We need to update our language to reflect the seriousness of the times

Written by: Paul Davison | Published:

We all recognise the importance of the words we use, but too often the language used in the recycling/resource debate is too conservative, technical, and lacks the impact needed to engage effectively with those we try to influence.

So it was sad to see very little reaction to The Guardian’s announcement that it had ‘updated’ its language style guide for coverage of environmental issues.

It has changed some everyday ‘green phrases’ to be more reflective of the true scale of the climate emergency we now face. Adjustments included climate change becoming climate emergency, global warming being written as global heating, and using climate science denier instead of climate sceptic.

The newspaper argued, with merit, that such a move was long overdue and will give a more accurate reflection of reality – i.e. the old phrases had become outdated as more peer-reviewed evidence has emerged.

Put another way: the language failed to represent the true nature of the issues and would not engage with readers who clearly were moving on – as borne out by the scale of such direct action as Extinction Rebellion or the school strikes.

But precious time has been lost and had we all moved to more challenging language sooner we may have been able to influence policy, especially on carbon emissions, far quicker.

Perhaps we didn't want to scare people with too many environmental disaster stories. This would only reinforce the view that individuals are too insignificant to influence anything on a global scale or, worse still, it could have switched the public off as climate fatigue sets in.

So balance is important, but the simple fact is that the language we use is a critical determining factor for eliciting a response from an audience.

When it comes to recycling we may be about to face a significant language issue when the general public realises that when we said they were recycling their waste it turns out they were actually just sorting it. Far too often it was easier to kick the can (or rather the plastic bottle) down the road and transport it to another country such as China to let them have a go.

With our recycling chickens coming home to roost now certain countries will no longer accept tanker-loads of our waste, we will have to deal with our burgeoning recycling and resource crisis by ourselves.

We have two developing options: first to extend producer responsibility as outlined in recent government policy changes, which will get the public to pay indirectly for more material recovery while allowing them to continue wasteful behaviour, or second address the real issues head on and get the public to work with us on the solution.

It's the public’s use of resources that is the real problem, and when I say public I mean all of us. We casually use too many resources, we waste too much, we litter too much, and we fail to demand goods with recycled content – that vital missing link needed to deliver an economically-viable reprocessing industry. Making this circle work will help supposedly insignificant individuals literally save the planet.

However, we won’t take the public with us if we are too cautious and continue using insipid language that doesn’t inspire a population that is increasingly desperate to do the right thing!

The Guardian has rightly recognised that the public is moving on fast and we in the resource sector need to do the same, or we will end up being seen as part of the problem rather than the solution. We need the courage to be more direct and have an adult conversation with the public about their environment, and our mutually-beneficial resource relationship.

This is vital if we are going to get the public to focus on real issues, rather than being distracted by concerns about non-issues. For example, the considerable global debate around the material used to make drinking straws and feeling that banning plastic straws is the answer, when they need to recognise they don't need a straw at all.

We need to take a hard line with trendy gestures that may get a positive response on social media and policy responses from popularist politicians, while failing to deal with real problems.

My term for such distractions is ‘Like Litter’, which can be defined as the meaningless collection of Facebook likes rather than actually doing something about the issue.

So let’s have some suggestions for an updated recycling language style guide and let’s start with the biggest one of all, a universally-used term that sounds like it was made up by some remote bureaucrat (which it probably was).

I don't know about you, but I’d much rather be involved in a resource revolution than a circular economy.

Paul Davison is MD of Proteus PR

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