This year’s RWM conference speaker Anna Pitt, of Zero Waste Week, explains how she reduced her household’s waste to almost nothing, and talks about empowering others to see their ‘rubbish’ as a resource
Anna Pitt has been delivering workshops to businesses and in the wider community for more than 20 years. With a BA (Hons) in education and a City & Guilds Further and Adult Education Teachers’ Certificate, she’s appeared on ITV, BBC News and Radio 4 promoting zero-waste strategies. She has also worked closely with Oxfordshire County Council as a Love Food Hate Waste (LFHW) champion and a trainer of champions.
Pitt has many years’ experience talking to the community about how to reduce food waste, and has written books and blogs on the topic.
At this year’s RWM conference, her presentation, ‘Reaching the unreachable – get more people wasting less’, was about helping local authorities communicate with their residents about waste reduction and pitching messages correctly for the audience.
Circular (C): How did you get into the resources sector?
Anna Pitt (AP):By accident. I was just getting on with life, bringing up my family and wanting to do it in a low-impact way, respecting Earth’s resources. I tried to minimise waste, and got to a stage where I only needed to put my bin out once a year. Oddly, that made me look at what was in my bin, and why. I realised, with just a little more thought, I could probably reduce one bin a year to almost nothing – and it was a total switch in my brain from thinking ‘rubbish’ to thinking ‘resources’.
One day, my younger daughter came home from primary school telling me she was the only person in the whole school with a zero-waste lunch box. I was stunned. I can remember saying to her: ‘I don’t know if what we do really makes a difference.’ And she said: ‘Of course it does!’ To her, it was obvious.
At the same time, my older daughter had started secondary school and we regularly entertained other children. They’d ask me where the bin was, and I had to ask: ‘What is it you’ve got?’ We’d replaced our general bins with recycling points. By asking how it could be used next, we knew where to put things.
Clearly, this was not what people usually did. That led me to doing the maths and measuring impact – and, eventually, to writing my first book, 101 Ways to Live Cleaner and Greener for Free.
C: What prompted Zero Waste Week to be launched?
AP:Zero Waste Week came from an overwhelming sense of fear when founder Rachelle Strauss was on holiday with her family in Boscastle during the horrendous floods and wondered if she was ever going to see her husband alive again. It is best to get a story like that from the person who lived it, and Rachelle tells it.
My part came later. By 2013, when I got to know Rachelle, Zero Waste Week had become a massive global campaign and I joined as an ambassador. After the campaign, however, Rachelle was near to burnout and spending so much time and money on it that she was seriously considering giving up her mission. I didn’t want that to happen, so I started to get more involved: editing, offering support, ideas, a shoulder to cry on, and an opportunity to say yes – instead of no – when people asked her to do talks and workshops to help inspire people onto the zero-waste journey.
Rachelle loves social media, as seen by her awesome videos. I hate online communication, but give me a room of five or 500 people and I’m on fire. So, like Jack Spratt and his wife, Rachelle and I make a perfect pair.
C: What do you consider your biggest success at Zero Waste Week?
AP:Our biggest achievement is the millions of small successes. We get so much feedback from people who’ve made lasting changes that have reduced their waste, and that’s what keeps us going.
C: What does your normal working week entail?
AP:It starts with a Skype meeting to discuss who is asking for what. At the moment, it feels like a game of tennis; we are just batting back balls to stay in the game and keep people playing. There’s no way we can keep up with demand, but we use all these enquiries to work out the mood and need for the current – or next – annual campaign.
We offer consultancy to businesses to help them reduce waste, but there’s a finite amount of time for this, so we are looking at ways of reaching more people in a more time- and cost-effective way throughout the year. Hence, we spend a couple of days researching, writing content and making courses that people can do at their own pace as, and when, they are ready for the next step.
Our Waste Warriors course has fantastic feedback, but people want more – so that’s what we’re trying to concentrate on right now.
I do talks, workshops and onsite consultancy, so I will usually spend one day a week researching, tailoring or delivering these for businesses or organisations that want to inspire their staff or attract the growing green consumer. I am all for this, as it is a far more fulfilling way of generating funding for the annual campaign than filling out grant applications.
I love it when my week includes a trip to a recycling facility. Seeing things with my own eyes helps me to inspire others.
We have to cope with a lot of doubters and naysayers, and it is much easier to deal with this side of our work when we’ve had first-hand experience of how things work and who is doing what.
C: Why is ‘rubbish’ a valuable resource?
AP:We all know we’re using up finite resources. We need to realise there’s no such thing as ‘rubbish’. Everything we create, grow, use is a resource and we need to use stuff, rather than use stuff up. That is the only way to achieve sustainability. It is fine to use something, as long as we use it in a way that allows us to use it over and over again. If we consider everything as a resource, it helps us to think of it as precious – and then we will think through how we can restore it to use again even before we’ve started to use it for the first time.
C: What one thing can everyone do that will reduce dramatically the waste going to landfill in the UK?
AP:The biggest impact is to ‘pre-cycle’. Pre-cycling is thinking about something before we buy it and working out whether we can reuse or recycle it. If we can’t, we don’t buy it. If we all pre-cycle, companies that make products – and, therefore, use resources – will be forced to think in a circular economy way. Otherwise, they will fail.
C: Recently, the government’s chief environment scientist warned that people must make lifestyle changes and shift away from consumerism if the UK is to hit its net-zero emissions target. What – if anything – does the government need to do to ensure we move to a more circular economy?
AP:We need to make the green economy cheaper than the non-green one. This needs to be underpinned with taxation and tax relief. There’s so much to say here, but an example is how the tax breaks in France for not wasting food pays for redistribution organisations. In the UK, we rely way too much on volunteers doing stuff through passion than through properly funded means of waste reduction.
C: Food waste is one of the biggest sustainability problems challenging the planet – one third of all produce is thrown away. In its resources and waste strategy, Defra says it aims to have weekly food waste collections in place from 2023, and eliminate food waste to landfill by 2030. What else needs to be done to help solve this problem?
AP:This needs to happen, but it is not enough. We need to reduce the food waste we create in the first place. Don’t get me started! I’ve written a whole book about this and I still feel it needs another.
C: How can councils engage the public to reduce their waste?
AP:This is the question that brought me to speaking at RWM this year. I feel I need to download my brain onto a memory stick so I can share it. We have developed a system based on ‘nine As and three theories’, and we feel waste warriors – like our wonderful ambassadors – are key.
In short, the nine As start with awareness, go through action and end with after-effect, which mustn’t be missed. Our three theories involve small steps, positivity and the power of social proof.
C: Why should educating the public about reducing waste start at school?
AP:Understanding the use of resources and how to do this sustainably is as important as literacy and numeracy. The three Rs used to be reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic. We have to make the sustainable use of resources the fourth ‘R’.
C: Is consumer behaviour towards brands changing?
AP:It certainly is, thank goodness. At last, people want ethical! The problem is, they don’t fully understand what’s ethical and what’s sustainable. I cringe at the ‘let’s shun plastic and have lovely paper or glass instead’ thinking. People need to understand the impact of packaging. It needs to be about reuse and recycling, not swapping one more carbon-intensive, single-use packaging for another – back to my point about the fourth R.
C: Can zero waste be achieved?
AP:I strongly believe it can. We need to get back to nature and learn from it. It is a common saying that only man creates waste. I dispute that: look at the damage mice can cause! But look deeper and think about it – they only cause waste when they make their homes in man-made stuff.
C: What are your worries around Brexit and how it might affect the resources sector?
AP:Brexit has taken over people’s minds and lives. Companies are working out how they can stay afloat while our economy is taking a nose-dive. This is a huge distraction from thinking about sustainability, triple bottom-line economics and how to move towards a sustainable future, where we ‘use’ instead of ‘use up’.
If we have to put up with it, however, let’s use it to our advantage and start to buy British, reuse British, recycle British – in Britain. If we waste nothing, we need less, so we can live within our means and support the local economy. If we did this, we’d be making a global impact for the better.
This interview first appeared in the September/October issue of Circular.