Paradigm shift or step-by-step evolution, where must the UK waste sector go and by when?

Written by: Dr Adam Read | Published:
Dr Adam Read, practice director for resource efficiency & waste management @ Ricardo Energy & Environment
Excellent, wide-ranging and thoughtful piece - and thanks, Adam, for the nice words on the National ...

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Each month, Dr Adam Read, practice director for resource efficiency & waste management @ Ricardo Energy & Environment discusses the big issues from his point of view, and this month reflects on what has been a busy week in the waste sector as we debated the future of UK waste management post Brexit and in a more circular global economy.

This week has been full on, with so much happening in the UK waste management sector it is hard to know where to start. So let’s start at the beginning with a Monday spent recruiting the next generation of waste management & resource efficiency consultants.

The ‘next gen’ bringing new life to an old sector

A few years ago, it was easy to bring the next crop of bright young things into our consultancy business, and many of them have gone on to make good careers out of the consultancy game, progressing their skills and experience by working with my established professionals on a range of projects/assignments for a broad portfolio of clients. But what they have had in common todate has been the need to have good number skills, an ability to work logically, to model, to test competing scenarios and to predict likely performance.

This might be for a company looking to change their supply chain relationships or their raw material consumption, or a local authority considering a change in collection frequency or the procurement of an alternative technology led residual treatment contract. Over time these graduates have applied their numeracy and logic skills to applied questions and operational situations, learning from their more experienced and often more ‘hands-on’ insights.

But as I found last week, bringing in the next two graduates who will hopefully be supporting Ricardo and their clients for the next decade was a tougher ask then previously. We are now entering a time when there is less certainty about solutions, targets and funding, we have the complexity of BREXIT, the changing global commodity markets, and our won local politics to contend with, so what skills will the next crop of resource management consultants need to demonstrate?

This time round we selected candidates who had less ‘traditional’ waste management training or academic experience, but who demonstrated passion for all things circular economy, resource efficiency and behaviour change, reflecting perhaps the big three agendas that we see going forward. But they also had other skills that we might not have selected a few years ago; one being an expert with social media, on-line platforms for sharing information and building debates, and communications; while the other was a more rounded environmentalists keen to look for the links in all aspects of the urban environment who was an organiser, a project manager and a powerful negotiator.

I am happy that I am leaving the business in such good hands from September 2017, and the next crop of graduates will bring a brand new perspective to the team, which is both healthy and a reflection of the changing needs and demands of the sector we call home.

Resourcing the Future 2017

This changing landscape was brought home to me on Tuesday and Wednesday at the CIWM/ESA/RWM Resource Association/WRAP sponsored two-day conference, where the style of delivery had evolved to more short and sharp presentations from a panel with lots of question time debate driven by ‘an app’ with on-line and real time questions and polls. But even more significant than the change in style, was the change in content – new speakers, new perspectives and new issues to tackle head-on. We heard from M&S, the Co-Op, DS Smith and others about the future of packaging, the need to react to consumer demands and the realities of global commodity markets. Change is inevitable and they are gearing up for significant product substitution, light-weighting, design for dis-assembly and increased recycled content etc. These are challenges that many of today’s waste managers are ill-prepared for.

We also heard from Janez Potocnik of UNEP, Professors Nick Pidgeon and Paul Ekins, plus of course WRAP on the huge challenges facing planet earth, and the need to embrace more sustainable lifestyles now, not tomorrow. In the 20th century the global population increased by a factor of 3.7, while the annual extraction of raw construction materials increased by a factor of 34, greenhouse gas emissions increased by a factor of 13. This is a world at breaking point, and the waste and resources sector have a critical role to play in turning back this tide.

What the expert panellists argued for is a paradigm shift in the way we value the environment, going beyond externalities and end of pipe pollution taxes, and a drive towards natural capital valuation and asset management. Global brands have a role to play, but government leadership is key, as is the role for a new breed of resource economists and politicians who can see the word differently and communicate the need for action to our more traditional (linear) politicians and locally elected officers and members who need to make the difficult decisions in the coming years.

We also heard about the Dutch drive for greater circularity – they want a truly circular economy by 2050, and a 50% reduction in raw material use by 2030. That is ambitious, but they have a government leading from the front, providing the environment in which innovation and change is encouraged to happen while supporting this change through R&D, suitable enforcement and strong consumer and producer engagement about what needs to happen, why and by when? If only the UK government could learn these lessons quickly and perhaps take a leaf out of the Dutch play book.

Yes, of course we heard from the traditional UK waste sector too, from the likes of SUEZ, Viridor, Veolia, the ESA and a handful of local authorities, but the issues discussed and their vision for the sector were definitely less ‘operational’ and looking longer-term, bigger-picture et al. Of course we needed to consider Brexit, and trends like in-sourcing and the pressure of austerity to drive local service changes and the risk profile of new contracts. But on reflection these were not the core debates, and although they needed to be aired, they did not dominate the airtime, coffee chats, or post conference debates (both in real-time and on social media). So perhaps there is a shift happening in the sector?

Mixed emotions

I had mixed feelings on leaving the event on Wednesday afternoon, having been challenged to think big, think strategically, and to get on with making change happen. I was upbeat about the need for action, but also a little flat that government has not been in the room to hear the debates, and to get a sense of the unity and consensus for change and the directions of travel the sector believe in.

Had they been in attendance, after all it was hosted just a short walk from Whitehall, they would have reopened the debates on deposit-return schemes, reconsidered the need for pay as you throw (or ‘save as you recycle’ if you prefer) and heard first hand of the need for some clarity on targets, timetables and priorities so that the decision-makers, the investors and the operators can get on with doing what they do best.

But as was remarked on a number of occasions across the two days, politics is harder than economics or physics, so making change happen needs clarity of language from the sector on what is needed and the benefits of doing so, it needs robust evidence cases, and it needs a new skill set that can translate all of this technical thinking and cerebral debate into a public/political friendly set of words, phrases and images that can build their understanding and trust. Politicians like soundbites, the public like catchy quotes and the media embrace both, so it is definitely time to bring some of the new DNA working in the sector (and around its periphery) to the fore in the great next challenge. Making waste sexy is not the issue today, making circular economies easier on the ear and eye is a far more daunting, but more worthy need right now!!

But perhaps more importantly they, government, by being in attendance) would have got a sense of the urgency needed, and the complexity of the issues at hand. A paradigm shift from waste collection and some value recovery to a system that is about retaining materials within the value chain for longer and at higher values for longer will not happen overnight but the seeds of change are there. Harvesting resources so they are in the right place at the right time to be the fuel of the future, the building blocks for manufacturing/remanufacturing, and using producer responsibility to change the ownership of products and materials will be critical to getting us closer to the holy grail of a circular economy, whether it be with or without Europe. The waste sector will have a role to play, acting as a facilitator for the circular economy, by helping ensure things get to where they are needed to retrain their value and productivity. But if we are to be truly circular then greater resource efficiency and better logistics might be a red herring.

Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

Well not quite. But on the Wednesday evening we had the National Recycling Awards to celebrate the great and the good from the last 12 months in our sector. A great night was had by all, and it was a welcome boost after a few hours where I was questioning which way was up and what could I do next to make some progress on these complex big issues that had been at the forefront of my mind for the previous 48 hours. So a big thank you to MRW for hosting the event, and allowing me to judge the EfW award, and to present it on the night.

It was great to see many innovations, new benchmarks being set, and greater collaborations in designing solutions, campaigns and products. And for me, it was fabulous to see so many new names on the awards, a far less traditional set of winners, and a reflection on how this business of ours is changing for the better. So well done to among others Trojan Services, KwickSweep, EcoSurety, Argent Energy, ACM Environmental, Woking Borough Council, Timberpak and Go 4 Greener. If you want to know what they did that made them award winners, google them or check out the MRW website or journal. They are inspiring and really lifted my spirits. We do live in interesting times, with significant challenges, but the entrepreneurs and leaders for change are evident in our sector and our beginning to come to the fore.

One other thing of note from the evening was the Veolia team being ‘hard to miss’ in their hi-vis recycled ball gowns and bow ties – well done everyone. Sometimes the simple things really are the most effective.

Circularity needs us to think differently

After the excitement of the awards dinner, the realities of helping to deliver this paradigm shift were brought back into sharp focus on a webinar we hosted on the Thursday, focused on how local authorities can embrace and facilitate more circular economy business models in their areas.

This was an excellent event with speakers from LARAC, LWARB and Operating Peterborough, and a broad mix of attendees and questions being raised. I won’t share too much here, as the webinar is being written up for the Recycling & Waste World journal next month, but suffice to say, the realities of making circular work came bubbling to the surface once again. There are many great examples of local authorities trying to innovate and support business who want to do things differently, and the number of repair and reuse shops on HWRCs is just one indicator that this agenda is moving forward.

Local authorities can also influence their supply chains by fully embracing green procurement best practice, and walking the walk when it comes to their ‘leasing of services’ rather than buying products. Ricardo will be publishing a quick win guide on things local authorities can influence, instigate and implement in the next four weeks, so check that out in due course and see if any of those ideas could work for you.

But again, what was obvious was the need for a true paradigm shift. One where perhaps local authorities are not involved in waste collection or even treatment. One where they facilitate the involvement of the supermarkets, Amazon and the ‘producers’ to help get the materials back to source easily, without contamination, and with their value retained. Could local authorities become sign-posters for products and materials rather than operators, contractors and service providers? Their role in community engagement, communications and education may not change, but their routes to market and media style are definitely changing, from waste based apps, to on-line for a and targeted comms campaigns to address litter, contamination and lack of participation that use media outlets and language appropriate to certain groups only. Times they are a changing, and local government you must change too.

And breathe ….

By Friday I was tired and very much in a reflective mode. This was a good thing as I spent a few hours at SUEZ, soon to be my new employer, looking at some of their ongoing work streams, targets, programmes and plans. They are embracing many of the aspects of change I have alluded to in this blog head-on. They are keen to look beyond Brexit and focus on the policy drivers, data needs and quality issues that have held back the sector in recent years. They are also planning for the paradigm shift that might be just around the corner, and are working with their supply chain and wider partners to look more closely at circular economy business models, leasing solutions, and materials governance. So I am excited to be part of their team looking at these and other issues from September, and am hoping to be able to address some of the elements that have been vexing me this week head on in my new role.

But, back at the ranch, the new recruits at Ricardo will soon be on board, and their journey will also be starting as they and their colleagues look forward to helping local authorities and private businesses address the issues of the circular economy and post Brexit waste management. Although times are changing, it will still be busy times for the consultants, if they can help translate the issues to get funding and decisions made, and can build the robust evidence cases that underpin radical changes in policy and practice.

The next year or two will see paradigm shifts and small step evolution (higher recycling, more light weighting, better productivity etc.) working hand in hand, but longer term it is the paradigm shift that is needed to address the global issues of resource depletion and global warming and there is a definite role for the waste managers and local authority officers in this brave new world as sign-posters, facilitators, and the glue that helps stick all the new stuff together. I just hope we are ready to flip the switch and make the big decisions when they are needed.

As with all my ‘comments’ they are mine and mine alone. If you would like to get in touch or share your opinions then email me on For more of my blogs please refer to

Adam is global practice director for Ricardo Energy & Environment’s Resource Efficiency and Waste Management Practice, and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management and the Royal Geographical Society. He has more than 20 years of waste sector strategy, service design, procurement and communications experience, both in the UK and overseas, and is a regular industry commentator, author and conference speaker, both in the UK and around the world

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Excellent, wide-ranging and thoughtful piece - and thanks, Adam, for the nice words on the National Recycling Awards.
Real credit to RWW, too, for allowing positive comments about a rival media organisation. There is healthy media competition in the waste/resource industry but we all share the single goals of helping it grow and making it better understood to the wider public.

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