Which way for waste?
A lot has changed in waste over the last 17 years. We sum up the changes and the similarities.
In August, Carolyn Cross Communication will be eleven. Personally, I can now count 17 years working in the recycling industry. 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 almost 20 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?
Most dramatically, public spirit has mobilised around waste – especially plastic waste – in a way that’s led to more than one waste stalwart strutting the bin round with a new rock-star attitude. For now, we are ‘cool’, but how long will it last, and does the public – still mindful of Malaysian dump sites – view the waste industry as the cause or the cure?
With the publication of the first real strategy for waste in years, and a commitment to the latest Circular Economy Package, which places the onus on packaging producers to fund 100% of recycling costs, the legislative mood is also shifting. Meanwhile, 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?
Recently 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. While we are no longer a niche market or novelty industry, innovation is driving change faster than any of us could expected.
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.
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. While AD still reports feedstock shortages, and vast quantities of food waste are still scandalously dumped in landfill each year, AD has managed to capture the imagination in ways which composting of food waste did not. AD is now powering one million UK homes and, with the possibility of mandatory food waste collections across England and greater business focus on generating value, the opportunity is here.
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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