Businesses must lead Britain's resource revolution, claims Defra minister
The UK's ambition to become one of the most resource-efficient economies in the world must be led by private-sector innovation, according to Defra Resource Minister Therese Coffey.
Today (31 January) marked the launch of a new Aldersgate Group report which highlights how the UK economy could swell by nearly £80bn if the country adopts resource-efficient business models by 2030.
Coffey was due to speak at the report's launch event, but illness led to a last-minute replacement in the form of the Minister’s Deputy Director Chris Preston, who presented a verbatim copy of Coffey's speech. Preston reiterated that the Government would engage with firms on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), product design standards and incentives to help increase demand for recycled materials to and support the business community in delivering a resource-efficient economy.
“We want the UK to become one of the most resource-efficient economies in the world, and now is a key time for us to work together to build a more efficient, resilient, sustainable, low-carbon economy,” Preston said. “This transition could help to stimulate new markets, reduce costs and improve our economic productivities, creating new employment opportunities, as well as protecting and improving the environment.
“While we can see the benefits of a resource efficient economy, it isn’t always clear how these models can be scaled up. Sometimes, it doesn’t make sense to have a circular business model until you have a circular economy to support it. In responding to this challenge, business leadership is absolutely critical.
"Business has to take the lead, and it can’t just be about producers. It has to be a two-way street with reprocessors as well.”
Coffey’s “personal excitement” about Britain’s departure from the European Union (EU) was noted in the speech read out by Preston, who cited an opportunity to drive up resource productivity in the UK.
The speech touched upon certain elements of the EU's Circular Economy Package that the Government is “less keen on” - in particular weight-based recycling targets, which Coffey said can lead to material being recycled when it could rather be re-used. Indeed, this has often been cited as a key factor for England’s recycling rates slowing significantly over the past three years.
The Government has attempted to rectify the “dysfunctional” nature of the UK’s waste management in recent times; this month’s Industrial Strategy green paper placed a strong emphasis on how energy costs can be reduced by increasing resource productivity. The paper highlighted specifically how “increased material efficiency across the whole supply chain deliver huge cost savings and improve the productivity of UK businesses”.
Coffey's speech noted that businesses are starting to recognise the double-win of environmental benefits and financial gains to be made through resource efficiency. The Aldersgate Group pilot projects in the UK and Netherlands, for instance, delivered an estimated £4.9m in savings reduced materials consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 62,619 tonnes and 1,953 tonnes respectively.
The speech continued: “Some of the leading businesses are already acting and considering the significant benefits to be gained by becoming more resource efficient. We are seeing more examples of successful innovation, not only in products but also in how businesses operate.
“Government also has a role to play. We can’t regulate to force these changes but we can ensure the right policy framework is in place to support the market, businesses, local authorities and the public, to make these changes towards a more resource efficient economy.
“Through our green papers, the vision we hope to deliver cannot be driven by a top-down intervention but will require a collaborative effort from the whole value chain.”
The keynote speech was followed by a multi-sector panel including representatives from Marks & Spencer (M&S), law firm Norton Rose Fulbright and professional services firm WSP Parsons Brinkerhoff. The Defra Minister’s address was largely welcomed by the businesses, but warnings were raised that business innovation would suffer if the Government took a backseat approach to resource efficiency.
M&S sustainability manager Rowland Hill said that UK businesses cannot make progress in isolation. He acknowledged that the landfill tax works “terrifically well” for businesses because it provides subsidies for alternative approaches. He did, however, insist a different approach should be considered for local authorities, which have fewer options to deal with waste.
“We need a whole systems approach,” Hill said. "It does need intervention. The one bit of Therese’s speech I possibly disagreed with was that I do think it need a Government interventionalist approach because it has to be a big system change - you can’t rely on these vague concepts that companies will deliver.”
Hill also suggested a whole systems approach would need to consider all of the social dimensions of resource efficiency. While the 5p plastic tax has been a success, he said, behavioural nuances towards different materials within the population mean that a one-size-fits-all approach could prove difficult.