Waste Watch’s Our Common Place programme emerged from the simple idea that just because an organisation is interested in an environmental issue – and is being funded to act on it – doesn’t mean other people will be interested.
Take recycling; for years the typical approach to increase recycling rates was to get enthusiastic people to go from door to door to let householders know about the really great service in their area. But the number of people who weren’t recycling because they didn’t know they could were few and far between. The truth was the practicalities didn’t suit them or they just didn’t care. So Our Common Place (OCP) set out to encourage people to care.
It started with the principle that it’s better to do something with people than impose something on them. Interwoven with this were insights from the Common Cause programme that people holding intrinsic values (eg freedom, creativity, equality) are more likely to engage in environmentally-friendly behaviours than those holding extrinsic values (eg status, power, conformity). But rather than just lecture people about the joys of intrinsic values, Waste Watch encouraged people to develop activities that promoted NEF’s Five Ways to Wellbeing which were: Connect, Keep Learning, Be Active, Take Notice and Give.
Each of the 23 local OCP projects in 2011-12 began with a meeting where people put forward ideas for things they would like to see happen in their area. Ideas had to embody at least one of the five ways to well-being and people had to share responsibility for delivering them. So although the end goals of Our Common Place were to promote actions such as recycling or energy efficiency, they ended up helping residents to organise sewing and homework clubs, a pop-up café and participation in a local timebank.
But what of the environmental benefits? Because any event is likely to create waste or use energy, it was easy to introduce environmental considerations into the planning of the projects. It was as simple as asking ‘is a high environmental impact necessary for this event to work well? If not, then can we design it so that our negative impacts are minimised?’ That way, environmental education was built in through a practical example.
Creating a community
A connection was made and groups that formed in response to the community-led activities often also came along to the more specifically energy efficiency-oriented events organised by Waste Watch. Of these events, the give and take days – where people would meet their neighbours, pass on things they no longer wanted, and pick up items they needed instead of buying something new – were perhaps the best embodiments of what OCP stood for. But, happily for Waste Watch and the project funders, people were also interested in workshops on draughtproofing or how to dispose of cooking oil.
Results showed that the energy efficiency events were better attended, recycling levels up and contamination down, compared with the start of the project. But, just as important, it was found that the people involved felt closer to their communities and enjoyed a sense of greater well-being.
The lesson from Our Common Place seemed to be, if you want people to recycle more don’t doorstep them with tales of bins, instead teach them to sew, or help them with their homework or pop up a café.