decade ago.  However, the televised report stated that Tesco – which scrapped the unnecessary plastic on multipacks just a couple of months ago – has seen a rise in sales of plastic packaged fruit and vegetables, because people feel it is safer than loose. 

Oh boy!

There are all sorts of studies about the length of time Covid-19 remains infectious on different surfaces, but sadly, that feedback from supermarket shoppers sets campaigning on single-use plastics back several years. Cynics might say that’s the supermarkets’ agenda. 

Although many of them make huge plays on their websites about reducing plastic and packaging by set dates, I just hope the “confirmed optimists” of that podcast last week are not groaning with their heads in their hands, like I was, on hearing the apparent speed with which years of progress to safeguard our environment could be undone.

It’s easy for retailers to “give people what they want”, so that’s what they are doing. We can’t really blame them for that.  But we can challenge it with our shopping habits. It’s not so easy to tell them what’s good for them and the environment.

Two steps forward one step back? Let’s hope such a lapse is only temporary.