New Direction? - 17th April 2012

This month, I am 10. In April 2002, when I took over as editor of the newly relaunched, tabloid version of Recycling and Waste World magazine and started to grapple with the intricacies of the End of Life Vehicle Directive and concept of PRNs, I had no idea that 10 years down the line I’d still be writing about participation, high (and low) hanging fruit, and whether we need carrots or sticks to usher in change. So what has improved, what have we learnt and, most importantly, where do we think we’re going next?
 
Thankfully, at least when it comes to carrots and sticks, the answer seems increasingly clear-cut – as government busies itself stashing the legislative drivers back in the box, along with next year’s supply of carrots (think feed in tariff fiasco and perhaps park the £250 million on offer for weekly collections), big business is getting on with it regardless. The situation for SMEs, which tend to have less purchasing clout and control over infrastructure, is more tricky, but it looks like the corporates are pushing ahead and all manner of initiatives can be expected over the next decade.
 
But first back to 2002, where we watched the UK stumble along with a paltry dry recycling rate of 10 per cent, Rethink Rubbish was poised to take on the world, and Scotland seemed to be inextricably linked with the phrase ‘dirty man of Europe’ – surely a euphemism for something distasteful involving a stained mac. Who would have thought that we could have come so far, and that Scotland and Wales would be blazing the way for zero waste and challenging targets?
 
Six months ago I was asked what the greatest changes had been. On the spur of the moment I replied that the companies involved had grown; visit shows such as RWM and the stands are bigger and slicker, with less one-man-band and family businesses and more large-scale operations and consultants. More than any other development, this shows that sustainability has hit the mainstream. We are undoubtedly no longer a niche market or novelty industry, although it may be argued that with this move comes a lack of willingness to innovate or embrace the risks that sent us down this path in the first place.
 
Today, we talk about ‘resources’ rather than ‘waste’. This isn’t a new concept, and the first to make a statement by incorporating it into their names – WRAP and my previous employer and magazine Resource among them – were genuine pioneers in changing the way we perceived waste. However, moving forward, it sometimes seems as though the gaggle of organisations falling over themselves to re-brand as resource-friendly are perhaps jumping on the bandwagon too late to have a significant impact.
 
Where the reassessment of resources really comes into its own is the expansion of resource industries to cover renewable energy, resulting in a massive thought shift. Ten years ago we were chasing our tails to meet European recycling targets; these days the targets are still there, but sustainability has become more integrated. The waste industry took time to adapt, but in the interim, business ran with it. For me, the greatest and perhaps most positive shift of all has been the ability of facilities managers, sustainability officers and the like to offer an overview, seize innovation and implement schemes which encompass waste, energy and water use with equal measure.
 
Nowhere is this more evident than with the rise of anaerobic digestion and the call from businesses for separate food waste collections. The waste management industry is catching up, but from my position it seems clear that demand is driving supply and what is puzzling is the way that AD has captured the imagination in ways which composting of food waste did not. This isn’t a reflection on the pros and cons of each method, but where AD options are lacking, many businesses I speak to are opting to wait for a local plant, despite the fact that in many cases they are already separating out food waste in preparation for the day when they will send it to AD.
 
Is this a result of government support for AD? The fact that potential energy shortages are high on the public agenda? Or simply that generating power seems more glamorous than sequestering carbon through the return of compost to the earth? Whatever the answer, it seems we’re sticking with a taste for food waste collection, and it seems to be going down a treat.

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