Leading the way

Just a few weeks in his new post as the Welsh Government’s new Minister for the Environment and Sustainable Development, John Griffiths sat down with Resource to outline the country’s next steps towards zero waste

It’s official, Wales is the UK’s pacesetter. Figures just released show municipal recycling has passed 43 per cent, reflecting a real political commitment to the waste hierarchy. Now, following May’s elections, the question is will the next administration maintain this impetus?

Announcing details of his new cabinet, First Minister Carwyn Jones acclaimed his new team: “I am delighted to have appointed such a talented and able team to deliver on our commitments to the people of Wales.” Amongst them stood John Griffiths, the new Minister for the Environment and Sustainable Development with a slightly different portfolio to that of his predecessor (and former Resource HOT 100 winner!), Jane Davidson. Although housing is now longer part of his remit, the new minister, giving us his first official interview, immediately emphasises sustainable development is right at the heart of it and “continues to be key to everything that the Welsh Government does”.

Having trodden the well-worn route into politics, after working as a solicitor specialising in criminal law, personal injury and general civil litigation, which he says gave him “good preparation” for the rigours of government, John Griffiths has always had sustainability in view. He showed an interest in environmental matters in 2002 when as deputy economic development minister, he launched the Green Dragon standard, which aimed to encourage businesses to be more aware of environmental matters, while all the time being a “religious recycler” himself. Indeed, as a lifelong resident of Newport, and supporter of the city’s third-sector waste group Wastesavers, Griffiths has seen first hand the development of successful waste management (and cross-sector partnership) over the years.

John Griffiths the Welsh Government’s new Minister for the Environment and Sustainable DevelopmentYet, for all of this previous involvement in the subject matter, the detail of waste and resources industry is still new. The minister acknowledges with a smile that working through the complexity of the portfolio takes time. “Initially, it certainly has been a world of briefings and meetings and reading up on documentation. It can be very technical. But, of course, we have many officials here who have a great deal of technical expertise and they’re able to provide some very useful briefings and back-up.”

Of more concern to Griffiths right now, it seems, is maintaining his focus on people and actually getting the resource message across in a non-condescending and accessible way: “I think it’s also useful to have a non-technical head, as it were, because when you’re talking to communities and people in the street, in terms of raising awareness and getting the right messages across and getting that key behavioural change, I think it’s really important that we speak a language people do understand.” It’s a theme he returns to on more than one occasion. His portfolio involves the physical environment, but it’s how people think and act in relation to it that requires the focus.

Following the acquisition of legislative powers, the Welsh Government has committed councils to ambitious targets, including a goal to recycle 70 per cent of waste by 2025. By 2050, it hopes to achieve zero waste and reduce greenhouse gases by 85 per cent. It is also keen to develop renewable energy, with the National Assembly for Wales calling for new planning law to ensure all public-sector organisations consider the environment before building social housing, refurbishing hospitals or setting the national curriculum. These are impressive aims and values, so how will Griffiths keep up the momentum? Inevitably, it requires more than just political will: “I think we’ve achieved a considerable amount already but, as ever with government, there is still quite a lot to do. Government cannot do everything on its own. Obviously it can guide, it can set policy and strategy and often that’s necessarily done at fairly high level, but to actually make it work on
the ground we rely, obviously, on our key partners, but also, on communities and people themselves. This sort of progress has resulted from collaboration, cooperation and partnership.”

Listening to Mr Griffiths, it’s clear the advantage he sees in Wales fostering a ‘team’ ethos. But what else is needed to sustain progress? After all, the trends of recycling have slowed in many countries, notably as they close in or reach 50 per cent. He points out that this doesn’t have to be the case. Some parts of Europe are already achieving 70 per cent diversion of municipal waste. For these, staying focused on the waste hierarchy is key: “We want to ensure that that element of residual waste that needs to be dealt with in another way is absolutely minimised and easy options aren’t taken to deal with waste (that could and should be recycled) in other less advantageous ways.