Andy Doran, senior manager – sustainability and recycling development for Novelis Europe, discusses how as a society we value or materials, and the need to get citizens better engaged in the materials world around them…
Ask the average person on a UK street how they value something and the response will undoubtedly revolve around money or financial worth. But I suspect the answer would be very different in different areas of the world – rural areas of Asia, Africa or South America say are much more likely to associate value with its material worth – what function it serves, what personal or cultural significance it has.
Such armchair psychology is my crude attempt to unlock some thinking on a topic that both underpins and undermines our progress. To some this issue is called communication or education, to others its consumption but to me it’s the value society attaches to materials. Put more simply it’s how people do or don’t understand the everyday materials they hold in their hands.
Over the years as a sector we have done much to move our thinking on from waste to resources, indeed I took considerable personal pride a few years back at holding positions as a non-executive director on three organisations with “Resource” in their title at the same time. And as a sector our rebranding continues. But our services and offerings are still very mixed whether to industry or households.
For some to thrive it is enough for the citizen to make the initial sort: resource from residue, for others a greater degree of engagement is needed, perhaps separate collection as it was intended. But these are a distinction and even dogma that is driven by a belief that either technology or human nature is the right route to follow.
I guess the jury’s still out on that but I’d suggest that the ambition of the circular economy is unlikely to be realised by whatever currently passes for societal norms on waste and resources. Our value system can’t be correctly calibrated if at a global level we have somehow contrived to allow up to 8m tonnes of plastic to enter our oceans every year. Threatening as it does many of the ecosystems and food chains upon which we rely.
As Julie Hill described in “The Secret Life of Stuff” it is the combined psychology of consumption, power of design and drive for economic growth that sets our values framework. So maybe it’s time for a change as change seems to be in the air. I’d contend that for a post-Brexit United Kingdom to thrive and not just survive it needs a materials-based industrial strategy to deliver a UK resource efficient materials economy which realises value, prizes quality and seeks to maintain the integrity of the secondary materials which are still too commonly treated as waste.
For that to happen citizens needs to be better engaged in the materials world around them, perhaps even understanding the source and fate of what today is in their minds just thrown away. If we allow pure financial value to continue to drive our decision-making we’ve already proven that as a society we’re very good at driving down costs of production. But yet again it will be at the ultimate cost to our environment.