David Palmer-Jones | Raising standards

Suez’s David Palmer-Jones explains why the firm has circular economy principles at the core of its business values, and how the resources sector contributes to the UK economy

David Palmer-Jones was appointed Suez Group senior executive vice-president for northern Europe in 2020. After joining Suez in 1989, to set up the group’s UK operations, he served as CEO of Suez recycling and recovery UK – then SITA UK – from September 2008.

He was previously CEO of SITA Scandinavia (2003-06), before returning as UK operations director for the industrial and commercial division.

Today, we’re more than just ‘waste managers’; in fact, we’re driving the UK’s transformation to a low-carbon, circular economy. With this comes new responsibilities, such as that of power producers playing a key role in energy network decarbonisation.

Currently chairman of the UK Resources Council, Palmer-Jones was president of the European Federation of Waste Management and Environmental Services (FEAD) from 2014-17. From 2009 to 2016, he was non-executive director/trustee at Wrap and, from 2012-14, chairman of the Environmental Services Association.

At FEAD, Palmer-Jones helped to shape EU policy to form the terms of the European Commission’s Circular Economy Package and, in the UK, he has been a figurehead in framing the recent debates preceding Defra’s publication of the resources and waste strategy for England. He was also instrumental in negotiating a new Code of Practice with Defra in 2013, for all materials recycling facilities in the UK.

Circular (C): How did you start your career?

David Palmer-Jones (DPJ): My formal career connection in the sector began in 1986, when working at Leeds council – one my first jobs after university. I was involved in the organisation of the street and refuse collection service. Then, in 1989, I joined SITA (now Suez).

But my personal connection with the waste management industry goes back five decades, to my childhood, because – between the ages of five and nine – my father was the director of the Direct Service Organisation of Grimsby Local Authority, which included waste collection.

This coincided with my time as a young fan of Grimsby FC, for which the local authority provided cleansing support. During the off-season, I would watch with fascination as the club’s footballers went out on the bin rounds, as they did back then – first, to keep fit and, second, for extra income, as they didn’t get paid by the club over the summer.

C: What has been your highlight?

DPJ: There are two that are interlinked, as they are about enabling growth and development. The personal satisfaction has always been about building highly engaged and successful companies, which I did for Suez in Sweden and then in the UK.

That aim remains, and continues to motivate me; it’s an ongoing highlight to grow a company to a stage where its people need minimal involvement from you.

In addition, Suez’s recent involvement with Defra has been satisfying; bringing our knowledge – and facilitating meetings of experts – has assisted the department with its waste and resources strategy for the wider benefit of the UK. To help our government at a critical time on a strategy that will move our sector forward is a real highlight for me.

C: Does Suez follow circular principles, and what targets have you set?

DPJ: We have developed our company, from 2009 to the present day, entirely around circular economy principles. I am very proud of the fact that we were the first waste management company in the UK to adopt the circular economy as a guiding principle.

The Suez Group has been named on the international CDP (previously the Carbon Disclosure Project) climate change A-List as one of its highest performers for the fourth year running.

We have made our commitments to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. For all of us across Suez, these cannot simply be an ‘add-on’ – something to which you give a cursory nod. Rather, we believe, fundamentally, that these need to be at the core of business principles.

C: What can people do to reduce their impact on the planet?

DPJ: Reduce consumption – use public transport, be responsible for how many miles you drive, and try to move to electric vehicles. Also, make your house as efficient as possible in terms of water, power and heat.

Did you know that 75 per cent of an individual’s carbon footprint is water use in their house, heating water to have a bath or shower? If everyone was to reduce their shower use by 10 per cent, our entire network of water in the UK would become carbon neutral.

C: How central is waste to the big debates around the environment?

DPJ: The shift away from landfill to energy recovery – coupled with increased recycling and anaerobic digestion capacity – has seen us, as a sector, reduce our emissions by 69 per cent since 1990. In that sense, we have shown that, with a clear policy framework to stimulate investment, it is possible to achieve a step change in environmental performance.

Allied to this, the public focus is shifting from what they throw away at the back end to the sustainability of the materials and packaging of the products they consume at the front end.

As a key part of the value chain, Suez, alongside others, is making a concerted effort to help industry – particularly packaging manufacturers – to lower its carbon footprint by using more secondary materials. This will help to protect our natural resources and maintain our sources of natural capital.

We have developed models for extended producer responsibility schemes, and analysed their respective impacts, and put forward a recycling-by-numbers system to help consumers understand how to recycle their packaging. These are just a sample of the initiatives on which Suez has been working.

C: What contribution does the waste and resources sector make to the UK economy?

DPJ: The waste and resources sector is still carrying out its principal role that began in early Victorian times – treating waste materials safely and responsibly to protect public health and our natural environment. Aside from this core function, the sector of today is unrecognisable.

The transformation under way from a collect-and-dispose model towards a ‘resource-focused services provider’ has seen billions invested in new sorting, reprocessing and energy recovery infrastructure.A similar level of investment is needed again to achieve our ambition of a more circular economy and the 2050 targets for net-zero emissions.

At the same time, thousands of higher-skilled jobs have been created to support and deliver this transition; The UK Resources Council, of which I am chair, estimates that our sector directly employs more than 150,000 people in the UK, with a further 600,000 employed in associated circular economy activities, such as reuse and repair.

In Suez’s The economics of change in the resources and waste sector report, published last year, we estimate our sector’s contribution to gross value added (GVA) to be £9bn, accounting for waste management, recycling and energy production. Our sector’s potential is significantly greater than this, however.

Through the reforms in the government’s waste and resources strategy that seek to embed resource efficiency across the value chain, there is potential for a £9bn uplift to GVA.

Undoubtedly, the way we contribute to society has become more sophisticated. Today, we’re more than just ‘waste managers’; in fact, we’re driving the UK’s transformation to a low-carbon, circular economy. With this comes new responsibilities, such as that of power producers playing a key role in energy network decarbonisation.

We also supply the high-quality secondary materials that manufacturers will need to meet their sustainability requirements under Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). Moreover, we have become producers of alternative fuels to power our cars, trucks and planes.

The commitment shown by government to reforming policy for our sector is illustrative of its recognition of the vital contribution we can make across the whole value chain.

We have risen to this challenge, actively helping government to develop transformative policies and, through our own pioneering research and development projects, increasingly involving partnerships that bring together different parts of the value chain.

C: How has public perception of the waste sector changed in recent years?

DPJ: Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the public made a significant shift from a throw-away mentality to being more recycling conscious, which resulted in a near doubling of the UK household recycling rate by 2012/13, to around 42 per cent.

The household recycling rate overall has stagnated since – rising in some years by just a fraction of a point on average, and resting currently at around 45 per cent – but the cultural and social push towards greater recycling is stronger than ever.

David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II has contributed to a public sense of urgency regarding plastic pollution in our oceans and rivers.

David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II has contributed to a public sense of urgency regarding plastic pollution in our oceans and rivers.

This clamour for change has already encouraged a raft of producers and retailers to change the way they make products – even before EPR schemes have become a reality – aware of the risk to brand reputations from being seen to be a ‘polluter’.

Companies across industries have joined together to form a global Plastics Pact, in an effort to curb the damaging impact of plastic on the natural environment. The imminent arrival of a tax on virgin plastic has also sharpened businesses’ approach to packaging, as they are aware that this form of taxation is likely to be extended to other virgin materials.

Once the reforms envisaged in the resources and waste strategy are put into effect, businesses will have to radically alter their entire approach to waste, designing in recovery and reuse of the materials used in their products.

A further change is needed for waste to be seen as an option to be avoided, rather than a necessary outcome of consumption, helping to preserve finite levels of global natural capital and reduce carbon emissions.

C: How should we measure the impact of the waste sector on society?

DPJ: There are multiple ways we can measure our sector’s impact on society, from economic metrics to carbon efficiency and the social value we generate through our operations.

Historically, we’ve relied on weight-based metrics and carbon savings, which – while effective in measuring the shift away from landfill – are increasingly irrelevant to measuring resource efficiency and our sector’s overall impact on society.

Given the direction of travel in government policy, it would be sensible to adopt a measurement that looks at biodiversity net gain, environmental net gain, and natural capital across the whole value chain, to better support the thinking around production, consumption and waste. This, combined with calculations for the social value generated by our sector, would give a more holistic view of our impact on society as a whole.

As waste professionals, we have sometimes struggled to articulate the value we bring to society through the essential services we provide. This more holistic view will enable us to better illustrate the positive impact we have on society.

C: What will the sector do in the future to contribute more?

DPJ: The major transition we have seen over the past 10 years is the investment in technologies that move waste away from landfill, supported by new collection and treatment methods. This period of evolutionary change looks set to be followed by a period of even greater change, to meet the net-zero carbon target by 2050.

Our sector has a key role to play in delivering this ambitious goal, and Suez’s vision is that, by 2030, we will lead on innovation and growth opportunities – designing out waste wherever possible and capturing and using all of our remaining recoverable resources to benefit society.

In the near future, I envisage a secondary resources sector that leads the world in terms of refining and processing packaging and products. We will be able to transform them into raw materials for other sectors and overseas customers by using the best new technology.

I anticipate our expertise and innovation to be increasingly sought-after, helping to raise standards around the globe.

This interview appeared first in the March/April issue of Circular Magazine. 

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