As the sector evolves over the next 10 years, and implements a raft of policy reforms, new and enhanced skills will be needed to drive a green recovery. Liza Salazar reports.

The next decade will be one of transition – a shift from our current linear and, often, recycling-based economy, to one that is more circular and values resources, reduces carbon emissions and prioritises natural capital. To drive this green and circular recovery, the sector will need new and improved skills and competencies.

This is the finding of CIWM presidential report for 2021/22, Skills for the future, which captures the thoughts of CIWM members – and other professionals working in, or supplying, the resources and waste sector – about the sector’s evolution in the next 10 years, and what skills will be needed in this transition.

The report says the profession will need to work more closely with specialists from other sectors

CIWM’s new president, and Suez Recycling & Recovery UK external affairs director, Dr Adam Read, sees the next decade as two five-year transitions. The first five years will focus on current policy reform – including extended producer responsibility, deposit return schemes and consistent collections – and the following five on preparation for decarbonisation and embedding circular economy systems and business models to accelerate the green recovery.

To support this transition, the report says the profession will need to work more closely with specialists from other sectors, such as producers and retailers, chemists and material specialists, software developers, and social scientists, to maximise resource capture and deliver decarbonisation.

As the independent voice of the sector, CIWM will lead this transition, says Read, to ensure it stays credible to the next generation of professionals.

Skills for the future

The right to repair should be central to UK policy, says Read

Resources and waste managers will need a range of skills to thrive in this changing environment. The most prevalent ones identified by the report’s stakeholders include: systems thinking; communications and behaviour change; soft skills; data and information technology (IT); circular economy; and reuse and repair. ‘There was an expectation that we would see a lot of technical skills being suggested – and although some were captured, they’re not massively prevalent,’ says Read.

This is because technical skills, such as for carbon capture and storage, will be shared across infrastructure to initiate and run, so won’t be needed by large numbers of people. ‘We don’t want to undermine those, because they will be critical, but they will be really specific, niche and transferrable,’ Read adds.

Systems thinking was identified as a key skill for the future because a whole-system, holistic approach is required for a more circular economy that takes into account material life-cycle, says Intelisos director, and joint author of the report, Sarahjane Widdowson.

‘We’ve got to understand the whole value chain and how it’s going to affect everybody,’ she adds. ‘We’re often siloed by the very nature of our industry because we’re used to dealing with the end point of products, but we’ve got to think bigger.’

We’re often siloed by the very nature of our industry because we’re used to dealing with the end point of products, but we’ve got to think bigger

Communications and behaviour change are also high priority because ‘we’re going to have to take the public and businesses with us’, says Widdowson. ‘[The sector is] going through significant change and adopting new business models, and we need to be able to communicate this effectively, and talk about carbon in a way our staff and the public understand.’

Soft skills were cited by almost every stakeholder interviewed for the report. As well as business continuity, change management and resilience, stakeholders noted the need for project and people management, and leadership. ‘We’ve got huge changes ahead, and we’re going to have to manage their implementation,’ says Widdowson. ‘We also need leaders in our sector who are going to carry the vision and lead their teams forward.’

The data and IT skills gap was acknowledged because ‘there is a better understanding about the power of data, and how we need to use it to inform decision-making to identify where we can increase performance’, adds Widdowson – but we are not there yet.

Although a number of waste-tracking systems are coming on stream, long-term material passports will be critical from a UK plc and value perspective for understanding how much is going on the market and where it is flowing, says Read.

Importantly, he adds, data about materials that do not enter the traditional system will be essential. ‘Repair, for example, doesn’t even get looked at currently, so we don’t understand the scale – or the value – of what has been repaired, because we don’t know how to capture the data. It has to be fed in so we have a much more holistic view of resource flow,’ Read says.

Understanding what happens to products at end of life would be powerful for brands, adds Widdowson, as it would allow them to see which models fail, which products are sent for recycling, and which are retained for longer.

Power of collaboration

Soft skills were cited by almost every stakeholder in the report

The resources and waste sector can’t make the transition to a more circular economy, or drive decarbonisation, on its own, says Read. It will need to collaborate with others to share knowledge and make captured resources available in the right quality and format to support other sectors as they go green.

The CIWM presidential report identifies materials and chemicals, design, producers and manufacturers, retail and logistics, and IT as sectors that will be key to managing the flow of material resources in the future (see panel, ‘Sector collaboration’).

When it comes to raising awareness and influencing designer behaviour, our sector can play a central role by promoting life-cycle thinking, as well as design for repair, refill and refurbishment, says Read.

Collaborating with the chemicals sector will also help to ensure the value from resources at end of first life is retained, he adds, especially for items that are currently unable to be dealt with by traditional recycling, such as plastic films and contaminated packaging.

Understanding what other sectors need and want – and how their manufacturing processes work – means you can ensure you give them the right quality and quantity of resource

‘Understanding what other sectors need and want – and how their manufacturing processes work – means you can ensure you give them the right quality and quantity of resource,’ says Read. ‘It’s about either changing the design parameters at the front end, or understanding the end market for materials that, historically, haven’t had one, such as some plastics and organics.’

Although not referenced in the report, Read believes the agricultural sector is intrinsically linked with resources. ‘It’s important to recognise the value of the soil and what we could do for them,’ he says. ‘We’re talking millions of tonnes of organic material that could go to very good use if we can get the value chain to work better, which includes the public not contaminating their food waste with plastic packaging.

‘Getting that understanding of what needs to happen so the material flows properly, and we get a product of value that they want and demand, is imperative. If you can get the demand switched on, you can force change up the system, because there’s suddenly control of desire and demand.’

The role of CIWM and its members

CIWM president, Dr Adam Read

CIWM has an important and time-critical role to play in the transition to a more circular economy, says the report. It must be the guiding light for the sector, championing the transition and leading the way, otherwise its relevance will decline.

The institution is already looking at the steps needed to make the transition to a resource-focused sector (read our feature about CIWM’s new purpose), and recognises its members will need to be challenged about the direction of travel, and supported on the journey.

‘We want a vibrant institution that’s at the heart of the green recovery and plays its role alongside the big institutions that have influence and sway,’ says Read. ‘CIWM should be the voice, the reference point, the critical friend of government that owns and represents the [circular economy] space, along with carbon and biodiversity.

We want a vibrant institution that’s at the heart of the green recovery and plays its role alongside the big institutions that have influence and sway

‘This will make us more credible to the next crop of professionals, and more interesting to schools, media and government – but it requires us to be braver and much more in the moment.’

Findings from the CIWM presidential report will be used to inform the institution’s learning and development strategy, allowing it and WAMITAB to develop new courses – and further develop existing ones – as well as support courses in other institutions.

At the end of this year, Read says the new skills and offerings that have been identified as being vital for the next five-year transition will be tested with key stakeholders within the resources and waste sector – and with those in aligning sectors – and reported back on at October’s Presidential Dinner.

‘This topic isn’t going to go away in the next two or three years, because we need to keep reviewing the skills agenda to stay relevant, pertinent and interesting,’ says Read.

‘The aim of this project is to leave a legacy – one that inspires the sector’s evolution.’

Sector collaboration

According to the CIWM presidential report, working collaboratively with the following sectors will drive more circular thinking, accelerate digitisation and bring efficiencies to the way we currently collect and manage resources:

Materials and chemicals – the waste we need to manage is constantly evolving, and we must understand what new materials are being used (for example, carbon fibre and nanotech), and the material and chemical legacy of current materials, so we can better retain value from those resources at end of first life.

Design – many designers don’t understand the power they have over whether a product can be reused, repaired or recycled at the end of its life. Our sector can play a role in raising awareness and influencing designer behaviour.

Producers and manufacturers – producers are increasingly having to think about, and take responsibility for, the ‘end of life’ of their product. We can provide knowledge and skills around end-of-life processes, resource recovery and remanufacturing, and support new systems.

Retail 2.0 and logistics – the retail sector are experts in logistics. We have, traditionally, used a low-tech approach to collection, but as resources become increasingly valuable, we will adapt our approach to capturing, harvesting and managing resources.

IT – we need to understand what is possible. Our sector is ripe for innovation, from ways in which we collect waste – just-in-time or scheduling – to how we extract valuable resources and enhance system circularity to maximise value and ease of recovery.

The role of government

The UK government has outlined plans for a green industrial revolution that can support the UK to build back better, create green jobs, and accelerate our path to net zero. The resources and waste sector can play a central role in delivering against these objectives, says the CIWM presidential report – but government backing is essential.

The government must deliver two key things, says Read: ‘It must not take its foot off the accelerator when it comes to policy reforms, and it must take reuse and refill seriously.’

He believes the right to repair should be central to UK policy, as should extended warranties and greater taxation ‘for things that are designed to collapse’. ‘Reuse, repair and refill drive social value and drive down emissions. But you don’t see this in any policy reforms, which are all about recycling.’

We need a much clearer vision from government to show that this is core

Read says reuse, refill and repair is currently championed by businesses recognising a change in consumer behaviour, rather than by the policy agenda. ‘We need a much clearer vision from government to show that this is core,’ he adds.

The government must also recognise that the resources and waste industry is a priority sector that can support a green recovery, says Widdowson. It must also work with CIWM as the leading professional body to enable widespread adaptation.

Increasing sector attractiveness by promoting the resources and waste sector as an appealing option for future jobs at schools and colleges is another must, says Read, adding that resource security and its wider role in the climate agenda should be added to schools’ curricula.

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