Punching above its weight

Written by: Geraldine Faulkner | Published:

Resource Association chief executive Ray Georgeson tells Geraldine Faulkner how the trade body is ‘fighting the corner for reprocessing’ at a time of turbulence and with limited resources of its own, and why the UK government is failing the industry

Since its launch in November 2011, the Resource Association has wasted no time in making its mark on the resource management sector.

“It’s a sign of where we’ve got to in a relatively short space of time,” says Ray Georgeson, chief executive of the association with understandable pride. “It was an idea in folks’ heads for a little while and then a year ‘in the cooking’ while it came to fruition, but since then it’s grown from a small group of major processors to a membership of 30 companies.”

Georgeson pauses before adding: “It’s a decent number – it may not be hundreds, but it includes a number of major reprocessors and our membership is quite diverse.

“We have a range of members from SMEs, consultants to major players in the waste industry such as FCC.”

According to the Yorkshire-based chief executive, the Spanish-owned FCC joined the association in July and felt it was important to engage in the resource debate along with the rest of the members.

There at the start

The founding core comprised major processors such as Novelis, DS Smith and Aylesford Newsprint; the Kent-based paper-maker that went out of business in March.

“We’ve been buffeted by that, along with ECO Plastics and Closed Loop,” admits Georgeson. “But we have come out of the other side. We have had a bit of a bashing on the membership front with high-profile businesses going out of business; it’s a sign of turbulent times.”

However, not one to dwell for long on the negative, Georgeson points out that the association has already made its mark on important issues such as the production of higher-quality material from recycling facilities. “We have gone from a standing start and we’ve done a lot of work; for instance, we pushed hard on the implementation of the drafting of MRF regulations, which came into force in October 2014.”

There has also been the End Destinations of Recycling Charter, a voluntary charter launched by the association in June that could see councils providing residents with information about the exact paper mills or steelworks to which their recyclable materials are sent. “I pushed hard on transparency and the destination of recyclates with themintention of raising public awareness,” comments Georgeson.

When the charter was unveiled, Joy Blizzard, chair of LARAC, called it “a robust picture of what happens to the recyclable materials collected from householders”.

Never afraid to express its views and keen to maintain its members’ best interests high on the agenda, in February the association criticised a Defra report on the benefits of the resource management sector, pointing out it understated the growth potential for reprocessing material in the UK.

Not a bad track record for a trade body with a part-time chief executive at its helm; although Georgeson admits that while his contract states he should give the association three days a week, “the reality of any job in the way we work today, you are never really off-duty. My working week is spread across this and the other things I do.” Essentially, it is an association on which there is no excess fat.

“It’s a tight organisation. My colleague, Carole Saul, is also part-time. She manages the books and sorts out the administration; then there is Michal Len, who is our man in Brussels. He’s interesting. As well as working one day a week for us, he is director at RREUSE, a network which represents national and regional networks of social enterprises with activities in re-use, repair and recycling. He’s in Brussels all the time, and I feel we get exceptionally good service as he’s our eyes and ears over there. English-born, Michal’s father is Polish and he lives in Brussels so he is a true European and very well attuned to Brussels work, and we find that very helpful.”

The chief executive points out that a contact like Len is what is needed nowadays and it’s a sign of where the association has got to in a relatively short space of time.

Defender of the faith

“We make smart use of our resources. Our job is very specific, namely to be a bit of a champion, a noisy voice fighting the corner for reprocessing and to keep that going. It is an industry which historically has not had the profile it deserves.”

One of the topics on which Georgeson in unafraid to be a “noisy voice” is the UK’s continuing under-performance in recycling, and he puts the blame firmly at the government’s door.

“The people in power just don’t get it. The government is scratching around for 50% of recycling and they are turning a blind eye to important issues such as transparency and where our recyclates end up. For instance, issues of confidentiality are being overstated. The industry and the government should have a shared interest in increasing resources.”

Entering the political arena, which he says is unavoidable with a government in power that is by definition deregulatory, the chief executive lets loose his ‘dogs of war’.

“It will take a lot of effort on the industry’s part to persuade this government of the need for a regulatory framework,” he states with a touch of exasperation. “The rule at the moment is ‘one in, three out’ when it comes to regulations. It is a light-state agenda. We’ve gone through years of paring down on local government and the mantra from government is that industry needs to do more, but we can’t create a regulatory framework for the industry.”

Like many other people in the resource sector, Georgeson firmly believes that a long-term regulatory framework would encourage investors, “rather than where we are now, which is continuing turbulence. I look for intelligent regulation rather than a free-for-all, laissez-faire approach,” he adds.

Nor does he believe in an excessively controlled regulation. “There’s a path in the middle. A lot of our northern European friends, for instance, Scandinavian countries are given clear long-term signals from their governments which steer the market and the population in a consensual way. Why are we not doing the same thing?”

Georgeson points out that while the UK government claims to be pro-business and pro-enterprise, it has a blind spot when it comes to the green potential; not just resources and recycling and all the food waste, AD, but across solar and wind too.

“We need a Marshall Plan for energy efficiency,” states the chief executive unequivocally. “People like me have been saying this for 30 years or more.”

Returning to the theme of the government’s preferred route of a ‘light touch’ towards regulations, Georgeson adds: “Our industry has thrived on European environmental leadership. Basically the UK resources industry wants a long-term regulatory approach. The government is all about voluntary agreements and it only takes you so far; it’s a worry we could end up with something quite weak that doesn’t give us long-term security.”

Another topic that gets the normally mild-mannered chief executive hot under the collar is the impending EU referendum.

“We are going to be swamped by the EU referendum,” he predicts. “The PM has set out his terms and the negotiations going on, so one would hope the PM will say, ‘We’ve done a deal and we should stay in.’ It is a high-risk strategy on his part, but we’re locked in now and we have to have the debate.”

Beware of complacency

Georgeson warns that the danger for the ‘yes’ campaign is complacency.

“It’s no good expecting a common sense approach to prevail and that the ‘yes’ campaign will win. We have to guard against the nationalists’ nostalgic approach, which is being adopted by certain political parties and which resonates with the population.”

The chief executive goes so far as to call for the industry “to step up to the plate and not be diffident in promoting the ‘yes’ vote. Whether it’s by joining the Stronger In campaign, or whether we create our own forum. Plus we are talking about a six-figure number of people working in the industry whose employment depends on the success of the supply chain; a third of which at the very least might vote ‘no’.”

Admitting he is an ‘ardent European’, albeit not an uncritical one, Georgeson emphasises that: “We have a duty to speak intelligently and respectfully of the value of Europe. We’re far better in than out and the idea that we revert to being on the outskirts of Europe is a big danger and we have to guard against it. We have to work and not assume that someone else is going to do it. We should stay properly engaged in the system.”

In the meantime, he says: “We retain our sense of humour and try to remain sensitive and humble. Fortunately we have some good ambassadors for the industry.” And then, like a true northerner and cricket enthusiast, the chief executive adds with a smile: “We have some good batsmen in the industry.”

Fact file: Ray Georgeson CV

Ray Georgeson is an independent professional operating in the resource efficiency sector.

He has 30 years’ experience of the waste and resources management sector variously as a volunteer, campaigner, educator, policymaker, programme manager, chief executive and consultant.

Georgeson was appointed part-time chief executive of the Resource Association in November 2011. He manages this alongside a portfolio of non-executive roles and consultancy through his own business, Ray Georgeson Resources.

He was director of policy and evaluation for WRAP from 2001-2008. At WRAP he produced four business plans that have directed over £200 million of public spending on recycling market development, local authority recycling, public communications and waste minimisation programmes. Previously, he was chief executive of environmental charity Waste Watch from 1996 and held a number of other project management posts in the third sector.

Georgeson has previously acted as an adviser to Defra (on the development of Waste Strategy 2000 and other policy developments), and the prime minister’s strategy unit in the Cabinet Office (on the ‘Waste not: want not’ review of waste policy).

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