Circular’s editor Ian Farrell caught up with CIWM’s president Dan Cooke to find out what makes him tick, and how he feels about the challenges facing the industry.
When interviewing any big name in the waste industry, it’s usual to begin with a question about how the interviewee got where they are today. What their early career looked like, what their motivations were – that kind of thing.
Less usual, though, is that a new CIWM President reveals that his first taste of the industry was working as a “bin man” on collections in the Cotswolds while he was a student. It’s what Dan Cooke describes as “the coal face”, and an experience that still informs him today, after 30 years in the sector.
“I graduated with a media and communications degree, but it took me those three years of study to realise that I didn’t really want to work in the media,” he laughs.
Cooke took a job with Coventry City Council, as an environmental liaison officer, promoting litter campaigns, and doing community clean-ups in some pretty deprived and challenging areas of the city.
“They were some of my proudest early moments: cleaning up fly-tipping in river valleys that had been going on for years. People said ‘You can’t do anything about that’, but we did. We cleaned them up and did a lot of education work to make sure the fly-tipping didn’t come back. We restored urban green areas to what they should have been for the wider community,” Cooke says.
The pride in Cooke’s voice as he describes these early years is palpable: “I could see the importance of engaging with the public, to influence behaviour positively. That’s where the steer for the rest of my career came from.”
In 1994, Cooke moved to London to work for the Tidy Britain Group as an adviser for campaigns across the capital. It was a role that would give him great perspective. “I was working with people from the Tory flagships of Westminster and Wandsworth, with their rigorous standards of street cleaning and unique challenges, through to the likes of Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Newham, where there is a different set of issues and community challenges,” he says.
It was during this time that Cooke began an environmental management degree and became involved with CIWM, as secretary to the London and Southern Counties Centre.
After eight years at Tidy Britain, Cooke moved to the Haul Waste group of companies, based in Taunton. “My first job there was to manage the change in corporate identity to Viridor,” he recalls. Viridor would be Cooke’s professional home for the next 22 years.
We used to describe ourselves as ‘first division knocking on the door of promotion’.
“We used to describe ourselves as ‘first division knocking on the door of promotion’,” says Cooke, who is a passionate Aston Villa supporter. “We went on to become one of the top-three waste management companies working in the UK.”
When Viridor was sold to KKR for more than £4bn in 2020, Cooke decided (with a post-Covid outlook on life) that it was time to try something different. That resulted in him taking up his current role working for Cornwall Council, overseeing areas of outstanding natural beauty in the West Country.
“I now describe myself as working in landscape management instead of waste management, although there are some good and obvious links.” Cooke says. “It’s part of Cornwall’s environmental partnerships and climate change service, and I continue to advocate within Cornwall Council on the contribution that the waste and resources sector can make.
“My favourite bit of circularity is that I’m now responsible for the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site, which includes old landfills and tip-spoil waste sites from the mining industry, all of which have ‘universal value’ as part of the UNESCO world heritage status.”
Some of the great work we did at Viridor – which is showcased in my presidential report – is around restored landfills.
It’s a situation that can change the way we look at modern landfill sites, says Cooke: “Some of the great work we did at Viridor – which is showcased in my presidential report – is around restored landfills. Landfill has a poor reputation as the bottom of the waste hierarchy, and rightly so.
“But one of the positive outcomes of landfill is that it takes despoiled landscapes, such as quarries and open-cast coal mines, which can then be restored into very good-quality habitats for wildlife and communities. That’s often overlooked. A lot of long-term environmental gain can be achieved with the right kind of stewardship.
“We can create nature reserves on old landfill sites. When I was at Viridor, eight of the restored landfills had Wildlife Trusts Biodiversity Benchmark accreditation and one of the Veolia sites we have profiled in the report also has this.”
Cooke’s presidential report showcases the role that the waste industry plays in the structure of UK society, rather than focusing on a single element of policy or practice. He says his theme – “This is what we do” – is one of celebration, designed to showcase the best of the sector to its users, policy-makers and influencers, and show it for what it is: the fourth utility service.
“The growing importance of ESG [environmental and social governance] across the private sector is huge,” he says. “We are not just thinking about economic value anymore; we are invested in social and environmental value, too. Local authorities have ESG at their very core, so it’s in our sector’s interest to begin to communicate that better. That will lead to a programme of continuous improvement right across the industry.”
Cooke is confident that this celebration of the waste sector can even help with previous presidential themes, such as the drive for green skills. “If people see our sector for what it is – a fascinating place to work, with opportunities to make a difference, they will want to come and work in it.”
At a time when the degree of private-sector involvement in other utilities – such as water and energy – is under scrutiny, however, is the current combination of privately owned businesses and publicly accountable local authorities right for the waste sector?
“There is a very different culture in private- and public-sector organisations,’ Cooke says, thinking back to his own transition from one to the other.
We knew what we wanted to be and there was a strong leadership team in place.
“Viridor was fantastic because it was a growing, ambitious business with a clear strategy as to where it wanted to be. It had a real go-getting culture; we knew what we wanted to be and there was a strong leadership team in place. And just look at some of the brilliant work coming from the likes of Suez, Veolia, Biffa, FCC, and others at the moment. That shows the difference that can be made by the drive of the private sector.
“That said, this is a partnership. There is also tremendous vision shown by local authorities that commission these contracts, services and facilities, as well as the public-sector bodies and NGOs that support them. It’s an effective combination of cultures that gets things done. That’s something our sector is known for, I think – getting things done.”
Something getting in the way of anyone trying to “get things done” in the waste sector right now is the lack of clear policy detail coming from central government. What does Cooke think about the delays to extended producer responsibility (EPR) and consistency and the proposed design of the deposit return scheme (DRS)?
“The two biggest drivers of progress in the sector over recent years have been the landfill tax and plastic packaging tax. Both were delivered through Treasury; they have had a massive impact on delivering new infrastructure – pushing waste further back up the hierarchy. It’s changed behaviour at a high level,” he says.
When it comes to the Defra-driven consistent collections and EPR policies, however, Cooke is less positive: “There is frustration, which I share, about the lack of clarity on the timetable. But government must hold its nerve – especially when it comes to using EPR as a tool to close the gap between producers and the cost of the materials they place on the market. This is essential. It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity that we cannot afford to miss.
“Likewise, with consistency, there is frustration at the lack of progress because it’s a major part of the jigsaw in terms of what we, as a sector, can achieve for society and the economy.”
Isn’t it a case of doing things properly, not quickly? “I think it needs to be done at an appropriate pace – local authorities are crying out for clarity on consistent collections; the response is taking too long,” Cooke says.
“As I understand it, government may be reviewing EPR because of the cost-of-living crisis and political pressures being applied internally. But it needs to remember that EPR will have a positive economic outcome: it releases funding to local authorities that they can use to deliver better services and close a funding gap. Any price increase on the shelves should be marginal – manufacturers and packaging producers are used to taking this kind of policy measure in their stride.”
Government may be reviewing EPR because of the cost-of-living crisis and political pressures being applied internally.
Cooke believes timing is important with DRS too: “Putting DRS before all of those other things was arguably not the best sequencing. EPR and consistency should have a much greater impact on material flows and resource efficiency; DRS can come at a much later stage.
“The Scottish government trying to go first with DRS has caused all kinds of issues and shows the essential need for a joined-up and aligned approach between UK government and the devolved administrations. Companies are seething about the level of private investment that they have put into this scheme, which is now in jeopardy.
“To have that financial rug pulled from under your feet… if I was in one of those businesses, I would justifiably be cross. But of more concern is that they may be less inclined to invest again any time soon.”
There is likely to be a General Election in 2024. If that results in a change of government, does Cooke think this will alter the collection and packaging reforms timeline yet again?
I’d love to have a conversation with Ed Miliband and point out that our world-class waste sector is just as important to the UK as the energy sector.
“I hope it’s bipartisan,” he says. “The Labour Party, from what we can tell, is saying it will be environmentally progressive. It has plans for green skills and renewable energy, and our sector is key to that agenda and policy narrative, so I hope it would see the sense in continuing the deliver on them.
“I’d love to have a conversation with Ed Miliband and point out that our world-class waste sector is just as important to the UK as the energy sector.”
Despite this political uncertainty, Cooke is very positive about the future of the sector and the contribution it is making to net zero and a more circular economy. “What we do is like energy and water. It touches every single individual and business in the UK.
“They lean on us and rely on us – we are the experts who work closely with the policy-makers to deliver much-needed change. Recycling is the one thing that the vast majority of the public can get behind and see that they are making a positive difference.
“The public wants to see what we do; they need what we do in terms of the safe treatment of what they discard. The sector will always be there and will always be essential. It has adapted to whatever society has thrown at it for the past 125 years and continues to astound by adapting – taking whatever comes its way and changing it into something useful.”
Read more about Dan Cooke’s presidential theme at ciwmpresident.co.uk.