Wednesday, 4 May 2022

The problem with being anti-waste

Finish your dinner, some people are starving in the world. Although this phrase is often used by parents to try and emotionally manipulate their children into eating vegetables, it reflects a deeper societal concern about our attitudes to waste.

If you do not have enough of something you need then waste is a serious problem, a matter of survival. Perhaps this is why we react so negatively to waste when we have abundance, to waste is to forget how privileged we are.

But defining waste isn’t as straightforward as it seems.

How do you peel a potato? Well, arguably the fastest way is to simply turn the potato into a cube as you only have to make 6 cuts with a knife. Granted you will lose a lot of perfectly edible potato this way, but it is a lot faster than the standard way of peeling which involves lots of movements to remove the peel.

The thought of doing this to a potato has probably filled you with deep sense of moral outrage. But I think it is important to reflect on why the potato is a valuable resource and not your time? Put another way, would you spend 10p to save you a few mins of extra peeling time? I think I probably would, but I would hesitate if it were 10 pence worth of perfectly edible potato (incidentally many people throw a way potato peels but if you put them in the oven with a bit of olive oil and they make a great snack!). I think we probably have an in-built aversion to this kind of waste for all sorts of evolutionary reasons. But what actually is waste?

Waste is an useable by-product of the production process, what’s left over. It is intrinsically tied to efficiency: the more efficient the process the less waste that occurs. The problem here is that not everything that minimises waste, leads to efficiency gains. After all, the easiest way to minimise waste when peeling potatoes, is to simply not eat potatoes in the first place.

The problem with focusing on waste is that it usually just concentrates on minimising waste in one resource, and not thinking about the process as a whole. The public sector is often viewed as wasteful as it doesn’t have the profit motive to keep costs in check. If you want to spend any money in the public sector it invariably involves filling out lots of forms to justify that this spending is absolutely necessary. This will obviously reduce the waste in the sense you will have fewer gold-plated toilet seats, but in reality it means that you are paying someone to fill out forms rather than doing their job.

This notorious example of this is the NHS getting rid of managers and getting doctors to do administrative tasks instead. You brings down the overall wage costs but in the end you are paying doctors, doctor’s salaries, to not spend time with their patients. And because quality of care is lot harder to measure, you end up seeing “waste” in all things that are easier to measure like wages. It is management by spreadsheet (but not in a good way).

Minimising waste leads you to get rid of any slack in the system – ignoring the fact that this is often the most efficient way of running things. Negative shocks happen all the time, people get ill or leave. And then more people get ill or leave because they are trying to do the jobs of people who are ill or on leave. If at work you are constantly putting out fires at work, then the system is not running as efficiently as it could be.

Now the elephant in the room when it comes to waste is climate change. Energy is something we do not want to waste as the by-product is carbon emissions. And it is because it is so important we need to be very careful when assuming something is wasteful. For example, people often think that food grown locally is more environmentally friendly because it cuts out transport costs. But transport costs are such a small component of the energy use that goes into food production that we can end up using more energy eating locally if we don’t grow things in the most productive areas.

So I guess my argument is that to be truly anti-waste, you need to focus on long-term efficiency and not make me fill out loads of forms.

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