Bates at the helm

Written by: Geraldine Faulkner | Published:
Recently inaugurated CIWM president Margaret Bates

Recently inaugurated CIWM president Margaret Bates tells Geraldine Faulkner why the subject of waste management is genuinely fascinating, and what some of the answers might be, such as ‘pay-as-you-throw’. Just don’t compare her to Maggie Thatcher

Not one to beat about the bush, Professor Margaret Bates, professor of sustainable waste management at the University of Northampton’s Faculty of Arts, Science and Technology, moves straightaway to the crux of her fascination with the waste sector.

“One of the things I love about this sector is that once you’re in, you’re in. We have students who take a wider environmental degree and then move totally to waste,” she says with a smile. “One of my students went to work for the Environment Agency and when I met her parents, they said to me: ‘So you’re the person responsible for her being obsessed with everything to do with waste.’”

She pauses to contemplate the reasons for people’s inability to grasp the fascination waste, recycling and resources can hold for those who operate within the industry.

“As a sector, we don’t highlight how good we are. Basically, the sector needs to move away from the shadow of landfill. Today, we work in an innovative sector that is constantly evolving, with the last five years having seen things move a long way,” adds the professor who, as well as being an inspirational model for her students, has been involved in waste management for more than 20 years.

Highly respected for her work in resources over the past two decades, Bates has worked in a number of areas including landfill, energy from waste, resource efficiency and waste electrical and electronic equipment. Added to which, she also manages the University of Northampton’s Centre for Sustainable Waste Management.

What is endearing about the professor’s attitude to her chosen field is her concern for the way it is perceived, particularly in the UK.

“The sector should be more proud of its achievements because it’s amazing the influence we have on people’s behaviour and the quality of the service provided by the sector,” she opines. “People complain about a missed collection while there are thousands of collections being successfully undertaken. Some countries are struggling with a measurable impact on health, whereas here we’re fussing about three-weekly collections or monthly collections of materials that will not degrade in your bin.”

As well as advising governments on waste management policy, Bates has delivered training through the United Nations University and worked with stakeholders in Nigeria to develop WEEE recycling facilities and legislation.

“When I’m overseas in developing countries, you see a more measurable link between waste collection and health, particularly when you see people burning large amounts of waste and plastic. If they understand there is a link, they can then stop burning plastics. When I was in Nigeria running training courses, a delegate informed us that the Nigerian government had told people to stop burning waste, but they never explained why. Once they changed the message and gave a reason, people said, ‘Now that you’ve explained the connection between waste and burning, we understand why we shouldn’t do it.’”

A global community

Paying tribute to the work being carried out by WasteAid International, a network of independent charities set up by waste management professionals to deliver practical and low-cost waste services for disadvantaged communities, the professor goes on to point out: “I think our sector is aware of being part of a global community. We don’t know what our relationship with Europe is going to be, but waste is still a sector that is trading in global commodities.”

Returning to the UK waste sector and its concerns, she comments: “In the UK there is a weird focus on treatment and disposal; perhaps we focus too much on this rather than the top of the waste hierarchy? We’re not very good at reuse and repair, and it would be nice to see more emphasis on that with more knowledge sharing to see how the UK and other countries can develop.”

Like other luminaries in the public arena, Bates emphasises: “We should be looking more at the ability to repair, particularly as we have some great charities teaching people to reuse items.”

Expressing exasperation at wasteful behaviour (particularly when it involves adults setting a bad example for children), she recalls: “I was watching a cycling event when one of the cyclists going past ate an energy bar and dropped their wrapper on the ground. A six-year-old child watching the event said ‘litterbug’, and was shushed by her parent for doing so, but the youngster was right; the cyclist should not be dropping litter on the ground.”

Getting into her stride, the professor marvels that: “It says something about an industry that can fascinate a six-year-old and grown-ups. But we need to get that level of knowledge across because there are still people who don’t engage.”

Bates points to WRAP’s 2016 Recycling Tracker Survey published earlier this year which found that two-thirds of UK households (66%) were uncertain about how to correctly dispose of one or more items. Almost half (49%) admitted to disposing of one or more items in the residual bin when they are collected for recycling in their area.

This prompted WRAP, recyclers, local authorities and waste management companies to join forces last month to produce the National Recycling Guidelines.

Bates applauds the move to clarify what can and can’t be recycled on a national level: “The general public think that absolutely everything can be recycled. The question isn’t that they have bought something that is not recyclable, it’s why can’t you recycle it. In fact, the level of the public’s expectation about what they think we can do with waste materials is intense.”

The professor emphasises the importance of constantly keeping the recycling message fresh for the general public. “The technology is never boring. Almost by definition, the sector is going to be cutting-edge, and that’s what I love about it.”

Waste’s appeal

How did Bates become interested in waste?

“I first got involved when I was 18 in the first year of my university degree in microbiology. Jim Harris, professor of environmental technology at Cranfield University, got me interested,” she recalls with a wry grin. “He is an ecologist and at the time was examining the ecology of landfill sites. I started taking soil samples and have been bitten by the waste management ‘bug’ ever since even though I would not have imagined my career to have developed the way it has.”

Indeed, the professor goes on to say the waste management sector is a very supportive environment to work in.

“I would really struggle to pick out individuals as there have been so many,” she muses before adding: “Although I am a microbiologist by education, I’ve become so sucked into waste, that when we have a family event even they forget I am a microbiologist.”

Taking a few moments to look back over her career, Bates expresses irritation when people compare her success in the waste sector to the rise of someone like Margaret Thatcher in politics in the 70s and 80s.

“I don’t find it a sexist sector at all. Men and women have been equally supportive in my career and if you need advice or to talk through issues, there is always someone to turn to who is equally passionate about the industry as I am,” she states unequivocally before returning to the issue of responsibility for the waste people generate.

“Responsibility will be one of the key issues to be addressed by the waste sector. We need to look at responsibility throughout the whole value chain. Householders blame the supermarket so maybe we should be looking at better ways of rewarding residents’ good behaviour? Or introduce charging for disposing of waste?”

Bates recalls when water meters were first introduced and marketed as saving householders’ money and water, and wonders if the same system could work with waste.

“With waste it always seems to be why should one person who generates more waste pay the same as someone who throws away less? Whoever is providing a collection service should be provided with the tools to do it and one of those tools is pay-as-you-throw,” argues the microbiologist before admitting: “However, if you introduce charging you could have more fly-tipping. We already have a problem with fly-tipping; I have seen examples of it a mere five minutes’ drive away from a household waste recycling centre. Alternatively, rewarding good behaviour further up the supply chain might incentivise manufacturers to make things easier to repair.”

Returning to the impact exercised over society by the waste sector, the professor wraps up the conversation by saying succinctly: “It’s amazing the influence we have; everyone in waste management makes people’s lives better and that’s pretty cool.”

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