A sideways view: issue 78
The waste and recycling industry doesn’t always have the best of images, despite the sterling efforts of many respectable and mainstream companies. Whether it is the latest in a series of major fires at recycling facilities, landfills or even incinerators (yes, it happens) or the continuing challenge of reducing fatalities and serious injuries in what can be a hazardous workplace, there is always something going on that reinforces the image of the industry as a dirty business to be in.
It’s a conundrum for the recycling sector in particular, which has a very split image. On the one hand, there is the understanding that recycling is good for the environment and that some good comes from public efforts to collect and sort materials (although often the public have little understanding of what recycling and particularly reprocessing actually entails). On the other, we have the image of poorly-managed facilities, scrap sites, open piles of materials in prominent places and still the difficulty of shaking off the legacy of Steptoe and Son.
This isn’t an easy conundrum to resolve, but try and resolve it we must.
In a world where the public increasingly demand more information about the products they use, and in the digital world of 24/7 news and access to information about almost anything, we have to work harder to improve the transparency of our operations and to retain the trust and ‘license to operate’ given to us by the public. I believe this pressure on our industry will only continue to increase, and we would do well to step up our efforts at communicating the beneficial impacts of our industry as well as opening our doors to scrutiny – with pride.
One relatively unexplored angle that our industry ought to examine is the tangible economic and employment benefits of the modern recycling industry. We know from studies that project more jobs from higher recycling performance and better resource efficiency that there is a good story to tell – for example the recent study by the European Environmental Bureau illustrated the potential of a more resource-efficient Europe to create jobs; potentially over 860,000 new jobs could be created by 2030 in an ambitious scenario for recycling and reuse, alongside significant carbon emissions savings and land and water use reduction. Projections such as this one are backed up by the real increase in employment in our sector over the last 20 years, based on the steady increase in recycling performance.
Quoting big numbers is good and has its place, but I wonder if we can also do more to bring this to life when communicating the benefits of recycling to the wider public. I know that WRAP and Green Alliance are currently working on a project to articulate employment potential in the resources sector by category, such as designers, engineers, drivers, technicians, sorters, et cetera, and I think this should be a very useful piece of work.
News of this initiative provoked some thought. I’d like to see this translated into a communications initiative that projects the importance and changing nature of the industry by focusing on some of the less obvious jobs in the business. I’m not saying consign the high-vis to the textile recycling bank, but how about a ‘where does Jo Bloggs work...?’ type of campaign, where Jo has a white lab coat on, and she is working in a laboratory monitoring material quality input at a food-grade plastics reprocessing plant. Or what about Jo wearing business attire and leading a sales conference? You get my drift, and by emphasising that the modern recycling industry is about much more than the high-vis not only might we go a little way to changing some perceptions of the business, we might also do more to attract new, well-qualified entrants to what needs to continue to be a growing and ambitious sector.
Clearly this is not the answer to all the communications challenges we face, but it might just help. In the present climate of trying to boost public participation in recycling in the face of flattening recycling rates and a degree of public confusion and lack of confidence in elements of the recycling process, particularly in terms of what actually happens to the stuff, where it goes and who manages it, you never know – we need something new, and it may even work!