RWM 2019 review: A little less conversation

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
The largest stands at RWM were not the main waste companies but software companies all aiming to ‘revolutionise’ the industry

Anyone who has been in the waste industry for long enough will know the evolving nature of the RWM exhibition.

What used to be a major event in Torquay has now become a somewhat stripped-back fixture in Birmingham NEC’s September schedule. During

that time both the show and the industry have witnessed huge changes and challenges.

This year’s RWM once again felt very different, with the smaller exhibiting space a reflection on the time-poor status of most working professionals – where it is no longer justifiable to take a huge amount of time out of the office to wander around and bump into old friends.

The show’s organiser, Prysm Media Group, once again joined RWM up with its wider portfolio. This year it sat alongside Future Resource, Contamination Expo Series, Flood Expo and Fastener Exhibition & Conference.

Not only did this mean lots of environmentally-focused minds in one area, but it also encouraged the joined-up strategy the resource sector increasingly has to take.

Notably, the largest stands at RWM were not the main waste companies but software companies all aiming to ‘revolutionise’ the industry. This once again highlighted (or confirmed depending on how switched on you are) the sector’s future digital agenda and the central role technology will hold in the resource management sector.

Leaders of the waste world

The show kicked off with the Leaders of the Waste World panel, which featured SUEZ CEO David Palmer-Jones, Biffa CEO Michael Topham and Viridor MD Phil Piddington. The session was well-attended by visitors all desperate to hear where the industry is heading next.

All three were in agreement that their respective companies would be willing to invest in infrastructure if there was more policy certainty, citing consistent ministerial changes at Defra as a major cause for concern.

Palmer-Jones said: “There was a 10-year policy vacuum until Michael Gove and the Blue Planet effect changed this, but I’m less sure about investable conditions. We need an organisation that can deliver and be sure about strategy development.”

This was echoed by the two other waste bosses, who stressed the need to act immediately.

Topham added: “The industry is in good health, which suggests that our strategy and investment is yielding returns. We’re no longer seen as an industry that’s grubby and out of
the way, but part of the green economy, so there’s lots of growth opportunity.”

Biffa’s Topham couldn’t resist taking a pop at the Environment Agency following the sentencing of the firm in June that turned into a £350,000 fine for illegally shipping waste marked as paper.

He said: “The regulator is at times unrealistic; we’re classed as criminals for exporting materials other countries are accepting. Government policy is wrong and they’ve bitten off more than they can chew, so they need to pause for thought in certain areas.”

Policy vacuum

There was a noticeable absence of any political hard-hitters at this year’s show. Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) chair Mary Creagh, who has previously delivered keynote speeches at the event, had to pull out at the last minute given the almost-hourly changes in Westminster.

She was understandably excused from proceedings, but a lack of any political presence – be it Defra, opposition parties or even councillors – represented a missed opportunity for visitors hoping to get their policy questions answered.

Keynote speaker Jeremy Paxman

This provided ample opportunity for keynote speaker and legendary broadcaster Jeremy Paxman to go in on Defra, labelling the department a “waste of a nameplate”. As the patron of Clean Up Britain Paxman delivered an impassioned speech on his frustrations with the British public and their littering habits.

He said: “I am fed up with this country and the way we deal with our environment. We used to be a nation of shop keepers, and we’re now a nation of litter louts.

“The only way to change how people behave is [to put] pressure on them to do something about it. Our ambition is to reach a point where dropping litter is
as socially unacceptable as drink driving. If we don’t do something about it we’ll be handing over the world to our children covered
in rubbish.”

Given his broadcasting credentials and reputation Paxman naturally drew in a large crowd, and at times the microphone was quite unnecessary thanks to the volume of his voice. His message was strong, but Paxman teetered on the edge of ‘grumpy old man’ going off on a rant. However, the experience was made more pleasurable by the presence of his obedient dog Derek, (who if not already deaf, probably hopes to be soon).

Panel pros

As usual, RWM featured lots of panels with enticing subject matter, including a policy briefing on the impact of Brexit, the progress (or lack of) towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and greater diversity within the resource industry.

Last year’s post-show public Twitter dissection highlighted RWM, among other showsas having too many #manels (male-dominated panels) rather than a diverse selection of speakers.

It was therefore encouraging to see panels with more speaker variety this year, and more accurately representing the changing nature
of the resource industry.

In terms of content, some of the panels were remarkably similar to those held at last year’s show. This, however, may be much more indicative of a lack of policy progression in the sector rather than the organiser’s efforts to develop an entirely new programme. With so much up in the air, and lots of consultations yet to be concluded, there was an overwhelming sense of an industry in limbo.

Willing to put its head above the parapet was SUEZ, which launched a new report on the investment necessary for the waste sector to thrive over the coming years.

The Economics of Change in the Resources and Waste Sector
argued that up to £35 billion-worth of investment will be needed to create necessary changes in waste activity over the next 20 years.

This included a focus on new technologies and facilities for electrical energy, fuel and
chemical molecules, logistics and container infrastructure.

President of the World Biogas Association David Newman argued the case for the anaerobic digestion (see page 20 for more on this) and composting industries to work more closely together. He said: “We want lots of good organic carbon and therefore need a model where
they are tied together to get energy and nutrients.”

Newman emphasised that the time for discussion over the pros and cons of various waste processes is over, and it’s now up to industry and the government to put into place the strategies that have been building up. He added: “Our treatment and collection systems are broken and we cannot export our way out of this problem.”

RWM certainly had a different feel to it this year. The now two-day conference was much smaller and felt less busy as a result. Next year will no doubt feature lots of discussion and responses to current consultations, and perhaps we’ll see more instruction and insight into where we are heading to next.

Ideally this would include what extended producer responsibility reform will look like and the various deposit return schemes.

Until then it’s difficult to speculate without repeating the same points that come up time and time again. There is certainly a need for a hub for industry to share ideas and best practice and network, but whether this is best performed in a more specific avenue rather than one major exhibition is a debate we will inevitably keep coming back to.

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