‘Talking Rubbish’:  researching rubbish and recycling in Moss Side

Observing rubbish and recycling: a vacuum cleaner and rubbish dumped in an alley
Observing rubbish in Moss Side: chairs and pallets dumped in alley as students leave
Communal bins overflowing with the quantity of rubbish and recycling
Garbology: are student notes too complex for recycling?

‘Talking rubbish’

Exploring the problem of litter / rubbish in the streets and alleys in a residential area with a high student population

This research project is being carried out jointly by local residents who are part of the ‘Upping It’ project, and by a social scientist at the University of Manchester’s Sustainable Consumption Institute.

The project is about local residents’ views on our local environment and in particular the issue of rubbish and recycling, and what can be done about it.  The project is a small pilot for a potentially larger project in the future if it produces useful results.

From the experience and insight of local people, we hope to have some valuable comments and ideas to feed back to the University and Manchester City Council.

Comments from participants will be reported in confidence, without using personal names or street names.

  • to explore the reasons for litter in streets and alleyways, and why more waste is not recycled;
  • to investigate how people living in the local area, and the relevant organisations and professionals who work with/for them, understand the litter problem; and
  • to build on existing local knowledge of ‘what works’ in reducing the litter problem, including
    (i) how to inspire interest/action among sections of the community (including students), and
    (ii) how to promote greater accountability among relevant stakeholders (including the University of Manchester).
Project description

This project is a case study to investigate the high volume of litter in a residential area near the University of Manchester, a problem to which our student population is a direct contributor.

The project has established a knowledge production and exchange relationship between a social scientist with expertise in sustainability research, and local activists in ‘Upping it’, who are working to solve environmental problems such as fly-tipping, low rates of recycling, and failures of bin provision and use.

This relationship is intended to be mutually beneficial: to assist ‘Upping it’ to evaluate their effectiveness and obstacles to success; and to enable the researcher to do background work for a new research agenda with potential for social impact.  The project is a pilot study to inform the development of a larger funded project on the politics of litter in inner-city Manchester.

Students have a significant impact on the residential areas in which they live, but pay no council tax and rarely stay long enough to develop community ties.  In many cases student renters appear to lack a sense of responsibility for where they live, leading local residents to conclude that neither they nor the University care about their impact.  The litter problem in the area of study is therefore directly relevant to the University’s social responsibility and environmental sustainability commitments.

This research was motivated by the belief that we need a better understanding of the problem, and to listen to and learn from local people, in order to find innovative ways of encouraging students to live more sustainably and respectfully in their adopted neighbourhoods.

Methods of data collection
  • Interviews with ‘Upping It’ members;
  • Interviews with relevant local institutional stakeholders;
  • 50+ doorstep interviews with local residents, including student residents;
  • Focussed group discussions;
  • Participant observation; and
  • Unobtrusive documentation of litter.

The research questions and tools have been co-designed.  The research partner leads in analysing the data and writing the report.  Members of ‘Upping it’ co-developed the interview questions, collaborated in the public engagement, and provided and collected the data.

Rationale for collaboration

Litter is a serious problem for the communities on the university’s doorstep.  Whether or not students or landlords should be ‘blamed’, local people see the litter problem as a result of the loss of long-term residents and their replacement by private landlords and short-term residents (including large numbers of students living in HMOs) who inevitably have a lower level of concern for the environmental quality in the area.  Transient residents are more likely to ‘accept it as it is’, rather than be determined to sustain and transform it for the future.

Consistent with the funding aims, the project aims to develop and demonstrate a new research relationship between the University and an external organisation that is run by local people whose lives are affected by the University, but who so far do not have established links with it. A key objective is to build on local understanding and to have meaningful impact through local engagement and knowledge co-production and exchange.