Number Crunching

Lucy-SiegleFollowing her first TED talk recently, journalist and broadcaster, Lucy Siegle, explains why she feels it’s time for the waste and resources industry to really crunch the numbers
CIWM Journal Online Exclusive

I recently gave my first TED (a non-profit organisation devoted to “ideas worth spreading”, and TED stands for “technology, entertainment, design”) talk. This was TEDx, Salford, rather than the Silicon Valley. Nonetheless the event was imbued with the upbeat braniac air I’d expect from the Californian original. As you’d hope there were talks from an astronaut and a man from Google wearing those intriguing glasses [Google Glass] that will make us see life through a different (Google) lens.

Some people find TEDx irritating. It does have its own tropes. There’s a premium on positive problem solving and a tendency to play up Eureka moments (in real life innovation is probably quite boring, predicated on incremental improvement). Many talks are given by middle-aged American men in chinos wearing headsets. A friend of mine campaigns unofficially for Drunken TED talks, which she says will be less self righteousness and more fun (though probably a lot longer than the allocated 18 minutes).
Anyway, I was sober and my main concern (besides speaking with the flu) was how could I interest a tech-centric audience in my fashion-centric argument: following the death of 1 133 garment workers in the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in April, the fashion supply chain must be revolutionised. The standout fact for me is “1 133” My TED talk became “Fashion By Numbers”.

The audience liked it and I should thank the waste industry, because that’s where I got the number idea. So much about “rubbish” is expressed through shock and awe statistics. From “10m tonnes of plastic waste is discharged into the world’s oceans each year” to “your dinner’s in the bin: 28 500 tonnes of food wasted” (Channel 4 news). These big numbers help garner attention as suddenly we see mass idiocy laid bare.

With a problem number you can also posit a neat numerical solution. “If we planted trees on land currently used to grow unnecessary surplus and wasted food, this would offset a theoretical maximum of 100 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion”, calculates food waste campaigner Tristram Stuart.

Rubbish numbers are great campaigning tools at the start. However, they are hard to row back from, especially when trying to demonstrate later success. It’s good news that since 2007 avoidable household food waste has been cut by 21 percent to 4.2m tonnes, but then there’s the stats: 24m slices of bread, 5.8m potatoes and 5.9m glasses of milk wasted daily. Those numbers make 21 percent look small.

Meanwhile the numbers we’re obsessed by are the eye-popping kind that show quantities of waste produced by the industrialised, first world economy followed by league table positions. What we tend to ignore is the substantial slice of humankind involved in the clean-up and the fact these are often one-man-bands. Yes, much of waste is small-scale and local!

Estimates from 2010 suggests 15m people around the world depend on waste picking alone for their livelihoods. I never hear this number. By the way, I don’t want to represent this as some golden cottage industry. It isn’t. It has its own set of additional grim digits. There’s “$1.50”, the estimated daily rate of pay and “45”, the average life expectancy of a waste picker in these conditions.

The highly fragmented informal recycling and rubbish economy is hidden behind an increasingly consolidated, corporate landscape with big numbers. It’s a mismatch.
In fact, we simply don’t have all the numbers. I was struck by a recent description of China’s recyclers as “thought to largely comprise small-scale, often family-owned, low-technology firms”. With only one set of statistics how can we engage with the reality of this part of the waste chain? How much can they really process? What condition do they need it in?

So those eye-popping, bulk, shock and awe numbers serve a limited purpose but they’re far from the full story. It’s time the waste industry gave them a crunch.

Lucy Siegle works on the “One Show”, BBC1, most recently co-presenting from the Queen Vic for Children In Need. She is also an Observer columnist (environment) and founder of the Observer Ethical Awards and the Green Carpet Challenge with Livia Firth. Her book, “To Die For” is a substantive investigation into the fashion industry, nominated for the Orwell Prize.

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