Can culture give new meaning to waste?

With a growing sense of urgency to achieve global climate goals, there is a need for approaches that go beyond technical innovations to better integrate a wide range of factors, including cultural contexts. A report published today by WHO/Europe attempts to systematically address the role of behavioral and cultural contexts in waste management practices, and their impact on health and well-being.

The report examines the roles of culture in the generation and management of municipal solid waste (as opposed to industrial waste or wastewater) and how this influences health and well-being conditions.

With the rise of consumerism, waste has become the symbol of meaninglessness. Drawing on insights from the health humanities and social sciences, the report highlights the importance of redefining waste management as a meaningful practice at individual, community and national levels. Using case studies and examples of good practice from WHO Member States, the report shows how reduce, reuse and recycle strategies are often deep-rooted cultural practices, and how these These can be mobilized through action on the ground – if governments create the necessary conditions.

The report is based on a scoping review of 193 articles and is published as part of the Health Evidence Network’s Synthesis Report Series.

What is the cultural prism?

A cultural approach is grounded in the understanding that different groups operate using a wide range of categories, assumptions, and moralities. Culture is a complex terrain where political, economic, ecological, legal, ethical and moral practices and values ​​intersect that influence behaviors and experiences related to waste and health. Cultural factors also operate at different scales, from local customs to national norms.

A cultural lens helps decision-makers understand different ways of knowing, being, and doing across and within regions and demographics. It also recognizes the diversity within seemingly shared cultures, which is particularly important given the unequal distribution of the negative impacts posed by the production, treatment and disposal of waste. A cultural lens can be used to understand perceptions and experiences of these inequalities, and to tailor contextual interventions that are more likely to be successful in reducing harms and promoting health and well-being.

A key role for communities and participation

Paying attention to differences between and within cultures can reveal multiple points of meaningful intervention. It is important that regulations, laws and incentives take into account the cultural contexts affecting upstream waste generation (large-scale consumer and disposable cultures) and downstream waste management (disposal, recovery, recycling, etc.). The report highlights the importance of involving people and communities in the development of waste policies to promote health and well-being.

This relies on creating a shared understanding among the various actors involved in and affected by waste management practices, and promoting participatory waste management decision-making processes that engage local stakeholders to better understand, prioritize and respond. to local concerns and perceptions of harm. Local initiatives, such as community-led cleanups, arts projects or citizen science initiatives, can also be supported and expanded to catalyze change and ensure sustainability.

Helen D. Jessen