More debate needed on circular economy

There is a need for more ‘heated debate, challenge, and disruption’ to bring forward the circular economy, Iain Gulland, Chief Executive of Zero Waste Scotland said in his speech at the Kit Strange Memorial Lecture yesterday (15 January).

More debate needed on circular economy
Kit Strange (1954-2011)

The second annual lecture, hosted by Barry Sheerman MP and organised by Resource Media, saw members of the waste and resources industry, as well as academics, environmentalists, and local government officials, gather at the Churchill Room in the House of Commons to remember Kit Strange (1954-2011). Strange (pictured, right) was the former Director of the Resource Recovery Forum and a pioneer of the idea of ‘waste as a resource’.

Remembering Kit Strange

Introducing the lecture, Sheerman said: “I think we always appreciated Kit, especially for that quality that you never knew quite what route Kit would take. You knew it would be different, it would be an insight, and it would make you think. That was the sort of personality he was.”

He added: “I think we’ve seen some honest results and honest positive improvement over the years, and we’ve seen some commendable improvements in the waste sector… but we’ve got a long-term struggle to convince people about how precious this planet it is, how delicate it is, and how, as human beings, we’ve got to stop using up the richness of our planet. Kit always had that ideal of a fragile planet being really in danger unless men and women know about stuff and do something about it and work hard to fix the politicians in our country. And that’s why were here. We all remember Kit today and I hope we keep it going. What Kit believed in, we should believe in too.”

Steve Read, former Chair of the RRF and Managing Director of Somerset Waste Partnership and Gloucestershire Waste Partnership, highlighted that there have been ‘voids’ created with Kit’s passing. He said: “Kit could give us the big picture and zoom in on crucial issues, and I really miss that. There’s a real void there. There’s also a continuing void in terms of facilitation that Kit used to do… in terms of bringing together different sectors – like we have here – to meet and talk about the big things in that context. That unique network has also gone to the void. There’s also a more important third void of course, and that is the warmth, energy and humour of Kit himself. This event, in its way, helps to fill the first two voids. It’s good to chat, and it’s going to be interesting to hear from Iain, and this is an opportunity to remember and celebrate Kit and what he did, and recognise the man, and not the void that is left.”

A regulated resource utility

More debate needed on circular economy

Taking to the lectern to deliver his keynote speech, Gulland – winner of Resource’s 2013 Hot 100 list – outlined the importance of the circular economy, and what was needed to truly realise it.                  

He said: “Kit was a guy who pushed the big ideas, and led think-tank discussions. It’s quite daunting for me to follow that legacy. But my pitch for tonight is to argue that it’s essential that we keep that legacy of thought-leadership alive, because thought-leadership does matter. We need to keep pushing our understanding of what we can do, we need to celebrate our thought-leaders and influencers, and even more importantly, we need to cultivate a new generation to follow on... I’m convinced we won’t achieve any of the goals we all share on zero waste and the circular economy unless we do. We may collectively, individually, or institutionally be set in our ways and it may need the disruptive influence of outsiders to challenge us to make it happen.”

Touching on Scotland’s increasing focus on the circular economy, Gulland said that it helps to have the momentum “coming from a position of strength, with a craft at full sail, not floundering on the rocks”. He highlighted that having committed personnel in the top posts (such as the Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead) and “visionary civil servants” that all regularly meet with industry and practitioners from across the resource industry means that there is “real appetite for change”.

He continued: “For all the impressive work that has been done to highlight the potential opportunities globally of the circular economy, I think there are still some very important gaps in our collective [ability] to drive the change that we want to see. First, I’m not convinced that anyone has really, successfully converted the higher-level opportunities into something that resonates very practically with local and national decision makers in terms of practical actions they can support. We need to put this into terms that people can latch on to. We shouldn’t dumb this down – but if we can’t make this real in terms of actions they can take, it just won’t get the buy in that we need.

“I still sense some degree of cynicism when we broker the subject of the circular economy with key business sectors and decision makers. That’s something for all of us to tackle.” Gulland went on to highlight that Zero Waste Scotland would be issuing a report today (16 January) outlining some practical steps some industries in Scotland can take to realise the circular economy, adding: “If we get a circular economy in Scotland, then trust me, I bet you guys [the rest of the UK] won’t be far behind.”

He added that there was “still some work to be done on the professionalism on the waste and resources industry and helping it to take a leadership role in prioritising or delivering the circular economy and tackling waste crime”.

Looking to innovation, Gulland said that to “complete the journey from waste to resource”, there could be room for developing a “resources grid”, similar to the electricity grid. He elaborated that it would be “a grid where we have a defined production, supply and ultimate consumption of resources within an established and consistent framework. But that grid needs to be regulated, not just in terms of the environment, but also in terms of the market. I’d suggest we need an ‘Ofwaste’, to go along with Ofgem and Ofwat. I do think that this is worth considering if we can get passed knee-jerk reaction which is always afraid of progress. Such regulation of the marketplace could give confidence to legitimate operators as it protects their interests and those of their customers whilst also getting the best bargain for the wider resources economy.”

Gulland added that there was an opportunity for both local authorities and businesses to lead on progress by setting their own targets for resource efficiency, recycling etc. He stated that industry-led targets (as well as, or instead of statutory targets) create more drive as businesses wouldn’t feel “dragged to the table”.

He concluded: “We lack debate, analysis and access to the opinions of the leaders. Sometimes I think it would be nice to have heated debate. It’s not about having stand-up fights in car parks, it’s about challenging people. There’s a lot going on, there’s a lot of issues, and there’s a future that we need to start thinking about. And there should be a space to debate that. It's about disruption. That's how we'll get things moving forward [on the circular economy]. 

“Kit challenged us all forward with a degree of disruption. Our challenge is to create the right forum or space for disruption to happen, not slow it down or impede it. I want to be a part of that disruption, and I’m sure you want to do it too.

“Don’t just look to the future, get prepared to take part in it. Don’t debate what is wrong with the world today, debate what can be right with it tomorrow. Lead like you want to be followed and follow like you want, one day, to lead.”

Hot 100 2014

The lecture concluded with the announcement of the winner and top runners up in Resource’s 2014 list of the 100 most influential people in waste, the Hot 100.

Resource’s Editor Libby Peake announced that the candidates with the most votes (and thus voted as the top 10 ‘brightest sparks’ of the waste and resources industry), were:

1 Rachelle Strauss, Blogger at My Zero Waste
2 Dominic Hogg, Chairman of Eunomia.
3 Karen Cannard, Blogger at The Rubbish Diet
4 Ray Georgeson, Chief Executive of the Resource Association
5 Iain Gulland, Chief Executive of Zero Waste Scotland

6 Master Composters, a volunteer network of Garden Organic
7 Liz Goodwin, CEO of the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP)
8 Steve Lee, CEO of CIWM
9 David Palmer-Jones, CEO of SITA UK
10 Emma Marsh, Head of Love Food Hate Waste, WRAP.

The Kit Strange Memorial Lecture 2015 was organised by Resource Media with support from SITA UK, Resource Futures, Copper Consultancy, LRS Consultancy, the Resource Recovery Forum Trustees, and the University of Northampton.

To get your copy of the Hot 100 edition of Resource, subscribe to Resource magazine.

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