I’d like to think that my job is a bit like the job of a detective or CSI – collecting data (evidence) on resource efficiency. Robust evidence will help to build a case. In the current cash-strapped world, it’s all about building a good business case to justify making changes or investments. But how do you construct your investigation so that you get the information you need while not blowing the budget? And is the upfront investment even worth it?
The right tools for the job
As with any job you need the right tools. To make that choice you need to know what you’d like to find out – what is your research question? I feel this first stage sometimes gets overlooked. We often get a brief asking us ‘to assess the effectiveness of an activity’. But the effectiveness of what? How would you define success? What is the reach and intensity of this intervention?
A simple participation monitoring project might tell you how many households participated in the service over two set time periods. It might also tell you if residents are setting out waste more or less often. But it won’t tell you why or what the trigger was that made them behave that way. It also can’t tell you if more of the target material was collected. Combining qualitative research such as focus groups will give you some understanding of motivations and the triggers for change whilst a pre- and post- waste compositional analysis will tell you about capture rates.
Some of the data collection tools can be expensive but there are ways to make them more cost-efficient by tightening the scope. Do you really need to know the proportion of aerosols in your residual waste when your intervention is all about food waste? In this case, tailoring the category list the materials are analysed into will make it quicker and therefore cheaper.
The right skills for the job
Once you are settled on what it is that you need to measure, the next step is to figure out how to go about doing it.
There are a number of guidance documents available from WRAP and Zero Waste Scotland as well as countless academic articles on the subject of best practice in data collection. Some of the methods may seem simple at first but as waste is intrinsically connected to human behaviour there is a level of unpredictability to it. Waste is also not a static, inert substance and taking this into account may be crucial when, for example collecting data for development of waste infrastructure.
It is also likely you will need to go out into the field with additional resources that need to be trained and managed. With the waste industry reporting around 5,000 injuries a year - which accounts for around 5% of the workforce in the sector - it would be prudent to ensure that the fieldworkers have suitable skills and are managed to strict health and safety procedures.
A certain level of expertise and experience of dealing with the practicalities of collecting waste data in the field will mitigate again risks and potential costs.
So, what do you need to look for if you require the data to stand up to scrutiny? The word ‘robust’ gets used a lot in our field but what does it mean? The dictionary says “strong, firm, vigorous, healthy…” not really what you’d look for in data. In my experience, we should focus on data and research that is replicable and transparent. With the degree of variability in the waste behaviours and the number of factors that influence it, it should be possible to scrutinise these in order to make informed decisions about what the data is actually saying. This scrutiny will include sample sizes and sample points (kerbside vs transfer station), the fieldwork methods - often to the very finest detail i.e. does the ‘packaged food’ category include the packaging?, assumptions and limitations of the data as well as any unusual circumstances (the recent heatwave being an interesting example).
All of these intricacies make me feel that the job of a waste data researcher is more important and interesting then ever; helping local authorities and businesses make more informed choices and to be more savvy with resources. And maybe one day I’ll pitch my very own waste detective crime drama to the BBC.