A year in office as CIWM President


Dr Anna Willetts

As she hands the reins of office to a new CIWM President, Dr Anna Willetts looks back on a busy 12 months packed with exciting experiences and achievements.

You know those fancy chains you see in my picture here? Well, what they don’t tell you when you’re about to become CIWM President is that you’re not allowed to take those home with you. Apparently, they’re worth quite a bit.

But they do give you what’s called a “presidential medal for the year” – a smaller, more portable version for speeches and other events. Mine got its first outing on a weekend trip to Liverpool when, after a few drinks with friends, I draped it around a statue of John Lennon.

“Don’t worry,” I said to CIWM after they saw the picture on LinkedIn. “I won’t make a habit of it.” But then I started getting messages from people asking all about CIWM and where I was going to take the medal next.

“I’m on to something here,” I thought.

A statue of John Lennon wearing the CIWM presidential medal for the year.

So, over the past year, my LinkedIn profile has shown my medal in all manner of places – at conferences, around recycling bins, hanging off net zero signs. It’s turned out to be a good way of letting members know what their president is up to and where my time is spent.

The medal even went to The Gambia, when I visited the country to look at the work that WasteAid and CIWM have been doing there. That was a truly eye-opening trip. I had expected to simply find out where the money had been spent. What I wasn’t prepared for was the level of knowledge and inspiration we were to take home with us. 

On a technical level, waste management facilities in The Gambia are decades behind those in the UK. But in terms of attitudes towards waste, the Gambian way of thinking is streets ahead. Waste is seen as a resource and innovation is everywhere. Just sitting and listening to the young people in the Circular Network (set up by WasteAid) was incredibly inspiring.

There were difficult things to see too – such as the open landfill site in Bakoteh being picked over by animals and children – and this made me grateful for the systems we have in place in the UK. Our waste industry gets a lot of flak sometimes, but it’s important to reflect on how far we’ve come and the superb work being done by waste operators, researchers and campaigners, which is taking us in the right direction.

Being CIWM President for a year has given me a chance to campaign for change to an aspect of waste management that has long frustrated me. My presidential report looked at the thorny subject of end of waste – specifically at how the legislation surrounding the declassification of waste is too restrictive and stifles innovation.

I didn’t set out to completely change the waste framework directive (as much as I’d like to), but every journey begins with a first step, and this was going to be mine. What actually happened was a beautiful coincidence: at roughly the same time as my report came out, Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) became keen to explore “opportunities for legislation change in the waste industry post-Brexit”.

Armed with my report – I said “Yes!”

By the time you read this, I will have passed those expensive chains of office to Dan Cooke.

Since then, CIWM’s Tina Benfield and I have had conversations with government officials and representatives from Resource Futures, which is running the project with Defra. We’ve presented case studies showing the difficulties encountered by operators trying to move away from landfill and incineration to think of waste as a resource. 

Many different stakeholders are involved, from operators and consultants to barristers and manufacturers. That’s great because I hope Defra will be recognising that it’s not just lawyers saying this kind of thing – the whole industry wants change.

We’ve made a good start this year. I’ll be carrying on this work as a CIWM past president, now we have momentum, and as my predecessor, Adam Read, has done so successfully with his green skills initiative.

By the time you read this, I will have passed those expensive chains of office to Dan Cooke, our current vice president, and I wish him all the best for his tenure. My only advice to him is to enjoy every moment – as I have done. It goes really fast, so I urge him to relish this opportunity to make a difference in the world we all care about so deeply. 

Follow the adventures of Anna’s medal on her LinkedIn profile @drannawilletts.

Send this to a friend