ANALYSIS: Are we facing a waste identity crisis?

Fears are mounting that the waste industry could be left behind in the race towards a circular economy as it struggles to get to grips with better resource management.

One of the chief concerns from delegates at the industry’s annual conference in London this week, hosted by the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), was how traditional waste companies can transform their business models to take advantage of new ways of working.

Plenty of rhetoric was in the air as ministers and academics heralded the dawn of a new era; one that goes beyond zero waste to landfill where waste is designed out of our system entirely. But this left many within the audience questioning exactly what role would be left for the sector if such a scenario were to transpire.

This was darkly illustrated in a message from David Fell, a director at research consultancy Brook Lyndhurst, who told delegates that the industry could be rendered extinct in 30 years’ time if it failed to evolve.

His argument is that manufacturers are already starting to design waste out of their production processes. Likewise, retailers and consumer brands are recognising the value locked up in secondary materials and are looking for ways to mine that for their own gain.

This could see waste flows side-stepping conventional treatment and disposal routes and as competition for feedstock grows, only those waste companies that are able to extract the highest value out of the materials they garner are likely to prosper.

“It was a real wake-up call,” one delegate said. “You do wonder where this is going to leave us when you look ahead years from now.”

Some observers feel the sector is at the mercy of forces beyond its control and experiencing a crisis of confidence as it struggles to cope with a fast-changing agenda that is not being led from within, but outside of the industry.

According to leading climate change economist Dimitri Zenghelis who spoke at the conference, the likes of Unilever and Marks & Spencer will be the future engines of change in waste management – not contractors or reprocessors. It is the brand owners that are creating ripples as they instigate pioneering initiatives to close the loop.

But they need help to do this – and some are trying to shake the industry into action. Boots UK’s sustainable development manager Ian Barnes took to the podium and said that waste management companies cannot be merely transactional anymore, they need start adding value to their services.

It is worth remembering that brands have the added advantage of being able to connect on a deeper level with consumers and influence their behaviour in terms of purchasing habits. This will be crucial in the drive to tackle sustainable consumption and we may well see household names taking the credit eventually for ‘saving the planet’.

But what of the industry? How will it save itself? Well, forging closer ties with waste producers and manufacturers will be crucial. Evidence of this is starting to emerge – Eco Plastics’ joint venture with Coca Cola Enterprises to reprocess PET bottles and Mitsubishi Electric’s partnership with Overton Recycling to recover industrial air conditioning units are just two examples.

Ultimately, however, this may not be enough. Leading figureheads within waste circles are calling on the Government to help them navigate choppy waters as they look to reposition themselves. They want strong leadership, clarity and stability on key policy areas – some are going further and asking for fiscal incentives.

But we are in an economic crisis; such cries will doubtless fall on deaf ears. The track record of this government so far has been unconvincing on green matters. The industry may have to find its own evolutionary path – the question is whether it is brave enough to do so.

Maxine Perella

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