Looking to the future – challenges, changes and opportunities

Tom Giddings, general manager of Alupro, discusses the waste and resources sector’s ‘hot topics’ and explores both the hurdles and opportunities that could be in store for 2022.

Over the past 18-months, the world has experienced a series of economic challenges that would previously have been considered almost unimaginable. And yet, during what has been a hugely challenging period, the waste management supply chain has shown fantastic resilience.

In 2020, for example, while a significant volume of aluminium packaging was placed on the market, the sector exceeded targets and reached its best ever recycling rate.

While some predicted that 2020 would be a year of stagnation, the reality has been almost the opposite. Indeed, the agenda and industry have continued moving forward, driven by both necessity and an engagement with an ambitious government agenda.

While some predicted that 2020 would be a year of stagnation, the reality has been almost the opposite.

This point was made apparent to me during this year’s conference season. The common themes, topics and discussion points raised at each event were a world away from those of 2019.

From policy and trends, to best practice guidance and opportunities for the future, the sector has continued to grow and develop during what has been one of the most adverse periods in living memory.

But what are the hot topics currently circulating the sector? What’s more, what impacts will they have? 

Policy remains the hot topic

With government consultations concluding earlier this year regarding the roll-out of a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) for everywhere except Scotland, much-needed reforms to the funding of recycling in the UK through the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme and a fresh approach to Consistency in Collections (CiC), policy remains a hotly-debated subject. The industry is widely supportive and ready to embrace change, but setting a direction of travel requires the government to publish its conclusive responses.

We’re expecting these responses to be announced around Christmas, with draft legislation unveiled in the spring. This will make 2022 a year of change and opportunity for the sector.

Digital is booming

During a time where word of mouth communication and physical events were almost unimaginable, online outreach and digital engagement has continued to grow.

This has become a hot topic for many within the sector, for local authorities in particular, (a theme discussed in depth at LARAC), where communication is key to maintaining recycling rates and reminding householders of best practice.

At Alupro, we’ve experienced this change first-hand and have adapted quickly to embrace digital channels more readily in our consumer engagement programmes. In July, for example, we launched a new variation of our MetalMatters initiative, prioritising social media tactics to reach an ever-growing audience.

This has already been successfully implemented by Gloucestershire County Council, with savvy-social media users engaging with unique and creative messaging.

While we may no longer be limited by lockdown, make no mistake that digital will continue to dominate the agenda. It’ll be a trend for 2022 and the foreseeable future, with the sector transitioning towards new ways of engaging with the public. 

Decarbonisation is in our hands

As one of the most important climate change summits ever held, the topics discussed during COP26 have risen straight to the top of the news agenda. While terms like decarbonisation, climate justice and corporate social responsibility (CSR) are far from new, they have been put firmly under the microscope.

But this isn’t a hot topic that begins and ends with COP26. Indeed, at the recent Resourcing the Future Conference, the ESA revealed the findings of new research, highlighting that recycling saves 50 million tonnes of CO2e per year when compared to landfill.

What does 2022 look like for the waste and resources sector? Well, if the discussions and debates from conference season are anything to go by, it’ll be an incredibly busy and exciting time.

The recycling sector is often overlooked when it comes to decarbonisation. However, it will become an ever-more important driver in achieving our 2050 goals. The industry has a pivotal role to play and, as such, decarbonisation will remain firmly on the agenda for 2022 and beyond.

Industry resilience is needed

During the depths of the COVID-19 lockdown, the sector’s resilience in maintaining kerbside collections and keeping the recycling supply chain going was truly inspiring. Although many were worried that home working would result in an unmanageable volume of waste being landfilled and recycling quality reducing, common sense prevailed.

But, more importantly, we saw a glimpse of what could really be achieved if we all worked together. Recycling rates trended upwards, quality rocketed and householders had the time available to separate packaging materials more effectively.

While further lockdowns seem unlikely, it’s important to remember that COVID-19 is still a clear and real threat. Maintaining this resilience throughout the winter is a hugely important task for the industry. In delivering a sustainable circular economy, the waste sectors are ‘key workers’ in more ways than one.

2025 and packaging recyclability targets

While it may be nothing new and more an ongoing reminder rather than a hot topic, the recyclability of packaging will continue to dominate the agenda in 2022. Brands are moving ever closer to their 2025 commitments and this year, much like last, will be an important period in which to embrace further change.

In my opinion, we’ll see packaging begin to become more mono-material, unless widespread recycling technology can be deployed that is able to separate and recycle each element.

To have a truly sustainable system, however, both packaging design and recycling technologies are needed in the medium to long-term. I hope that EPR reforms will include the mechanisms to stimulate both aspects simultaneously, with packaging recyclability by design included through the modulated fee proposals.

Educating householders about best practice recycling will remain essential in the meantime. This goes hand-in-hand with the requirement for packaging design R&D teams to continue innovating and creating both new and improved solutions. Collaboration is key.

Sustainability and wider society

While packaging and waste management are inextricably linked to sustainability (especially in the public eye), they are just two sectors of a thriving economy and cannot deliver widespread change single-handedly. What’s needed is a fundamental rethink of our habits, lifestyles and behaviours.

Ultimately, tackling climate change and embracing sustainability requires billions of tiny changes. If everyone on earth made one simple change, that would be 7.5 billion positive choices. As COP26 becomes a distant memory, sustainability and everyone’s role in achieving change will remain at the forefront of the agenda. This is a certainty.

So, in conclusion, what does 2022 look like for the waste and resources sector? Well, if the discussions and debates from conference season are anything to go by, it’ll be an incredibly busy and exciting time. What’s more, it’ll require commitment, collaboration, sharing best practice and teamwork from across the supply chain.

For Alupro, it’s about continuing our work to positively engage with all parties involved in creating a world-leading recycling system for the UK that is sustainable for those in the value chain, as well as continuing our work to capitalise on the hunger for digital outreach with our existing and new educational and social resources.

This period of flux can be seen as an opportunity, with the world beginning to appreciate that change is coming. I, for one, am looking forward to what’s in store.

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