Kit Strange Memorial Lecture 2016
Ray Georgeson delivered the third annual Kit Strange Memorial Lecture at the Houses of Parliament at the start of the year, reflecting on the past, present and future of the industry. What follows is a condensed version of his speech.
I make no apologies for being a little bit reflective and unashamedly personal in some of the things I’m going to say today, as well as looking ahead to pick up on four key issues.
I spent a lot of my childhood in Zambia, and the one thing that sticks in my mind that undoubtedly influenced what I went on to do was arriving in Zambia with a brand new Hornby train set. I loved that train set, but what I loved more were the cars made out of old bits of wire by the kids who lived in the compound across the way, because we always want the thing that we can’t have and then get dissatisfied with the things we’ve already got. I reflect back on that and think that undoubtedly was an experience that shaped my attitude to stuff.
From there, I’m moving on a little bit to Friends of the Earth in the early 1980s, who were the pioneers for recycling in the late ’70s and the early ’80s, when there was no municipal recycling apart from a few bottle banks. So, this is how it was done – not all by horse and cart, but also with some clever designed vehicles which have evolved over the years that separate materials at the kerbside and deliver quality recycling. What a good idea.
And that takes us on, the story gets quick, to the Waste Watch era, an organisation that started in the mid to late ’80s and led in terms of the relationship with government, the role of the community and voluntary movement. It was run by campaigning environmentalists who were trying to do something practical with their environmentalism. We were doing a lot of antiquated things like making recycling directories and books made out of paper in which you find out where your nearest bottle bank was, but it wasn’t that long ago, it was only the early ’90s.
Community recycling was the name of the game; there’s an early Waste Watch report on how to really advocate the role of the voluntary sector in delivering recycling, and local authorities were starting to get the hang of some of this and were even starting to appoint recycling officers. We used to organise conferences on subjects like ‘Towards 25 per cent’. We used to do embarrassing things as well; I dressed up as something called Dr Waste, advising people on what they should or shouldn’t put in their bin; none of it’s novel, really. My favourite mascot with a silly costume was always Ricky the Recycling Rat from Redditch... The point is, we were learning as we were doing, and it all looks a bit excruciating now but actually it was cutting edge.
Public policy was behind the curve; many of you will remember a whole succession of reports during the ’80s and early ’90s that were ultimately meaningless because there wasn’t any kind of substance in terms of targets or legislation.
And then, just before the Conservatives left office in ’96, ’97, they did implement the Landfill Tax, which was increased under the Labour government, and we had the Landfill Tax Credit Scheme, which meant there was a whole acceleration of interesting projects, many of which made a difference, some of which weren’t quite so good. There was a growing understanding of the need to communicate well with the public, understand what motivates the public, and we commissioned reports on public attitudes to waste and recycling.
And then we got to the late ’90s and the Americans arrived, and we started talking about recycling market development and removing the barriers that existed to using recycled material. David Dougherty [from the Clean Washington Center in Seattle] was a big influence on me in terms of thinking about how we could go from purely an educational communications voluntary approach into something more industrial and strategic to deliver over the longer term.
And then there was WRAP, which was invested in as part of the Waste Strategy 2000. We had statutory targets for recycling for the first time, we had money poured into market development programmes that looked at specific materials, it looked at procurement, it looked at financial instruments, it looked at business support, it was a holistic package of measures. There were all kinds spin-off initiatives – we had a flurry of political support for regional development agencies, a regional economic approach and some of it was really good in terms of what the resource industry needs from government for long-term strategy and longer-term economic thinking (though some of it was inefficient use of money through project duplication).
But look, where did all of that get us? We had an acceleration of recycling and composting through the late ’90s and early noughties backed by statutory targets, through market development, investment in kerbside funding, and a new generation of local government officers being appointed. They now call it ‘demand pull measures’, and we still need a bit more of that, as I’m sure you know, I’ll come to that in a moment. Truly, I couldn’t bear to put the 2010 and beyond numbers in the recycling rate chart because you all know what’s happened in England – we’ve desperately flatlined and are struggling quite intensely in terms of what we are going to do about it. Even though there are some warm words from time to time, it’s not turning into policy that we can work with.
And we could blame Eric Pickles for quite a lot, and the malign influence of Eric and his people in DCLG is still operating in Number 10, dampening our ambition as a nation. When you combine that with what’s happened to the oil price and the economic chill in China, we have the shaping of a perfect storm. We’ve lost some good businesses along the way, including Closed Loop Recycling, which is frustrating because a lot of good public money went into that through WRAP and elsewhere. It is an absolute tragedy that we lost leading technology through failure of voluntary agreements, when the dairy side of the chain switched back to virgin knowing it would have fundamental, catastrophic consequences for the reprocessing sector in the UK, which it has. Through the Resource Association, we did a bit of polling work with YouGov, we got some really clear statements about public concern and willingness to pay a tiny amount of money on a price of a milk bottle for the recycling infrastructure that everybody wants, but we didn’t succeed. And Aylesford Newsprint again was a huge loss to the UK paper market – it’s capacity that we could ill afford to lose, and again, it’s an investment gone from the UK infrastructure.
Unquestionably, it’s a turbulent period, and there are people in our sector who are talking quite aggressively about how the market is broken. But the longer-term perspective on the basket price of the key materials shows that, if they’re collected well and sorted well and delivered to market well, they’ll consistently command decent prices over a period of time. They don’t command decent prices when they’re badly sorted in a badly run materials recovery facility and sent out to goodness knows where because nobody has a clue where the end destination is and nobody will admit to it. We must remember that long-term view: quality will always win in the end.
That brings me onto the Resource Association, where we’re doing our best to be a strong voice championing the recycling and reprocessing sector, but there’s a huge challenge for all of us in how we communicate to the present government and those that follow about the value and importance of our sector. Undoubtedly, we need a bit more coordination and a bit more smart thinking about the number of voices active. Individual bodies all have critically important roles to play, but we must do more to coordinate and to shape our shared messages where we really have them, and punch a bit more above our weight, because we’ve got good stories to tell – we need to tell them better in a more united way. Currently, there’s confusion about who speaks for what in relation to recycling, and then the message gets dissipated.
We’re all a bit disappointed with the Circular Economy Package, but we’ve got to make it work as best we can. We cannot let Defra get away with being so negative in Brussels, which wraps up so tightly with other issues around Europe. I very firmly believe that if this industry believes we should stay in Europe and make Europe work better, then we need to speak out. I think we would be in dereliction of our duty if we do not put positive and sincere arguments directly to our own workforces. Let’s do something about this as an industry and not wait to cobble together some messaging right at the last minute.
As for the role of the state, we are struggling to make cogent arguments about the role of intelligent standards and market shaping, through what Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan, describes as ‘the active and enabling state’. It’s a very simple phrase, but a powerful one because that is what is slipping away.
A quick word on pay as you throw because it’s part of what an active and enabling state might do, but legislation actively prohibits it at the minute. It’s worked across most of mainland Europe – why on earth would it not work here? Because of Eric, as we know, but we have to think beyond Eric, and think ahead about what we might do in the future. Maybe we could look at regional resource authorities, a model like rail franchising where you strategically regionalise it like the railway and utilities like water.
I want to say a word about Waste Aid because I’m very proud of this new charity that I’ve been involved in creating and that is ably led by Mike Webster, ex Waste Watch. It’s done one very big project so far in The Gambia about communities understanding what’s in their waste and finding better ways to use it. When you think that there are 3.5 billion people on the planet who don’t have access to a basic waste management service, it puts our problems a little bit into perspective. We need to be far more responsible about the way we use resources before we can tell anybody in West Africa or anywhere else what they should do. So we do projects like this with great humility and encourage great local ownership.
We’re near the end, and I’m finishing with the point that we have to take the long view, and that what you do every day in this kind of slightly crazy but lovable world of waste and recycling in which we inhabit reconnects back to what’s most important: your quality of life, your family, your future – it really is as simple as that. My message for you, my dear friends, and there are a lot of you out there, is: stay strong, stay focused on doing the good work that you are all doing in your different ways. I know we don’t always see eye to eye on everything, but we’ve all been in it too long to fall out now, we’ve got to hold it together in the face of some real difficulties, not just in policy terms but in global environmental terms. There will be plenty more golden years, we’re not doomed, they will return, but only if you hold on to the quality of what you do and continue to share it.
The annual Kit Strange Memorial Lecture is held in honour of the late founder of the Resource Recovery Forum, an independent platform for waste research, information exchange, conferences and daily news bulletins. Kit Strange passed away in 2011, but is still fondly remembered as one of the first to embrace the idea of ‘waste as a resource’.
This year’s honorary lecturer, Ray Georgeson, said of him: “I always saw Kit as somebody who was a reflector, he was a synthesiser of ideas, he was very much a forward thinker and an incredible hoarder and disseminator of information, and I’m not the only person in the room here who over the years would have had the constant stream of RRF e-mails. That was the nature of the man and his insatiable appetite for knowledge and desire to recirculate it.”