Time To Get Serious

John TwitchenCopper Consultancy’s executive director, and RWM ambassador,
John Twitchen, says it is the brand names that will push, lead and deliver on waste in the future, so he urges to them to “step up”
CIWM Journal Online Exclusive

In 2002, I was asked to speak at the CIWM conference when it was in Torbay. Some of you are old enough to remember that, as then-student members… of course some of you may be too old to remember much at all.

In that speech, I made the point that to get to the heady heights of 40% recycling you needed to persuade almost everyone to recycle almost everything that they could, almost all of the time. It’s the opposite of compound inflation, each time you lose a few per cent here and there, it has a compounding – or perhaps confounding – effect of making it more difficult to hit your target.

I also made the point that infrastructure was essential and the drive to deliver sufficient kit in order to beat the landfill habit was as important as increasing recycling rates. And I stressed the short-term impact of advertising, ie that it has to be sustained to be engrained.

However, we are still struggling both to get most of the people recycling most of their rubbish most of the time. And we are struggling to engage people in the need for new infrastructure of all sorts, in most cases.

We look to politicians for “leadership” and then moan when we don’t like what they say. Or when they tell us it’s up to us, the industry, and give us a free reign. And this is where most of us are right now. So, where are we going wrong (apart from hoping that something spectacular may happen – more on that later)?

It’s About Collecting The Stuff

Well, there are two elements. In this blog, I explore the first one: collecting the stuff. We’ll come back to the other one – infrastructure – another time. We’ve spent a lot of money on vehicles, bins, bags, boxes, large sheds and conveyor belts. And surprise-surprise, this hasn’t made everyone recycle everything. However, revenue is scarce – it’s all been about capital expenditure. Yet we need revenue for communication, education, information, engagement. Now I do have a personal interest here, but I also have a fairly good vantage point.

Once upon a time there was revenue, but at a time of mass roll-out of the multi-coloured bins, bags and boxes. Much of the progress made in rates comes down to a well-targeted national campaign, the “swoosh” and the capital expenditure – ie making recycling a bit easier. But spending all that capital masked the real issue – a lack of buy-in, behaviour change.

The Green Deal suffers from the same problem, currently. The money available is all capital, and there’s not much set aside to explain it, engage people in how they can get money towards improving their house, making it cheaper to run and, dare I say, potentially increasing its value.

I think we can all agree that we’re barking up the wrong tree focusing just on incentives. We’ve got to get real about quality services and get over our addiction to talking about the right colour and the right number of bins. Our research showed this is not the most important factor (http://bit.ly/14QMOxJ). Therefore we’ve got to talk seriously about user-pay. As an industry. No matter the politics. It’s about responsibility.

But my greatest concern for those running a waste collection business is the massive change that we are on the cusp of. It’s like a dinosaur staring up at the sky as that spectacular asteroid hurtled towards the earth. “Wow, look at that!” Today’s asteroid is brand value wrapped up in security of supply issues and it’s coming to get you.

I guess the irony is that it is environmental limits – oil, metals and minerals – that are triggering the greatest shift in industrial practices since, well… since the industrial revolution. The good news about that big asteroid was that some species survived – niches were created that allowed others to flourish, ultimately leading to the human race. Stronger, more adaptable, more creative than anything that’s come before it/us… so far as we are aware.

And so it will be with “waste” – materials that once were plentiful, but which are becoming constrained, create stresses which create new niches to be exploited. This is the greatest push towards sustainability. And it is the brands that will push, lead, deliver. And so my challenge to them is that they need to step up, own the problem – after, their name is written on it, in the bin, on the ground…

Brands – you have a responsibility to grasp the baton for the next phase. You have a need for the material, your supply chain is at risk. And you are well-placed to take people – consumers – with you, much more so than 400 local authorities, acting individually, ever will be.

The quid-pro-quo is that those collecting the stuff need to coalesce – need to come together – and where there is discord in method may there be harmony at least in colour!!! Politicians need to be made to feel like they need to keep up, not expected to perform the role of Oracle, Innovator, Philosopher, Scientist, Magician, Engineer, Behaviouralist. But with only a couple of unfettered years to demonstrate results. We have to articulate what the great push will look like, once it’s begun. The Circular Economy for Dummies, perhaps.

So don’t stare at the asteroid too long: you still have time to adapt. But the most important thing is that we work out the things that we all agree on, and focus on them.

John Twitchen is Executive Director at Copper Consultancy, is an RWM Ambassador and sits on the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management’s communications committee.

@johntwitchen @CopperConsult


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