An eye on the futures

Resource spoke to Resource Futures’ CEO, Jane Stephenson

Jane StephensonIn the very first issue of Resource, back in April 2000, Jane Stephenson – then director of the Recycling Consortium (TRC) and chair of Waste Watch – was described as ‘a shaping force within UK sustainable waste management’. And indeed, Stephenson’s involvement in the sector goes back even farther, to the ‘80s when she was lightyears ahead of most in terms of her grip on resource efficiency: “In order to be effective, you need to take a very holistic view of the waste hierarchy, and that’s always been my view from day one. You can point back to the mid-‘80s when I did speeches about how there was no point in recycling just for the sake of it, and sending individual drinks cans to Blue Peter for some fundraising campaign wasn’t really very resource efficient.”

Stephenson’s progressive attitudes to waste were, in part, formed by time spent travelling in South America in the early ‘80s; she notes that “in those days poorer countries didn’t waste anything” and that consequently she and her husband, Andy Cunningham (who works as an independent waste consultant), “both came back with a bit of an obsession about the wastefulness of our society”. The obsession caused Stephenson to get involved with the emerging community waste sector: on her return, she joined Friends of the Earth in Bristol – then launching some of the first kerbside collections – and eventually helped set up Waste Watch in conjunction with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and directed TRC, an advisory organisation representing community recycling groups in the Bristol area.

As she was so involved with the community waste sector from the start, Stephenson’s career closely mirrors the evolution of the sector itself. Starting off as innovators in kerbside collections, many third-sector groups have found they’ve had to adapt and become more businesslike to survive; likewise, Stephenson is now at the helm of the consultancy Resource Futures, a social enterprise that runs in the same circles – working and competing with – commercial organisations. On the evolution of the sector, Stephenson notes: “The NGO sector is very good at developing new initiatives, being at the cutting edge and starting things off, but if and when that work becomes mainstream, then it becomes a slightly different kettle of fish. Your ability to be innovative is more limited if you become involved in delivering the day-to-day service... There are very few third-sector organisations now doing kerbside collections... and although it has been quite sad to see that change, it’s quite a natural progression.” As waste management has developed in the UK, third-sector waste organisations have either joined the mainstream, as with Resource Futures, or had to focus on niche markets, like bulky waste and other types of reuse, where they continue to develop new ideas.

All this is not to say that the evolution has stopped at Resource Futures itself, which was set up in 2006 through the merger of three non-profit distributing companies – Stephenson’s TRC, Network Recycling, and Save Waste and Prosper (SWAP) – because they’d found themselves in constant collaboration or competition in the increasingly competitive waste environment. At the start, Resource Futures focused on working on the ground, providing services to local authorities like communications work, community engagement and education projects, as well as data gathering on things like compositional analysis. But, as ever, things seem to be changing. Earlier this year, it emerged that the company would be cutting staff and closing its Leeds office in response to tough market conditions and decreased public expenditure; at the same time, it divested itself of its subsidiary Network Recycling, which largely conducts recycling at music events, and which is now owned and run by its former employees. Stephenson explains Resource Futures’ shifting focus: “We have in this last year, looked more at consolidating and refocusing our work on particular markets, rather than having a team structure that has our technical people in one team and our communications team in another and our operations staff in another. We’ve decided that there are four main focuses to our work at the moment: research; service reviews to local authorities; direct delivery work to local authorities; and support work to the waste industry.”