Public Release: 

Throwaway society? Truth is, we really care about getting rid of things

Economic & Social Research Council

Far from being a 'throwaway society', most of us go to considerable lengths to pass on unwanted household items to others, according to new research sponsored by the ESRC.

And when it comes to making our mark in society, it is not just what we acquire but what we decide to get rid of that is important to us, says the study by researchers at Sheffield and Nottingham Universities.

The project examined how households in the Midlands and North-East got rid of ordinary, everyday consumer items over the course of a year.

It excluded things that can be placed in kerbside recycling bins - glass jars, paper, plastic bottles and tins - and rubbish such as packaging.

Instead, the team focused on the other items found in our homes, including electrical products, clothing, furniture, furnishings, toys, books, CDs and videos.

Researchers found that the dustbin or a visit to the local tip are merely two options amongst many when it comes to discarding the family fridge or TV, or shedding furniture or clothing which have been around for a long time. The only exceptions, says the study, are when people are moving home or carrying out major refurbishment.

Professor Nicky Gregson, from the University of Sheffield's Department of Geography, who led the study team, said: "People and households use numerous methods of ridding themselves of objects, including giving things away, selling or even quietly forgetting them.

"Of course, this is not to say that these things are not wasted by those who might receive them. Charity shops, for instance, often send for ragging the donations that they regard as unacceptable.

"But what matters more is that households clearly try to save things from wasting, and don't waste without care."

People get rid of objects because they become 'pitted', chipped, discoloured and washed-out. Equally, however, other items endure, and the durability of some makes getting rid of them harder and more guilt-ridden for their owners.

Said Professor Gregson: "Some things tend to stay around because their physical state seems to insist that they do so, and because we cannot think of good enough reasons to eject them.

"This is just as much a problem for many households as the frustrations of the chuck-replace cycle now widespread with goods such as kettles, irons and toasters."

The report found that often it is children who force their mothers to discard things they see as embarrassing or shameful, such as furniture which is 'odd' or 'old and unfashionable'.

New partners - mostly the women involved - also insist that their 'new man' get rid of things so that the pair can carve out their unique identity as a couple. And people continually detach themselves from things which are 'not me', 'no longer me' and perhaps 'never were me'.

Professor Gregson said: "What previous research there is into waste is either heavily theoretical or oriented to its management -- that is, once things have actually entered the waste stream. Our research takes a step back from this, to examine just what is going on when things are wasted by consumers.

"The great variety of ways in which people rid themselves of unwanted things casts considerable doubt on the idea of the 'throwaway society'.

"What we found was that households go to considerable lengths to save things from wasting and to pass them on to other people, both known and unknown."

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FOR FURTHER INFORMATION, CONTACT:
Professor Nicky Gregson on +44 (0)114 222 7943 (work), +44 (0)7739 189 470 (mobile) or Email: n.gregson@shef.ac.uk

Or Alexandra Saxon or Lesley Lilley at ESRC, on +44(0)1793 413032/413119

NOTES FOR EDITORS
1. The research project 'Disposal, devaluation and consumerism: or how and why things come not to matter' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Professor Gregson is at the Department of Geography, Sheffield University. The other members of the research team were Professor Louise Crewe, of the School of Geography, University of Nottingham, and Dr Alan Metcalfe, of the Department of Geography, Sheffield University.

2. Methodology: The research involved an in-depth 12-month investigation with 16 households primarily in 'South Hightown', a former coal-mining village in County Durham; an in-depth study comprising four interviews with 59 households in four distinct areas of Nottingham, again over a 12-month period; and 25 focus group interviews in Nottingham and the East Midlands, many with children in schools.

3. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £123million every year in social science and at any time is supporting some 2,000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences to nurture the researchers of tomorrow. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

4. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC funded research (formerly accessible via the Regard website) and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example, the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. Sometimes the ESRC publishes research before this process is finished so that new findings can immediately inform business, Government, media and other organisations. This research is waiting for final comments from academic peers.

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