The Cusp Of Change

Paul Taylor, CEO at FCC Environment says It’s an exciting time to be involved in waste and resources as he asks the question: how will resource managers meet the challenges of tomorrow?

It’s an exciting time to be involved in waste and resources. The industry stands on the cusp of change, but it also needs to brace itself for new strategic challenges in the coming years. Brexit negotiations have sparked something of a policy reawakening in England, which could finally deliver a coherent framework that puts resource productivity at the heart of a modern industrial strategy.

But whether post-Brexit policy can give UK resource managers a strong enough steer when it comes to competing in future domestic or global markets remains to seen. Vietnam and Malaysia following China’s lead on restricting waste imports and the increasingly urgent drive for decarbonisation are just two factors that are already coming into play.

Initial signs have been encouraging, at least. The Government’s Clean Growth Strategy (CGS) was first to set the future direction of travel, pledging zero avoidable waste by 2050 and the phasing out of landfilled food waste by 2030. But the CGS’s take home message is its emphasis on low carbon innovation – this throws down the real gauntlet to our industry.

We will need to develop breakthrough technologies, both to mitigate the environmental impacts of existing waste treatment and disposal systems, and to maximise resource value through adopting more circular systems. This includes adopting new approaches to better manage landfill emissions and finding ways to extract greater value from residual waste, for example through scaling up production capabilities here in the UK to create a utility and help boost productivity.

Higher up the hierarchy, recycling strategies will come up under greater scrutiny given the growing urgency to tackle plastics pollution and waste.

Higher up the hierarchy, recycling strategies will come up under greater scrutiny given the growing urgency to tackle plastics pollution and waste. Defra’s pledge to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042 under its 25 Year Environment Plan should encourage greater producer responsibility and in turn, foster closer collaboration between producers and recyclers to rationalise packaging and material formats for easier recyclability.

The prospect of deposit return schemes and a move away from weight-based recycling targets to ones focused on carbon or avoided energy would also see more plastic targeted from waste streams. But any new investment in R&D and plastics reprocessing infrastructure must be commercially viable. Personally, I am strongly in favour of carbon based waste targets and would like to see a move in this direction in the forthcoming waste and resources strategy.

Meanwhile the tightening of imports means alternative outlets must be found for these materials. Even if waste policy is aligned with the UK’s industrial strategy, building a domestic market for recycled plastics requires better data on raw and secondary material flows, innovation in sorting and reprocessing techniques, refinement of plastic resins prior to remanufacture, changes in public/private procurement policies, not to mention economies of scale.

On a wider level, corporate zero waste programmes are accelerating as companies look to step up their emissions reduction efforts and align themselves with Post-Paris ambitions and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The growing popularity of science-based targets will see corporations place greater emphasis on their downstream waste emissions when it comes to measurement and tracking.

Tackling downstream emissions will require companies to optimise operational resource efficiencies, especially from a supply chain perspective. Resource managers must look to add value to their business propositions by working with customers to reduce the carbon impacts of raw material outputs and secondary material inputs, as well as helping to facilitate more circular solutions.

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