The Recycling Association's Quality First Conference

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
The Quality First Conference at Ashursts Solicitors' Conference Centre

Change was in the air last month, and not just because we were finally blessed with some seasonal sunshine.

Given the wave of new policy announcements, media coverage and public support the industry has had over the past 12 months, there was much up for debate at The Recycling Association’s Quality First Conference.

“I have never known recycling so high on the political and social agenda,” said The Recycling Association’s chief executive Simon Ellin, and how right he was.

Inevitably, a major area of discussion was China’s National Sword programme and its strict tariffs for some recyclable materials. Rather than wallowing in what could have been, the conference took on a positive note, choosing instead to focus on how the UK can be proactive to reach these difficult quotas.

Ellin said: “We don’t have warehouses full of material as far as I know. Yes we will continue to supply China and hope the market still provides us with opportunities, but it has given us the opportunity to look elsewhere and I do firmly believe we will be stronger going forward.”

This was echoed by a panel held with delegates from recycling and waste management companies across the country who so far seemed to agree there hadn’t been the negative strains on the industry which were first predicted.

However, not all speakers were of the same opinion. Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) Mary Creagh told delegates she had been made aware of recovered material being sent to landfill.

The MP also used her keynote speech to explore some of the most pressing topics in the sector, in particular extended producer responsibility.

She said: “If we are to meet sustainable development goals, we need to design out litter and waste. We need to design products that are used more than once and design waste systems that have more uniformity.

“I also hope in three or four years’ time, we will have seen a transformation in the number of green jobs that have been created through a high-quality recycling industry.”

Repacking the future

The Quality First Conference also featured a series of speakers from the packaging industry, including an inspiring presentation from Iceland’s head of sustainable packaging Richard Parker. The retailer shook the industry when it announced plans to ban plastic from its own-brand packaging. Parker used his keynote speech to assure delegates the move was a far cry from a headline-grabbing PR stunt.

He said: “We know we’re small and we know all the negative arguments coming at us, but we want to take a leadership role here and develop solutions other people will follow. We are having ongoing discussions with governments and industry, we’re not experts in everything but we do have a strong opinion.

“We know other polymers are coming along to replicate current plastic but we’re not interested in those. There’s a complicated message about bioplastics and oxy-biodegradable, but we have a strong position that if we can detect anything in the ocean after decay, it’s not acceptable. In our view, oxy-biodegradables create more microplastics, therefore can’t be used.”

Parker also demonstrated the firm’s commitment to a deposit return scheme (DRS) by detailing the retailer’s pilot scheme in Wales, which he hopes will help understand how the system works and how consumers will respond.

However, Lee Marshall, chief executive of LARAC, told delegates that, despite what we all think, the public didn't really care about recycling and that they were in no way confused about what packaging could or could not be recycled.

He continued to tell delegates that local authorities were only concerned about material up to the point where it was collected and that they would only change their approach when their material was refused.

No ‘I’ in team work

For the most part, the takeaway message was one of teamwork, and with the conference holding a panel discussion on how the recycling chain can work together, delegates were left with a sense of optimism about the sector.

One panel member, David Harding Brown, who has set up the Packaging Collective consultancy to lead on environmental and sustainable packaging, called for all industry improvements to be shared. “Any recommendations need to be open-source and shared, there should be no commercialisations when it comes to advancements like this. Going forward I would like to see more involvement with both packaging and design companies, we can’t just rely on manufacturers to clean up the supply chain.”

Harding Brown’s business partner Sanjay Patel echoed this rhetoric. He said: “Every consumer touchpoint needs to have the same narrative running through it. If we’re going to do this, there needs to be no half measures, which is why I commend Iceland.”

Though there were inevitably differing opinions throughout the day, overall there was a real sense of momentum among delegates. Perhaps it was best summed up by one delegate, who asked not to be named, who told me how these events had changed over the years.

What used to be a predictable discussion about material weight and business rates has now transformed into a movement with an environmental conscience at its foundation. The waste sector is a progressive, forward-thinking beast, and the Quality First Conference did well to address this.

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