Why is the waste sector pulling its PR punches?

Written by: John Twitchen | Published:
env23 communications and stakeholder engagement expert John Twitchen

I guess all generations reflect similarly, but as I grow older it strikes me that I joined a sector, and a movement, at the same time as some incredibly wise people. And now we’re all knocking on a bit.

I’m starting to realise that a certain amount of wisdom comes with age and experience. In my youth I was perhaps rather dismissive on occasion of an older generation who seemed to want to block progressive ideas, especially around environmental issues.

Among those numerous spiky thorns were a few enlightened and forward-looking roses who wanted to make change happen, for sound reasons. Indeed, while change is a constant and the only certainties in life are taxes and death, many humans don’t cope particularly well with change and the uncertainty it brings.

It now seems that it has tended to be the sector itself that has been a bit of a blocker, not a generation. A majority of the ‘resource management industry’ has for too long seen preventing waste, reusing items and even to some extent recycling materials as “not my problem” – this could manifest itself in “not my opportunity”.

Through a mix of antipathy and helplessness, the sector has remained in its box, relatively comfortable but unable to see the dramatic changes happening around and about; the asteroid of change hurtling towards Planet Waste.

NGOs have seized the initiative, after many years of preparing and campaigning and pressuring. “But that’s their job”, I hear you riposte; yes, but it was all of ours as an opportunity. They have worked with mainstream media, and they have turned major corporations, which have identified the need to take responsibility (filed under ‘marketing opportunity’ or ‘long-term survival’).

In the meantime, the sector has roundly blamed governments and manufacturers and retailers, but has not called them out. It has not blown any whistles, despite having a decent collection of noise-making opportunities.

It has more often than not seized headlines through catching fire, illegally exporting, messing up. Invisible and then visible for all the wrong reasons. Not really caring very much, and reflecting this on a public it has presupposed also doesn’t care very much.

It is reasonable also to point the finger at government, to some degree. While much was expected of the 2011 waste strategy review, little was delivered and arguably a focus on ‘weekly bin collections’ somewhat stifled debate and enthusiasm.

Old school

Latterly, the issue of outdated and weak policy is potentially leading to poorly thought through and knee-jerk reactions by some high-street names to ‘stop using plastic’, while others seek to minimise any disruption to business-as-usual by embarking on what may or may not turn out to be a thin green veneer – either way, they certainly know on which side their bread is buttered. Meanwhile, it is crystal clear that a complete overhaul of producer responsibility, as we exit Europe, is essential.

The public do care, can be activated and are now wiser. The public are consumers, customers, and they are all-powerful. It’s a year since my Presidential Report for the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management was published, which shines a light on some of the potential changes (aka opportunities) rushing towards us, and includes clear evidence that the public are up for experimentation, some change, a different ‘convenient’. And CIWM members really should be part of it.

Since 2007 I have cited a speech by Gordon Brown who, at the time of, was Chancellor. It contained what turned out to be his only significant utterance on an environmental issue, and he chose plastic carrier bags, the impact they were having on the marine environment and the countryside, and how things needed to change.

At the time he was criticised by many in the waste sector for focusing on such a glib issue. But it wasn’t glib. It was in fact a perfect example of how consumerism and convenience had gone a bit nuts and needed a short, sharp shock in order to wake up and smell the coffee. The Daily Mail ran a campaign. The issue was at that point, in my view, dead set and change would happen.

It took eight years for the first shock, but the levy on single-use carrier bags has opened the floodgates on a number of issues. Issues that I would argue the waste and latterly resource management industry should have been campaigning on, enlightening society, leading by example, supporting and sponsoring action. Building trust and demonstrating itself as the holder of wisdom. Creating crucial customer relationships.

I hope now that it will. We can. It’s not too late, but it is absolutely essential that the waste and resource management industry reacts, and sprints into action. That oft longed-for but more often than not unseized opportunity to build a profile (shrinking violets? Really?) and take a stance must now be grabbed with both hands.

An industry awash with information, knowledge even, but not yet transcending into wisdom or leadership. Perhaps there is less need to sit back and wait for targets that may then be dismissed, ridiculed and argued about for another decade. However, very actively engaging in robust debate around producer responsibility and imparting decades of experience, data and information should ensure everyone becomes wiser, sooner rather than later.

The public and major brands are already taking action, and about time, too. It is now essential that this sector, one that provides an essential public and private service, shares its knowledge and seizes change as the brilliant thing it can and will be.

Carpe diem – and let your actions speak louder than your words.

John Twitchen is communications and stakeholder engagement expert at env23.

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