Who is the Nokia of the waste world?

As brand leaders look to take ownership of their materials, disassembly and reuse could fall to new operations where shredders and magnets will not feature - and the waste industry could be left on the sidelines, warns Phillip Ward

I can’t be the only one to notice that suddenly everyone is talking about ‘disruptive innovation’ – change that shifts us from linear, incremental developments and into an entirely new way of looking at the world.

This sort of change is not confined to fast moving consumer goods, although that may be where it is most familiar. The havoc being wrought on the once mighty Blackberry and Nokia by the smartphones of Apple and Samsung shows the power of non-linear developments.

Waste and resource use is certainly not immune from disruptive innovation. It is already experiencing some, as old understandings of the technical and economic limits to recycling have changed. This change is contributing to the emerging surplus in planned capacity for waste treatment.

An industry that is heavily committed to building infrastructure based on 25-year funding streams has a strong incentive to try to identify where else disruption may come from. Futurology is more art than science, and while I have a couple of candidates to share, readers are likely to have spotted others.

My first is the circular economy – an expression which is becoming as common as disruptive innovation. The excellent groundwork of the Ellen McArthur Foundation and the Aldersgate Group among others has brought us to a point where we now have the chief executive of SITA UK blogging on the need to drive forward the circular economy. Even the Environmental Services Association recognises in its European Manifesto that the future holds profound changes in production and consumption patterns.

There is no doubt that some very significant global businesses are looking seriously at new business models in which they effectively retain ownership of their products while they are in use by the customer and then reclaim them for reuse or recovery once the customer has finished with them. Such products may never enter the waste stream and will be moved around by retail logistics operators rather than the waste industry.

Their disassembly and reuse will fall to new operations based in manufacturing where shredders and magnets will not feature. The risk for the waste industry is that these emerging closed loop operations will leave them on the outside. Major logistics operators like DHL are already sizing up the opportunities.

My second candidate for disruptive innovation is devolution. It has already been with us for some time, but we are only just beginning to see its power in the waste sector. As Scotland and Wales have gained confidence in their powers they are increasingly taking a different view on what they are trying to achieve and how they want to go about it: whether that is on carrier bags, the implementation of the Waste Framework Directive or the use of landfill bans.

For the first time we are seeing a break up of monopoly government leading to the emergence of alternative approaches and the ability to road test them. So far the verdict seems to be that the clear vision and drive being shown in those two countries compares favourably with the English approach – memorably described by Steve Lee, chief executive of CIWM, as “dull as dishwater”.

But devolution has a long way to run. With the Government’s localism project about to confer additional powers and responsibilities on city regions we can expect disruption to existing patterns of waste flow, as those city regions look to the green economy for jobs and growth. Waste companies may need a new mind set if their role changes from handling waste materials as cheaply as possible to sourcing key raw materials for regional businesses as efficiently as possible.

Those are my two suggestions. Both strike me as very likely to have significant effects. There will be other developments that affect waste management. Some will grow linearly out of current trends; but it is the radical and disruptive we need to spot if we can.

I would be fascinated to hear other views. If the world of waste develops half as fast over the next twenty years as telecommunications have in the last twenty, the results will be transformative.

Phillip Ward is a non-executive chair at Resource Futures

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie