Resourcing the Future 2017: Five things we learned

Members of the waste and resources industry descended on London this week for two days of discussion on the sector's hot topics. Producer responsibility, stuttering recycling rates, Brexit and a large serving of politics were the major talking points. Here are some of our main takeaways.

1. The industry must get better at storytelling – for the public and politicians

One theme that underpinned the sessions from the second day was the need for ‘storytellers’ in the resource management industry who can weave a compelling and understandable narrative around the future of resource efficiency and the circular economy in order to get the public and politicians on board.

Resourcing the Future 2017: Five things we learnedProfessor Paul Ekins, from the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, maintained that the language that we use when talking about resource efficiency is hugely important, stating that the terminology must be simplified and made clear for those outside the resource management industry and that language must be positive to garner support – ‘waste’ suggests a cost while ‘resource’ suggests an opportunity, for example.

Dr Marcus Gover, CEO of WRAP, built on this when discussing how to get buy-in on the circular economy from sceptical politicians: “It’s no good telling them about things that cost, it’s about opportunity and how it can help them. A doom and gloom story about our sector isn’t helpful. We have a very good story to tell, so we should tell it.”

This assertion was echoed by voices from within business, with Laura Sandys of Challenging Ideas reminding the assembled audience of the need to “ensure the story is clear, the story is exciting, and the goal is clear”, while Mike Barry, Director of Sustainable Business at M&S urged the industry to show how consumers benefit with a convincing narrative.

2. Food waste holds the key to meeting recycling targets

Giving an overview of the opportunities provided by more harmonised collections, WRAP’s Linda Crichton estimated that in order to hit the current 50 per cent recycling target by 2020, the UK will have to recycle an extra 1.5 million-or-so extra tonnes of waste. Improving dry recycling, creating more comprehensive recycling systems and maximising current food waste collections would add another million between them, said Crichton, but by far the biggest chunk would be realised by introducing new food waste collections across the country.

At present, 50 per cent of homes in the UK don’t receive council food waste collections, though and many councils are struggling to find the political or financial platform to introduce them.

Crichton said that reducing the frequency of residual waste, as many local authorities are now doing to reduce costs, could be crucial to the business case for food waste collections, with many of the councils currently struggling to introduce them being those that have moved to alternate weekly without bringing in a complementary food waste service.

Polling of the crowd at the end of Tuesday’s morning session revealed that 46 per cent considered focusing and communicating about food waste to be the most likely measure to drive higher recycling rates.

3. The arguments for pay-as-you-throw are getting stronger, but the political climate means it’s a pipe dream

Throughout the two days, particularly in discussions about faltering recycling rates, the concept of pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) was never far from the lips of speakers and delegates alike. There was little doubt amongst most that charging directly for residual waste could provide a transformative change to the UK’s recycling performance.

Jayne Cox, Director at Brook Lyndhurst, spoke about how householders can be incentivised to push up recycling, and concluded that with carrots like rewards schemes returning inconsistent results, it is sticks like PAYT that provide a more conclusive and sustainable option, with a large evidence base of positive results in Europe.

Baroness Parminter warned that the resources industry will have to bring together diverse voices to get any waste item on the political agenda
However, Cox pointed out that such a system is unrealistic in large parts of the UK – those that do not currently have food waste collections (see above). If councils were to start charging residents for residual waste, they would have to have comprehensive recycling and food waste systems in place to give them a viable alternative.

Either way, it was pointed out that the adage ‘a week is a long time in politics’ significantly undersells the current political turmoil, where the government jumps from crisis to crisis and will never consider a long-term and potentially unpopular move like introducing variable charging. 

As Baroness Kate Parminter highlighted in her keynote address, the resources industry in general has a job to do getting itself on the political agenda, even with high-profile issues like food waste and ocean plastics grabbing the public’s attention. So if slam dunk policies that work towards sorting those out can’t make their way through parliament, then what hope is there for the politically-challenging idea of introducing direct payment for waste?

4. Who should lead system change? Industry v government

All speakers were in agreement that the busted flush that is the linear economic model must be supplanted by a new circular model which operates well within planetary ecological limits. However, the means by which this is to be achieved was disputed, with attendees and speakers divided over whether industry or government should lead.

In the second day's keynote speech, Dr Janez Potoçnik, Co-Chair of the UNEP International Resource Panel and former European Commissioner for the Envrionment, laid out how material flows in the global economy had exploded over the past century, leading to incredible pressure on resources, and that only political leadership and good governance could bring about a new economic model, a point that Professor Ekins reiterated, saying that “governments were going too slowly” and needed to display the political will to make the transition.

Resourcing the Future 2017: Five things we learned
Dr Janez Potoçnik gave the second day's keynote
In the second day’s final panel discussion on resource productivity, Carl Beer, Chief Executive of the Merseyside Recycling & Waste Authority, called the issue of political leadership the “64-million dollar question”, asserting that social media and instant responses to stories had a large impact on political will, as was shown during the general election campaign.

Unsurprisingly, those from a business background took a different view, with Robert Hunt, Chief Corporate Officer at Veolia UK, stating that business had a huge part to play and Laura Sandys urging that “business must lead government.”

Mike Barry struck a somewhat more balanced tone, saying that the government must create a terrain for business to take up the circular economy, but a “sector gets the regulation it deserves” and business must take the lead in telling government what it needs and then drive forward with the innovation that will achieve the stated ambition.

5. The PRN system is on a hiding to nothing

A variety of topics and opinions were put forth during the Tuesday session dedicated to responsibility , but a general agreement that the UK’s way of divvying up costs for packaging is past its sell-by date.

Viridor’s Dan Cook stated that the “PRN (packaging recovery note) system has largely let us down” and that there is “no magic mechanism for reinvesting revenue from those producing stuff into the kit needed to efficiently collect and recover post-consumer material of increasing volumes”.

Iain Ferguson, Environment Manager at Co-op, added that the PRN system, which provides a blanket PRN for plastics of different recyclabilities is “no good”, citing the need for fiscal drivers to reward labelling and best practice and to penalise bad design.

Environmental think tank Green Alliance called England’s recycling system ’dysfunctional’ in a January report, with local authorities footing a bill of £300 million a year to deal with waste packaging, and taking the blame when controversies arise. Presenting findings from the report, ‘Recycling reset: how England can stop subsidising waste’, Senior Policy Adviser Libby Peake highlighted systems in France (Eco Emballages), California and Belgium (Fost Plus) as signs of how a fairer system could be implemented.

Following on from Peake, Valpak Chief Executive Steve Gough launched a report, PackFlow 2025, looking at how the UK’s producer responsibility system could be influenced by systems from around Europe in order to put us in a position to meet proposed targets in the EU’s Circular Economy Package.

Another conference-wide poll was held to survey delegates on the need for reform, with the audience virtually unanimous on the fact that the government should undertake a complete review of extended producer responsibility (EPR) after Brexit.

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