Five things we learned at Resourcing the Future 2016

This week saw members of the waste and resources industry from across the country descend on London for two days of discussion on the sector's hot topics. The EU referendum, the future of food waste, the Circular Economy Package and producer responsibility were all on the agenda. Here are some of the things that we learned...

1. The ‘European bubble’ is still talking about waste too much, and the general public isn’t talking about the circular economy enough

Following the Resources Minister’s speech, the conference’s next two sessions focused on the European Circular Economy Package, and there seemed to be plenty of agreement that there were positive aspects too it, but that there is still some way to go.

Five things we learned at Resourcing the Future 2016
Resources Minister Rory Stewart gave the conference's keynote address
A particular problem seems to be that the ‘European bubble’, as Novelis’s Andy Doran put it, is still mainly talking about waste. Indeed, Municipal Waste Europe’s Vanya Veras confirmed that the only legislative aspects of the Circular Economy Package concern waste, and not other aspects of resource efficiency. Worse yet, only municipal waste (which accounts for a mere 5-10 per cent of all waste generated) is covered by recycling targets, the definitions of waste-related terms differ from European directive to European directive, and there is no common methodology for calculating things like recycling rates. Indeed, David Newman from the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) pointed out that, if a certain methodology were used, Germany’s impressive recycling rate of 65 per cent would drop to a mediocre 44 per cent!

And then there’s the perennial problem of communicating with the general public, many of whom have yet to even come across the concept of the circular economy (Resource’s simple definition: A circular economy aims to keep resources in productive use for as long as possible, as opposed to the more prevalent linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy, where resources are taken from the ground, made into products, and then disposed of as waste through landfilling, incineration or other means).

As Doran put it, though: “The circular economy’s been around a long time, but shifting mindsets is what takes a long time.” Viridor’s Chief Executive Ian McAulay confirmed that many people don’t understand the circular economy and that there’s a real challenge ahead in explaining it to them – even recounting that at a recent family gathering, people repeatedly asked him what to do with various recyclable materials, questioning whether they are actually recycled!

2. The Circular Economy Package lacks a certain ‘pull factor’

While Resources Minister Rory Stewart seemed “really hazy” (in CIWM Chief Executive Steve Lee’s words) about what economic instruments to encourage a circular economy might be, most of the other speakers were clear about the need for ‘pull mechanisms’ to create a circular economy, and had some ideas to share.

“The circular economy needs to be a value chain”, Lee said. “Something has to pull those resources round.” The Environmental Services Association’s Executive Director Jacob Hayler emphasised that we shouldn’t just concentrate on the Circular Economy Package’s headline recycling target – be it 65 or 70 per cent – but develop the “full suite of complementary measures” to bring about a more resource-efficient society. His ideas for demand-pull measures included: green public procurement; VAT variations (deemed unlikely because the European Commission is on a simplification drive in the realm of taxation); and targets for recycled content.

3. France has an impressive track record when it comes to producer responsibility

“The UK packaging regulations are there just to meet targets at the lowest price – there’s no environmental slant”, Chair of the Advisory Committee on Packaging (ACP) Phil Conran said, comparing our producer responsibility regime in a rather unfavourable light to France’s, which does have green aims. And, indeed, there does seem to be quite a lot of money to achieve positive environmental outcomes in the French packaging compliance scheme, Eco-Emballages. We were most impressed at how the organisation gets stuck in and helps packaging producers re-design packaging to make sure it is recyclable.

Michael Len from RREUSE, which represents social enterprises involved in reuse, repair and recycling throughout Europe, also sang France’s praises, noting that: it is the only EU country to have implemented producer responsibility legislation for textiles and furniture; along with Spain and Flanders, the country is leading the way with separate targets for reuse; and it even makes grants available to enhance the vital reuse and repair work carried out by social enterprises. “Producer fees can and should reflect how durable a product is”, he said, and we couldn’t agree more.

French national targets for green public procurement (use of recycled paper must be up to 40 per cent by 2020) and financial support mechanisms to make the use of recycled materials more economically appealing to manufacturers were also mentioned by Henry St Bris, Senior Vice-President of Strategy for SUEZ Environnement. So, there are two (more) examples good practice in other nations that Rory Stewart might take notice of.

4. Three weekly collections are here to stay

Speaking about incentivisation options for increasing recycling, Andrew Bird, Chair of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC), predicted that reduced frequency collections of residual waste bins are only going to become more common across the UK as councils seek to save money wherever they can. “They days of doing more will less are gone”, Bird told the conference, noting that household collections currently cost UK residents an average of just 40 to 60 pence per week.

Five things we learned at Resourcing the Future 2016
Mary Creagh MP hosted a session and backed the Remain campaign
Less frequent collections are also a vital tool in increasing participation in recycling systems, said Robin Baird, Waste Strategy Co-ordinator at Falkirk Council. During a session on the future of food waste, Baird questioned why, in Scotland, businesses are forced to separate their food waste, local authorities have to provide it, but residents are just encouraged to participate in services through communications.

By making residual waste collections three-weekly, he said, residents are compelled to utilise their recycling service, most notably food waste. After introducing three-weekly collections, Falkirk Council has recorded an 84 per cent increase in food waste capture.

There’s still room for improvement – a compositional analysis by the council found that there are still 8,077 tonnes of food waste being put in the residual waste stream – but Baird has a solution: Falkirk is going four-weekly in October.

5. A Brexit could have major implications for the waste industry

“Our sector is facing a bit of a perfect storm – a vote is coming up which is going to throw us into turmoil, I suspect, and we have different administrations going in different directions and a minister yesterday looking for ideas,” said CIWM President Jim Baird on Wednesday morning, and after Environmental Audit Committee Chair Mary Creagh MP had earlier held up her ‘Vote Remain’ t-shirt, the conference ended with a panel on ‘the elephant in the room’: next week’s referendum, and the effect it could have on the waste and resources industry.

Giving a balanced summary of the legal aspects of Brexit, lawyer Angus Evers said that the two-year period that the UK would be given to negotiate the terms of its departure could cause a lengthy period of uncertainty, while the lack of a precedent in EU history would also likely result in a drop in investment. 

But while the impacts on investment on infrastructure were addressed, there was a feeling that the perceived inaction of Defra on waste issues would compound the problem. “Could we protect the environment outside of the EU? Yes, we could,, said consultant Stephen Tindale. “But would we? No.”

When asked how he thought Brexit would affect the UK’s position with European waste targets, David Palmer-Jones, CEO of SUEZ recycling and recovery UK and Vice-President of the European Federation of Waste Management and Environmental Services (FEAD), recalled the Defra five-year plan released at the beginning of the year, which made no virtually mention of the resource industry, and predicted that “nothing is going to happen” if left up to the department.

Grundon Waste Management Deputy Chairman Neil Grundon, who has written a comment piece for Resource explaining why he was backing a Brexit, was the lone voice on the panel offering a distinctly alternative view, stating that much legislation introduced by the EU, such as the Environmental Protection Act, was borne out of British legislation and that operating outside of Europe would reduce the red tape that he says slows down domestic progress.

The panel, and event, ended with a survey of the conference delegates who voted firmly in favour of the UK remaining in the European Union (right).