12,000 visitors are set to descend on the NEC in Birmingham on 13-14 September 2023 for two action-packed days. Check out our live updates for what Circular is up to at the event.
The Pressing Plastic Pollution Problem
The global fight against plastic pollution took centre stage at the RWM conference on day 2, where Natalie Fée, founder of the non-profit organisation City to Sea, passionately spoke on the role of refill and reuse schemes in mitigating the problem.
Fée (pictured) invoked a renewed sense of responsibility in individuals and industries alike, emphasising that everyone has a crucial part to play in preserving the planet for future generations.
Highlighting the work of City to Sea, Fée recounted their successful campaigns that have markedly influenced governmental policies. A notable victory was their campaign against plastic cotton buds, which gained substantial support from supermarkets and eventually contributed to a nationwide ban in the UK four years later.
Fée pointed out the grim reality that plastic production is alarmingly on the rise, expected to double over the next two decades
In a bid to foster a culture of reuse and refill, City to Sea introduced a refill app, a handy tool that allows users to locate refill stations easily, normalising and making the reuse process accessible to the masses.
Furthermore, the organisation spearheads significant events such as the World Refill Day and the Global Reuse Summit to raise awareness and catalyse action towards a sustainable future.
However, despite these progressive steps, Fée pointed out the grim reality that plastic production is alarmingly on the rise, expected to double over the next two decades. By 2050, the use of plastic is projected to account for a staggering 20% of global oil consumption.
This exponential growth poses a significant threat to the environment, evidenced by the 22 million tonnes of plastic that found its way into the natural habitat in 2021 due to mismanaged waste disposal, according to Fée.
Green Skills at Forefront
In a riveting panel discussion, industry experts and leaders gathered to discuss the future of green skills and the necessary steps to foster a workforce ready to tackle the environmental challenges ahead.
Chaired by Dr Adam Read, Chief Sustainability Officer at SUEZ, urged for strategies that would make green jobs attractive to the emerging workforce, encapsulating the notion that working in a decarbonizing sector equates to having a green job.
Representing BITC, Emma Weaver spoke about their efforts in co-creating a building green skills routemap. She mentioned the inception of the Green Skills Lab programme, a pilot initiative designed to explore the risks and opportunities that lie in the evolving job roles.
Evonne Cannan from Zero Waste Scotland talked about the CIWM Professional Development Network’s endeavours in fostering career development at all stages, emphasising the need for mentorship to assist individuals in the early stages of their career.
Cannan mentioned CIWM’s plans to establish an Early Careers Presidential Team to magnify the voices of younger members through initiatives like reverse mentoring.
Harriet Lamb of WRAP mentioned a significant 20% growth in jobs within the circular economy, foreseeing further expansion. Lamb highlighted the necessity of inspiring girls to venture into environmental as well as STEM areas to effectively address the climate crisis.
Katie Cockburn from CIWM emphasised the need for collaboration between employers and the government in skill funding and retention, and addressing challenges in accessing apprenticeships at the operative level.
Katie Cockburn from CIWM emphasised the need for collaboration between employers and the government in skill funding and retention, and addressing challenges in accessing apprenticeships at the operative level.
Sarahjane Widdowson, Director at Intelisos Ltd, gave an overview based on the most recent report from CIWM, which analyses the green jobs pivotal to the sector in the coming decade. She brought attention to the increasing role of automation and artificial intelligence, especially in front-line services and waste management.
In the Q&A session, the panellists agreed on the need to direct more focus towards younger individuals, potentially around the GCSE range. They expressed a keen interest in equipping CIWM members to engage with schools and share their experiences and contributions towards the planet’s well-being.
Notably, CIWM is collaborating with the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions in this area.
Find out more about CIWM’s skills research by checking out the Green Skills Podcast.
The role of Artificial Intelligence in revolutionising waste management
In a significant step towards modernising waste management and recycling sector, the RWM conference and expo served as a pivotal platform for experts to discuss the groundbreaking role Artificial Intelligence (AI) can play in waste composition analysis.
The sector has been grappling with issues pertaining to time-consuming and unreliable traditional composition analysis methods. However, the integration of AI and computer vision systems promises not only to streamline processes but also to enhance the accuracy and reliability of data collected, which is critical in compliance reporting and real-time process adjustments.
At the conference chaired by Mikela Druckman, CEO and Co-founder of Greyparrot, a panel of experts underscored the urgent need to embrace AI in transforming the waste management sector, outlining their visions for the imminent future.
Jonathan Caesar, a senior technical plan engineer at Suez, emphasised the untapped potential of AI in categorising materials more comprehensively than current methods.
According to Caesar, optimising facilities to expand material coverage and enhance material purity is vital. Looking forward, he envisages a plant designed to utilise AI from the inception, steering clear of retrofitting solutions as an afterthought, and leveraging data effectively to augment plant operations.
Claire Shrewsbury, the Director of Insights and Innovation at WRAP, highlighted the essential role of precise data in influencing behaviours and steering conversations about prevailing issues.
Optimising facilities to expand material coverage and enhance material purity is vital
Shrewsbury urged for a focus on rethinking designs, considering the sorting ability of products alongside their recyclability. In addition, she underscored the potential of AI in tackling the challenging domain of textile sorting for recycling, moving away from manual sorting processes.
Representing the policy perspective, Patrick Brighty, Recycling Policy Advisor at ESA, noted that Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) are struggling with space constraints to accommodate new sampling requirements.
He acknowledged the role of AI as a potent solution to this pressing issue. Brighty expressed concerns regarding the forthcoming increase in sampling and reporting burdens starting from October 1, emphasising that several Defra decisions are worrying, especially regarding the definition of a supplier.
In a sector burdened with compliance reporting and real-time process adjustments, the incorporation of AI promises not only to streamline processes but also to enhance data accuracy and reliability.
As industry leaders and policy advisors unite in their vision, the next year promises a seismic shift towards a more sustainable, efficient, and technologically advanced waste management sector.
How do we stop waste crime?
In an interactive session, Environment Agency Waste Crime Engagement Specialists Jane Sansbury, Peter Lennard, and Stuart Hoyle explained to delegates how they’re working to stop waste criminals and why we must all work in partnership to achieve this.
The catalyst for creating the role of Waste Crime Engagement Specialists in 2019 was the Noel Report which found none of the respondents believed organisations responsible for dealing with waste crime were collaborating successfully.
When Hoyle started in the role he found that waste crime was low on the agenda and dealt with as “any other business” in meetings. He also agreed that organisations were trying to solve waste crime problems independently of each other, from fly-tipping to illegal exports.
Through Operation “Clean Sweep”, Hoyle said the EA brought together organisations to target waste criminals, which proved effective. He attributed the success of the project to finding the right role holders to bring to the partnership.
Operation “Clean Sweep” evolved into a Lincolnshire-focused project aimed at reducing and preventing fly-tipping across the county and finding better and more innovative ways of collaborating across teams. The project included partners such as the County Landowners Association and National Farmers Union.
So, what has this project achieved? Lincolnshire now has England’s first information-sharing agreement for waste crime and a dedicated vehicle seizure protocol. These interventions are crucial for preventing waste crime not just catching waste criminals, Hoyle told delegates.
Peter Lennard went on to share an example of a local issue that came up in Hertfordshire earlier this year: waste disposal apps. These apps were smokescreens for illegitimate waste carriers; a concern raised through the Environment Agency’s local partnership in the county.
From a local problem, we developed a national solution.
Lennard realised this issue wasn’t limited to Hertfordshire and was happening across England. To tackle these apps as they pop up, the Agency adapted its national communications messaging to disseminate a warning.
“From a local problem, we developed a national solution – and that only occurred through our partnerships,” he said.
The session rounded off with the panel debating the next trends in waste crime. The consensus was activities linked to lithium batteries and single-use vapes were the “next big challenge for the industry”.
A passionate Hoyle concluded by emphasising the importance of tackling the “national problem” of contracts in waste services being procured by organised crime groups.
The Blue Planet effect
In a powerful and moving showcase of plastic’s impact on the ocean, Executive Producer of Blue Planet II James Honeyborne explained the importance of storytelling to inspire positive behaviour changes from citizens.
Describing himself as a scientist by training and a storyteller by heart, Honeyborne told delegates the genesis of Blue Planet II started in a mouldy BBC office basement in 2013. He wanted to revisit the oceans many years after the original Blue Planet aired in 2001 as he knew the impacts pollution and climate change are having.
Honeyborne told us about a trip he took to the Pacific Ocean in the late 1990s. Expecting an expedition into paradise, the reality was anything but. He described “horrific and revolting” scenes of plastic entangled with the skeletons of chicks who had choked on the waste.
But, he emphasised the filming crew didn’t set out to find these horrifying images. They were instructed to simply report what they found and tell the story “as it is”. Honeyborne knew, that by making an entertaining TV show, they could highlight the problems the world’s oceans are facing today.
“Ocean health is fragile and delicate,” Honeyborne said. “But most people think oceans are disconnected from their everyday lives.”
Blue Planet II brought the oceans into people’s living rooms and the ripples of its cultural impact are still being felt today in the government’s policy decisions – from banning single-use plastics to the 25-year Environmental Improvement Plan.
Filming lasted three years, Honeyborne told delegates, and took place across every ocean, 39 countries and required thousands of hours underwater.
Dare we have hope? There’s no need to despair.
He showed us a striking scene of what the crew’s submarine encountered when they went searching for a whale carcass on the seabed. They were greeted by several six-metre-long sharks gnawing on what was left of the whale. The crew watched, and filmed, as the wide-eyed sharks fought each other before rounding on the submarine and trying to push it away from their food.
Honeyborne said this was a scientific revelation. It showed the sharks have a social hierarchy and will compete with each other for food.
As he rounded off his presentation, Honeyborne was hopeful he said Blue Planet II showed people care deeply about the health of the oceans. “When people are invited in, they feel a responsibility to look after our world,” he said.
“Dare we have hope?” Honeyborne asked. “There’s no need to despair. Issues and solutions are better understood than ever before and we already have many solutions. It isn’t blind faith but meaningful hope that fuels action. No action is too small.”
Decarbonising the future
In the Decarbonisation & Future Technologies Theatre, the morning kicked off with a glimpse at what 2040 could look like.
Mike Maudsley, CEO of UK energy from waste operator (EfW) enfinium, told delegates about his picture of 2040. A society that uses less waste and is recycling more. A society where the finite amount of combustible waste is managed as a commodity.
“In 2040, we will have decarbonisation hubs underpinned by EfW,” Maudsley explained. In his vision of the future, the UK will create heat networks with waste that can’t be recycled or reused to produce low-carbon energy.
Some of this energy will be electricity to create hydrogen. He also conjured the image of this energy powering waste trucks on their routes to create a circular economy for the waste management industry.
That’s the vision. So what are the hurdles and what will slow down progress?
Maudsley said the UK government must accelerate adding carbon capture technology to EfW facilities – stating they need “priority” for capturing CO2.
He also emphasised the importance of stopping the export of waste, describing the practice as “giving someone else a problem and giving away a commodity”. Finally, he called for an end to combustible waste going to landfill.
Tony McGovern, Director of Regeneration & Growth – Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, picked up discussions and explained reactions from local communities to new EfW plants and prospective heat networks.
“Heat networks mean removing gas boilers from council tenants,” he said. The main question people had was: “Will bills be cheaper?”
Winning hearts and minds of local communities is essential.
While this was the main concern, there were many local factors to consider. McGovern explained public disruption through roadworks, socio-economic conditions and the ongoing cost-of-living crisis were all concerns heard on the doorstep.
The local authority was clearly able to address these concerns as the planning application for the new 500 million enfinium EfW facility went through with little objection.
He told delegates that council tenants in 15 high-rise apartment blocks are in scope of the new facility and will be first affected, and hopefully benefit the most.
“Winning hearts and minds of local communities is essential,” McGovern underlined.
Mark Summerfield of enfinium explained that promoting positive policy changes is a challenge because responsibility sits across multiple departments, and sections within departments. For example, the Department for Energy and Net Zero and the Department for the Environment. It’s essential that all policy makers and stakeholders are pulling in the same direction, he told delegates.
Summerfield rounded off discussions by stressing that “Central to any idea of EfW must be how it fits into circular economy.”
A Call for Unity and Urgency
In a charged opening day at the RWM conference and expo, renowned environmental journalist Simon Mundy from the Financial Times delivered an evocative keynote as he called for change and unity in facing the climate crisis.
Mundy’s speech, titled “Race for Tomorrow: A journey through the front lines of the climate crisis,” emphasised the urgent need for global cooperation and innovation and encapsulated three key facets: the sheer urgency of the matter; the unprecedented opportunities lying ahead; and the inevitable difficulties that come with navigating this uncharted territory.
Mundy shed light on the pressing urgency that encapsulates the climate crisis. He lamented the apparent lack of representation of the most affected communities in global platforms such as the Conference of the Parties (COP). He highlighted the need to highlight the stories of those most effected.
The call for climate justice resounded profoundly in his address. He said the age of the fossil fuel industry is waning, and it is a necessity for the perpetrators of environmental degradation to bear the cost of the damage inflicted. A shift in mindset is crucial, as society at large needs to comprehend the imminent end of the fossil fuel era and adapt accordingly.
Additionally, Mundy pinpointed China’s substantial strides in the clean energy sector, noting the significant gap the West needs to bridge as he highlighted the enormous opportunities that lie ahead if we sufficiently grasp the opportunities presented.
Mundy pinpointed China’s substantial strides in the clean energy sector, noting the significant gap the West needs to bridge
In the face of adversity, comes the chance for innovation, collaboration, and the birth of a new era led by green energy alternatives. This transformation holds the promise of not only mitigating the climate crisis but also fostering an economy that thrives on sustainability and inclusivity.
However, Mundy was unequivocal about the immense challenges that lie ahead. In his view, the journey towards a greener future is fraught with complexities and demands unrelenting effort and collaboration.
As he noted, the global community stands at a juncture where there is no alternative but to adopt a greener energy approach. This transition provides an incredible opportunity to forge an economy that is not only sustainable but fundamentally better. However, as Mundy remarked, the transition is far from easy. It requires a concerted effort, where unity becomes our greatest asset.
Pioneering Shift Towards Waste Prevention
Industry leaders converged in a panel session to underscore the crucial role of waste prevention in both mitigating environmental impacts and fostering economic growth.
The session, chaired by Dr Adam Read, Chief Sustainability Officer at SUEZ, brought together notable figures including Emma Beal, Claire Shrewsbury, and Anna Scott, to discuss the strategies and challenges in implementing waste prevention initiatives at the local authority level.
Emma Beal, the Managing Director at the West London Waste Authority, illustrated the fiscal and environmental efficiency embedded in waste prevention, noting that 80% of costs are tied to waste management, while 20% is dedicated to financing these activities.
Claire Shrewsbury emphasised the urgency of adopting different business models that promote reuse and circularity, especially in the light of the fact that 45% of global emissions stem from daily resource consumption.
Beal highlighted the Authority’s initiatives that help to increase reuse rates, such as bulky waste collection services and the repurposing of small HWRCs into circular economy hubs that encourage people to take away, rather than deposit items – thus inverting the traditional function of a HWRC.
Claire Shrewsbury, the Director of Insights and Innovation at WRAP, emphasised the urgency of adopting different business models that promote reuse and circularity, especially in the light of the fact that 45% of global emissions stem from daily resource consumption.
Pointing to the stark reality that recycling alone cannot address the current waste crisis, Shrewsbury advocated for the adoption of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes that would encompass a range of products including textiles, electronics, and mattresses.
Anna Scott, the Director of Services at Keep Britain Tidy, discussed ongoing efforts to reshape public behaviour towards waste generation. Through campaigns such as the “Buy Nothing New Month” and initiatives to educate the public about the true nature of waste prevention, Scott revealed a concerted effort to move beyond recycling and encourage individuals to reduce their consumption fundamentally.
Scott highlighted the imminent launch of a report in 2024, aimed at presenting the waste hierarchy in a manner that fosters understanding and motivation to engage in waste prevention.
The session coincides with the publication of a new report commissioned by SUEZ, which showcases waste prevention examples from local communities, providing references and case studies of activities that can have a direct impact on consumption, waste generation and resource use.
Key recommendations in the report include:
- Get the basics right – with any new activity or intervention, it’s important to get the basics right. Waste, recycling and re-use services should be available and accessible to all and functioning well if you want householders and businesses to use them, for example, food waste interventions or implementing re-use shops on sites.
- Make it easy – it’s important you make your intervention easy to understand and participate in. Consider focusing on one action at a time. Think about what you’re already doing well and build on this to amplify your impact.
- Understand your internal priorities – being clear on what interventions would align with organisational priorities is key. For example, if priorities are community and health based, surplus food redistribution and reusable period products could be a focus.
- Work collaboratively – building good relations with residents, businesses, community groups and other stakeholders will ease implementation.
The report includes a reference table to ease the load when researching waste prevention activities – this indicates the target audience and material streams for different interventions, their relative impact and ease of delivery, and their potential to create supplementary benefits beyond their immediate scope.