My PhD was about how education might be able to contribute to reducing the stigma of mental illness. Stigma in the context of how it affects the lives of people with mental illness is not a good thing. Having spent a lot of time thinking about stigma from that point of view, I’ve been slightly surprised to find myself considering whether the world needs more stigma, not less.
The context of my deliberation was around the problem of waste, in particular food and food packaging waste. I wondered whether it might be possible to operationalise social stigma in such a way as to make it socially unacceptable to waste food, and to change our attitudes to food packaging.
Stigma has already been useful in some public health arenas, for example with the shift in acceptability of smoking behaviour. The smoking of tobacco is now much more stigmatised than it is glamourised, and although it is not yet clear whether this cultural shift in meaning associated with smoking will lead to an overall reduction in the prevalence of smoking.
The delicate line between the usefulness and hazardousness of stigma has been explored in the context of illegal drug use. In this arena, Neil McKeganey has argued that the stigmatisation of drug use is an important prohibitive factor, but that we need to be careful to make the distinction between stigmatising the use, but not the user.
In the case of wasting food, we have a long way to go before chucking out vegetables that are perfectly edible despite being past their use by date is widely regarded as a form of social transgression. Similarly throwing away aluminium foil after it has been used to wrap food once is probably something that many people do without a second thought, and the cultural shift that is required in order for people to regard this act as shameful is pretty hefty.
I wonder how much of this is to do with the fact that we are blinkered on both sides of the production and disposal chain. Most of us probably don’t know much at all about how aluminium foil is produced. If we did know what is involved in harvesting aluminium from the earth, extracting it, processing it and transporting it, perhaps we would value it more highly and use it more than once. Similarly, it might not have occurred to many of us that aluminium foil never biodegrades. But, aluminium in all its forms is 100% recyclable; not only that, but recycling is 20 times more efficient than primary production. In spite of this, in 2009 the overall recycling rate for aluminium packaging was only 42%. The rest is wasted.
Even armed with this information, I think I would struggle to actively stigmatise a friend or colleague who was putting aluminium foil in the bin. What would the stigmatising look like? It would seem utterly ridiculous to shun them, or to attempt to shame them in front of others. Even just letting them know the facts might make me feel I was coming across all haughty and holier-than-thou.
So, having spent several years of my life grappling with how difficult it is to eliminate stigma, I’m now beginning to think that establishing a new kind of stigma could be just as challenging a task.