Riding the waste wave

The face of waste management has changed radically over the past century, yet the materials dealt with remain the same. CIWM chief Steve Lee looks at how the industry's favourite seaside show is moving with the times

With the CIWM conference celebrating its 110th anniversary, it is an opportune time to look at the progress that has been made since 1898, when members of the institute - then the Association of Cleansing Superintend-ents - gathered in Birmingham for the first AGM and annual conference. And the end result of this exercise has been to marvel both at how much has changed, and how much has stayed the same.

As an industry, we are still responsible for the day-to-day collection, treatment and disposal of society's rubbish - and apart from much less ash and a lot more packaging and food waste, it's basically still the same stuff. We recycle a lot more that we did 10 years ago, but probably not much more than we did during the 1st and 2nd World Wars - and certainly reuse was more prevalent back then than it is today.

What has changed radically, however, is the whole rationale behind waste management and the environment in which all those involved in waste now operate. James Jackson, one of the two founding members of the association, said its purpose was "to advance sanitary provision, which being defective in most towns and cities continued to result in excessive death rates".

Today it is not only health and amenity that matter, but the impact of waste on the wider environment and the contribution that sustainable waste management can make on resource conservation and tackling climate change. Waste is also no longer something that is dealt with out of sight and out of mind.

Modern waste management means partnerships between the public and the private sector, between local authorities and their residents, between materials reprocessors and manufacturers, and, dare I mention it, between policy makers and the media - because like it or not, waste has become one of the nation's favourite political footballs.

The result of this is that the management of resources and wastes is going through a period of unprecedented change and the impacts are being felt throughout society. The decision-making process has become vastly more complex, just at the moment when we have some big questions to resolve about the future.

Everyone agrees that the desired outcome is a much more sustainable approach to resources and wastes management that derives the maximum value from our waste and ensures the minimum environmental impact, but there is plenty of debate about what strategies and technologies we need to achieve this.

Lets make a difference
My aim for CIWM 2008 is that it should help to inform this debate and live up to its theme of 'making a world of difference'. Sharing knowledge and best practice will be important both within and beyond boundary lines and borders. On this front, it is encouraging to see that the CIWM conference and exhibition continues to build on its international reputation. The conference boasts a number of speakers from countries ahead of us in the league table when it comes to recycling and sustainable waste management.

From a commercial perspective, the vibrancy of the UK waste sector has been recognised by foreign exhibitors and visitors alike with a Swiss Pavilion on the South Green, and many inward mission bids through UKTI from countries including Mexico, Turkey, India, Thailand, the Phillipines, South Korea and a number of African countries such as Ethiopia and Uganda.

The conference programme is also the biggest and broadest to date. Over 100 speakers from industry, government, academia and key agencies and organisations will explore many of the key issues we face today - from the carbon impact of our UK waste management strategies through to the role of communications in maintaining public engagement, and from smarter regulation through to the best ways of financing and procuring the infrastructure of the future.

As well as providing a wealth of learning for local authority delegates across the board, the conference also caters more this year for elected members - reflecting the importance of their role and providing them with informed and impartial information to inform the decision making process at local level - where many of the hardest decisions have to be made.

Prevention, recycling and energy recovery are all covered, including a joint session with Defra on waste prevention that will explore ways of encouraging major behaviour change by both consumers and businesses. Both established and newer technology options are also in the programme - including composting and anaerobic digestion, MBT and thermal treatment. Picking up on some highly topical issues, there are also sessions on recycling quality and end markets, and on packaging, where the role of smarter design, lightweighting and biodegradable materials will be discussed.

Add to this over 300 exhibitors, the Environment Agency information hub, free seminars from the Freight Transport Association on key waste transport issues, and plenty of vehicle and plant demonstrations, and I am confident that the CIWM will again provide an event that is relevant and useful to professionals right across the waste sector and beyond.

Steve Lee is chief executive of CIWM

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