Building an Industrial Strategy for a Stronger Waste and Resource Management Sector

The Government launched its green paper ‘Building our Industrial Strategy’ and invited participation in the on-going consultation. The green paper sets out a positive vision for Britain with a strong focus on economic growth. Prime Minister Theresa May states that “Through this new approach we will move beyond short-term thinking to focus on the big decisions that will deliver long-term, sustainable success – and we will seize the opportunities of Brexit to build a brighter future for all.” Such opportunities may involve radical changes in our economy, as indicated by Secretary of State for BEIS Greg Clark “A modern British industrial strategy must make this country a fertile ground for new businesses and new industries which will challenge and in some cases displace the companies and industries of today.” Resource Recovery from Waste reflects upon the opportunities for waste and resource management as the backbone of a healthy, resilient economy bringing well-being for everyone.

The issues around increasing resource scarcity, waste and pollution are well-known and recognised by relevant actors in government and industry who can deliver change. What is perhaps less well-known is the sustained growth of the waste management industry in the UK. Green Alliance and WRAP’s report Employment and the circular economy: job creation in a more resource efficient Britain noted that sales in the waste and recycling sector had tripled between 2000 and 2010 to more than £19bn. Defra’s report Resource management: a catalyst for growth and productivity estimated that the core waste sector had a value of £6.8bn GVA supporting 103,000 jobs in 2013, and this number could be roughly 6 times higher when including economic activities to repair and reuse products, material and components.

Consistent growth opportunities are reported for the waste and resource management sector at the forefront of the circular economy, see for example publications by ESA and CIWM et al. However, the British government should do more to support investment in the waste management industry. “Brexit” has created an uneasy mix of potential opportunities and problems in this regard – as discussed at the Brexit policy series Redesigning Waste and Resource Policy outside the EU. On the one hand, free from state aid rules the UK government could become leaders in green procurement. By prioritising the purchase of British recycled, recovered or reused products, it could help stimulate the secure supply and value chains required for the circular economy as well as providing the basis for development of the underlying infrastructure and jobs. On the other hand, uncertainty regarding the continued adherence or otherwise to the extensive suite of EU legislation surrounding waste management and recycling will stifle investment in the sector; the Government should prioritise creating a predictable UK policy framework that will reduce the risk of investing in waste infrastructure. Establishing a Resource Directorate, that refocuses the waste management sector on recovering valuable materials to protect UK supply chains, rather than regulating the sector via environmental agencies, would be a key first step towards addressing both issues. Its’ top priority would be to consolidate and standardise data collection in the sector in order to properly track material flows from cradle to ‘grave’, to give confidence to investors, operators, manufacturers and materials suppliers alike that the materials loops can be closed profitably, and that resources of sufficient quantity and quality will be available.

Such government actions needs to be accompanied by a step-change in industrial practice. The waste industry is moving forward to become the custodians of resources rather than the collectors of rubbish. At the recent Westminster Energy, Environment Transport Forum on The future for waste and recycling policy in the UK, Herman van der Meij from Viridor made it clear that the waste management industry wants to work with designers and manufacturers of products, materials and components to include end-of-life options with economic, environmental and social benefits. Such progress needs to come from both sides though, and design and manufacturing industries could do more to proactively collaborate with waste managers as part of their extended producer responsibility. Connecting waste management to relevant sectors such as manufacturing offers a key intervention point where the government could support the transition towards the circular economy, whilst also strengthening resource security for the long-term. Once again, the standardisation of data collection for material use, wastage and recycling would remove the most pernicious barrier to achieving this.

Despite the waste industry’s growth record and evident opportunities to play a key role in a sustainable circular economy in the UK, its presence in the green paper is rather minimal. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to read that “The Government will work with stakeholders to explore opportunities to reduce raw material demand and waste in our energy and resource systems, and to promote well-functioning markets for secondary materials, and new disruptive business models that challenge inefficient practice.” Resource Recovery from Waste brings together such expertise and we look forward to translate our knowledge into tangible recommendations for the industrial strategy.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn on 24th January 2017.

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Written by A Velenturf

Programme Co-ordination for the Resource Recovery from Waste Programme