ANALYSIS: Has the waste industry finally found its voice?

As waste and resource efficiency professionals gather in Birmingham this week, evidence that this sector is growing in stature and confidence is clear to see.

The annual Resource & Waste Management event at the NEC has provided a platform for some of the industry’s most vocal champions to pump home the message that government can no longer afford to dismiss or ignore a looming global commodity crunch that threatens to strike at the very heart of UK plc.

Former environment minister John Gummer, now Lord Deben, took to the stage on the opening day of the show and wasted little time in lambasting the coalition’s unwillingness to tackle policy failings head on.

“No sane person would run a system where [waste] targets are set in weight, rather than percentages – someone somewhere has fundamentally misunderstood this. We have a system in place now which has so many glitches in it that it makes [ambitions] impossible to achieve,” he argued.

Deben’s remarks drew nods of agreement from many delegates, several of whom feel angry and let down by the fact the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) still hasn’t assigned a waste brief to one of its newly appointed ministers seven days after the cabinet reshuffle.

Comments range from mild bemusement to sheer exasperation: “It’s been over a week now, what the hell is going on?”; “Waste has just fallen off a cliff”; “I wish we had Spelman back, and I’d never thought I’d say that”.

Perhaps shadow waste minister Gavin Shuker best summed it up when he accused those in opposition of simply “not getting it” – in his opinion, last week’s reshuffle only served to cast further doubt on the Government’s green ambitions.

Despite the publication of a Resource Action Plan earlier this year, Shuker feels ministers are dragging their feet when it comes to action and not responding fast enough to the pressing issue of resource scarcity.

“It’s not just the rare earths, heavy metals and materials for space programmes,” he observed. “As oil becomes scarcer and geopolitics even more complex, we simply cannot afford to throw away what could be recycled, reduced or returned to use.”

Yet ironically within all this angst, business leaders are starting to forge ahead of government thinking and create their own agenda for change – and it is this shift in urgency that is boosting confidence within the sector.

Brand leaders, driven by CSR reputation, are now taking ownership of their waste and looking to close the loop – it’s a resource management evolution that could literally make or break traditional waste companies.

Sainsbury’s, John Lewis, Coca Cola and Marks & Spencer were just some of the big names attracting bums on seats at this year’s conference programme. The game-changers of modern waste management, they are adding a touch of glamour to a sector that has historically been the Cinderella of sustainability.

Going forward it is brand influence on consumers that will radically change how society views and deals with its waste, creating opportunity and innovation along the way. Those companies who embrace the concept of circularity in particular could find themselves in demand.

According to one prominent figurehead, the waste industry is on the cusp of something big. While it is crying out for some political stability and cohesion, it is also knows it is the lynchpin to delivering resource efficiency. What a great thing to shout about.

Maxine Perella

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