CIWM’s Peter Dennis looks at how the common thread of “over-consumption” ran through this year’s Resourcing the Future (RTF) 2022.
Throughout Resourcing the Future 2022 (RTF22), attendees heard from some of the most influential voices in sustainability and resource and waste management today, panellists who are making a real difference in the world right now.
Much has been made of the UK Government as well as many governments around the world – declaring a climate change emergency. But now what? And what does it mean for the resources and waste sector?
This was the overarching question of the conference, which looked to explore the readiness of the industry to become a climate crisis responder.
One of the many themes that emerged over the two-day partnership event was on consumption and how waste is being fuelled by what many speakers and panellists thought of as an over-consumption issue. If viewed from the perspective of the waste hierarchy, the first and best way to begin to minimise waste is to consume less.
The story of RTF22
Kicking off RTF22 was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Agri-Innovation and Climate Adaptation), Defra, Jo Churchill (pictured on screen above), who delivered a virtual address to delegates, setting out the UK government’s suite of policy changes, including Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and recycling collections consistency.
She said that the UK’s resources and waste strategy roadmap will help to transition the country from a make, take, and throw linear economy to a more sustainable model.
When panellists were asked what they would ask the minister to consider based on her address. Almost all of the responses pointed towards increasing funding and implementing relevant policy changes. Behaviour change works but has limitations as it hits barriers that only policy can unlock, Hill said.
The first session following the ministerial address explored how the industry has the potential to position itself as effective climate emergency first responders.
Chair, CIWM President and External Affairs Director, SUEZ, Dr Adam Read (top left), introduced the industry keynote delivered by WRAP chair, Julie Hill who told delegates how consumption and exploitation of resources are the biggest drivers of CO2 emissions.
Hill also said that the circular economy is under appreciated in the wider world as a route to net zero and isn’t represented in policy. She told delegates it was “hard work” to get waste and consumption on the COP26 agenda and, even after significant effort, the subject barely featured.
“We need EPR accelerated,” she said.“We need taxation. We have the tools but we need to get on with using them.”
Do we need a revolution to tackle over-consumption?
Following Julie Hill, was Mark Shaylor (above), the founder of Green Ape, who delivered a vibrant keynote (in an equally vibrant suit). He continued on the theme of over-consumption, saying we need a “revolution” in business models to combat over-consumption and waste. He told delegates that “waste is the mirror to humanity”; we are what we consume and throw away.
Waste is a mirror to humanity
Shaylor continued that the resources and waste sector needs to reposition itself so that rather than simply dealing with what “society throws your way”, it needs to tell businesses what they “can and can’t put into society”.
When asked if we need a “revolution”, he said we need to revolutionise business and economic models. Throughout the morning there was a sense from speakers that the current mostly-linear model employed by most businesses is not effective in helping to respond to the climate crisis.
When asked if we must change the patterns of what people want, Hill said we need to change the model of consumption. She continued that messaging on consumption shouldn’t only be for consumers, we must “overturn the centuries long economic paradigm”.
We need to solve economic problems together to help ease waste consumption, Julie Hill said.
As a solution, Hill proposed embedding the agenda on reducing consumption into the government’s levelling up plans and broader economic aspirations. She said we must acknowledge barriers of poverty and inequality, and unlock the solutions with leadership and policy direction.
Library of Things: the importance of innovation
Co-Founder and Partnerships Director of Library of Things (LOT), Rebecca Trevalyan, opened the next panel, moving up the hierarchy by explaining how LOT is offering a convenient and sustainable alternative to purchasing items that you only occasionally use, such as steam cleaners and hedge trimmers.
Starting by testing 400 different types of items as part of a grassroots movement, LOT evolved into a self-service off-the-shelf system that’s installed in reuse shops, climate actions shops, libraries, and community action shops following commissioning by councils.
80% of household items are used less than once a month.
LOT continues to grow in popularity – almost everyone in the auditorium had heard of the organisation – because the concept saves people money and decreases waste. This shows that consumers are receptive to new sustainable economic models – not only buying, using, and throwing away.
However, the concept needs to be innovative. Like LOT, any new model needs to be affordable and convenient for consumers. Julie Hill, during the earlier panel, was quick to highlight poverty as a huge factor preventing us from responding to the climate crisis.
Earlier in the morning, Mark Shaylor mentioned how he bakes and eats sourdough bread, which Julie Hill pointed out may not be affordable for many people, especially with the cost of living crisis, and Shaylor was quick to agree with her point.
Moving away from consumerism: what’s the solution?
If waste is a mirror to humanity as Mark Shaylor says, what does consumerist culture say about society currently?
Objects of desire are always going to drive purchases; we’re all after the latest release from the brand we love. Mark Shaylor says that brand assets have become totems for who we are. Consumerist culture is also convenient; 24hr delivery on jeans is often faster than purchasing a pair 2nd hand.
Do we need to change the patterns of desire to change the patterns of consumption?
Julie Hill says that rather than seeking to change what people want, we should focus on implementing a new model of consumption. The challenge here is to create a model that makes more money by selling and owning less stuff.
If companies like Library of Things remain successful and keep growing, this proves an alternative model is available. When any alternative is proven to be profitable, that’s when big brands will step in so they don’t miss out on potential revenue.