Highlights from CIWM's Resourcing the Future conference

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
There were plenty of meaty subjects for delegates to get their teeth into at this year's conference

Located just a stone’s throw away from Parliament, CIWM’s Resourcing the Future Conference was the perfect spot for industry leaders and major stakeholders to come together to chat and debate the major market trends and policy announcements shaping the UK’s resource industry.

There were plenty of meaty subjects for delegates to get their teeth into, so for those who couldn’t make it to the two-day event, we’ve created a run-down of RWW highlights.

Commitment to a deposit return scheme (DRS)

Kicking off the conference was Defra director of environmental quality Shaun Gallagher, who provided a slight insight into the upcoming Resources and Waste Strategy agenda and its aim to work alongside other government departments and strategies to develop a holistic approach.

Unfortunately, Gallagher was more unwilling to give away any clues as to when we should expect to see the strategy. Appropriately coy, for a civil servant, he assured delegates we would see the strategy “by the end of the year”.

He was, however, much more upfront about the government’s considerations for a deposit return scheme (DRS), confirming it will be committing to scheme “of some sort”. He said: “A DRS can only be fully effective if it’s part of a wider reform for incentivisation, ie producer responsibility. We know we need to get design right, but need a further consultation on specific detail.”

Resources and Waste Strategy

Unsurprisingly, the Resources and Waste Strategy set the tone for the entire conference, with a session dedicated to exploring what a comprehensive strategy might look like. One takeaway message brought up by Professor John Barrett, and immediately agreed with by the rest of the panel, was on the importance of resource productivity.

He said: “Resource productivity can deliver so many societal and environmental objectives in one go, and current economic models are falling short to understand the benefits. It’s up to industry to intervene and drive the agenda forward.”

And the industry isn’t short of willing spokespeople, with the panel coming up with a range of polices Defra minions might want to include, namely extended producer responsibility, a greater understanding of the value chain, and an ability to understand and communicate the impacts of good design.

Alternatives to weight-based targets

When collecting data on recycling rates and making predictions for the future, the industry looks to weight-based targets, but could there be a better way to measure performance?

Some speakers (and delegates) used the conference as an opportunity to explore alternative metric systems that take into account other environmental factors such as carbon dioxide emissions, resource scarcity and impacts on the marine environment.

Zero Waste Scotland chief executive Iain Gulland provided an overview of how the country is using a carbon metric approach to drive recycling. He said: “If more people could get involved in carbon metrics, we could get to more detailed analysis sooner. Telling that carbon message does encourage and incentivise people to do more in terms of understanding the impact that recycling has on the planet.”

Zero Waste Scotland’s carbon impact metric system is used at a macro level as part of the evidence stream developed alongside key stakeholders and authorities, but it signifies changing attitudes towards target-setting and data collection. Given that England is dealing with plateauing recycling rates, perhaps a different metric system is just the boost it needs.

The great plastic debate

BBC’S Blue Planet II was undoubtedly a hot topic at this year’s event. In fact, it’s been a hot topic non-stop since its broadcast late last year. As the wave of public consciousness surrounding plastics continues, it’s up to industry to capitalise on this momentum and keep it afloat (more on this in news analysis, p12).

Head of the international marine research unit at Plymouth University, Professor Richard Thompson, delivered an impassioned keynote on the plastic waste found in the ocean, stating it was a symptom of an outdated business model.

Though this may be true, there was a strong consensus that the industry must be cautious of knee-jerk reactions and alternatives to plastics becoming problematic due to contaminated waste streams. Delegates were in particular curious to find out more about bio-plastics and their effect on marine life.

Thompson said: “Biodegradables are part of the solution but we need to recognise how they’ll be used. If we’re trying to fix a problem of accumulation of litter, we need to be clear about the receiving environment where they degrade and the conditions necessary.”

Guaranteeing end markets

China and its import restrictions has for months been keeping the UK waste and recycling market on its toes. Although causing initial panic, new end markets have been set up in alternative spots including Turkey, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. Yet now the original furore has settled down, it’s time to put these alternative markets under the microscope.

An expert panel discussed the changing face of the export market and its impacts. With much of the plastic exports recycled in these alternative countries now finding its way into the Chinese market as pellets, it was established that China is effectively outsourcing its recycling of plastics to others.

However, Mike Jefferson of Verde Research and Consulting raised questions about what happens within domestic recycling markets when materials get to these countries.

During his presentation, he said he would “hope”’ this material gets recycled and sold into the local market, but this of course cannot be guaranteed. It seems the Chinese headache is far from over.

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