Residential energy is saved and vulnerable gain skills through behaviour change project.
With a quarter of carbon dioxide emissions in the UK coming from the residential sector, there’s a need to find new ways to help households reduce energy use. While some of this is related to building condition and type, much is related to the way people use energy. In the last two years we have been working to tackle this issue in Wiltshire homes, and meanwhile provide a social benefit.
The project, Achieve, began life in Frankfurt five years ago to address the combined issues of high fuel costs and rising unemployment. In Germany if you’re unemployed the state covers your energy bills, so an idea was born to tackle both issues at once. Achieve trains and supports the unemployed to provide energy advice directly to vulnerable consumers – often their peers – in their homes, resulting in saved energy, changed behaviours and meanwhile helping people reintegrate into the job market.
At Severn Wye Energy Agency, an independent charity and not-for-profit that promotes sustainable energy, we spotted the potential and with European funding partnered with Wiltshire Council to run a series of training programmes. The programmes provide advice to residents struggling to pay energy bills and, meanwhile, the local unemployed to gain valuable new skills. To date we’ve trained seven advisers, helped more than 200 families and, as a consortium, reached over 1,700 homes in France, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Germany.
Gary Hardman of Trowbridge, who first became interested in Achieve through his local Job Centre Plus in the summer of 2012 has now undertaken more than 100 visits, and said: “I had never thought of working in this area, but I’m finding it really exciting and I have already found loads of ways to save in my own home.”
Achieve involves two free home visits. During the first, the trained advisers assess the home including bills and areas where energy is being wasted. This could include: the use of tungsten or halogen lighting, appliances routinely left on standby, or draughty doors and windows. The adviser then assesses which of a number of simple energy-saving devices may offer the greatest benefits for the household based on their current energy tariffs, and critically what this will mean for them in financial terms. On the second visit, the adviser installs the most appropriate devices and presents a report outlining their findings – including the time the original investment will take to be repaid to the household.
Key to the design of Achieve was that we did not want to rely completely on the ability of people to make long-term changes to their behaviour in order to make savings. Rather, we wanted to show people some small savings that they could make by installing simple devices. Through this, people are educated about the cost of specific appliances and will motivate others to go further with their own behaviour change.
One particular device that has proved successful in the savings reached and in its acceptance by clients is the retrofitting of halogen down lighters with LED equivalents. Having limited funding, we were usually only able to install one or two bulbs – an array typically has between three and five bulbs, and some households have more than 10 50-watt bulbs. This gave the client the opportunity to test the technology and to consider the return on further investment. During return visits we were pleasantly surprised to find a number of clients, despite their limited budget, had invested in further LEDs.
We also focused on highlighting the cost of appliances on standby, such as obsolete and unused video-players costing over £30 a year. While the savings are quite modest for individual modern appliances cumulatively they can soon add up. Where funding prevented us from installing a device, we were still able to translate the energy use into monetary terms for the resident, and it is this translation that we believe is key. Combined with educational material and remote support, we caught resident’s interest and have seen them take further energy-saving steps themselves.
In some cases the project has been able to go further and help households to access funding toward heating and insulation measures. One client in Melksham commented: “Top service. Thanks to your report, our housing association funded our switch from Economy 7 storage heaters to full gas central heating, making savings of about £45 a week.”
Climate change discussions and calls to reduce emissions will only go so far, and with so many people. But innovative projects like Achieve demonstrate how behaviour change can be achieved through tailored advice and a focus on the bottom line.
Some food waste, be it measured in mass or as lost energy, is inevitable: potato peels, woody broccoli stalks, steak bones and beef gristle, egg shells, tea leaves. Other waste is avoidable but excusable, part of the quotidian inefficiency of human lives: a few last slices of stale bread, the remainder of some milk or yoghurt that is past its best-before date, a piece of fatty meat or exotic fruit rejected by a child.
But most food waste is both unnecessary and avoidable, and, over the past decade, a series of studies have given us a better appreciation of the problem’s scale as well of its considerable environmental and economic impact.
That is a welcome change. In 1999, when I was doing research at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, my most memorable impression of the institution was that hundreds of its rooms in Mussolini’s former Ministry of the Colonies were filled with thousands of people preoccupied with how to increase food output, while the study of food waste was delegated to a single man in a one-room office.
That study found that roughly a third of the food produced globally for human consumption — 1.3bn tonnes a year — is lost or wasted. Predictably, the highest wastage occurred in the EU and North America at about 100kg per person per year. Losses in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia were far lower, at 6kg-11kg.
In 2009, the UK’s first food waste assessment was produced by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP). Using data from 2007, it found that UK households wasted a third of all their food, with nearly 90 per cent of that waste going to landfill. It concluded that about 60 per cent of that waste was avoidable.
But an update in 2013 registered an encouraging shift: UK household food waste was found to have fallen by 15 per cent between 2007 and 2012, down from 8.3m to 7m tonnes.
A separate US study in 2012 put total food waste along the entire food chain at 40 per cent of the country’s food supply. Another inquiry found that, between 1974 and 2005, US food waste had risen by 50 per cent, with subsequent further increases.
Losses at the production level are particularly high. About 20 per cent of some vegetables, most fruits and many kinds of seafood, are wasted at this early stage. Post-harvest losses have been greatly reduced in rich economies with proper produce handling, chilling, refrigeration, protective packaging and anti-spoilage additives. But such losses remain high in the tropics.
In rich countries, losses at household level account for the largest share of food waste, not only for fruits, vegetables and seafood but also for grains due to wasted bread.
Why do rich countries waste so much food? The two most obvious reasons are that first they produce more than they need and then sell that produce so cheaply.
But another, less well-appreciated, factor is the decline of home cooking. About half of all meals in the US are now eaten outside the home, a major source of plate waste — particularly given the gargantuan restaurant portions in the US. People in rich countries tend also to be overzealous observers of best-before dates — even though you can eat that yoghurt a day after its “expiry” with impunity.
Food availability in the EU and in the US averages at about 3,500 kilocalories (kcal) a day per capita but the average food intake per person of the west’s increasingly sedentary and ageing populations is no more than 2,100 kcal. This creates a 1,400 kcal (40 per cent) waste gap.
And food is too cheap: it costs the average American family just 11 per cent of its disposable income. In the EU consumers spend 14.5 per cent of household expenditure on food, but that too is far less than in the past and than in most low-income countries.
Among affluent countries, Japan is the only notable exception in terms of wasting less food. That is due to a combination of its high dependence on food imports — at 60 per cent — and a more frugal and ageing population. Average daily food availability is now only about 2,400 kcal/capita, significantly lower than the Chinese mean, and food waste amounts to only about 20 per cent of the total supply.
The global waste of a third of our food means that 30 per cent of farmland is ploughed, planted, fertilised, irrigated and harvested without any real benefit. To make matters worse, these processes generate significant emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. If the world’s food waste were its own country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases following China and the US, require 250 cubic kilometres of water per year — more than Danube’s annual discharge. Such demands also leach nitrates into groundwater and streams creating coastal dead zones, accelerating soil erosion, reducing biodiversity and promoting the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Better food literacy would help in the campaign to curb waste. So would more home cooking and less eating out, but, in the long run, there is only one effective measure, especially given the fact that food consumption is fairly price-elastic, which could substantially reduce waste in affluent countries: that is paying more for the food we buy.
Ending all food subsidies and enforcing food-related environmental safeguards would accomplish that goal — but western governments remain unwilling to pursue that course and altruistic consumers eager to buy more expensive food are few and far between.