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Conference season is upon us and the take-home messages are a mixed bag

14th October 2019 Posted by

Posted by Dr Adam Read.

The last month has been perhaps the most hectic period of the year.

I began with a manic two days of workshops, panels, and client engagement at the RWM, followed by a series of internal briefings, policy updates, and customer conferences.

Then came Recycle Week, Recoup’s annual conference, the Scottish Resources Conference, and, of course, the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC) conference last week.

Conference season is one of my favourite times of the year: a time to share thoughts, catch up on the big issues, hear from sector leaders and innovators. It’s also an opportune moment to test ideas, reflect on proposed policy and target changes, and plan with both operational restrictions and expected policy consultations in mind.

So what have I learnt this past month?

RWM

I felt that the RWM at the Birmingham NEC perhaps lost its focus a little, with too many parallel sessions and competing workshops.

However, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the leaders debate with three of the sector’s leading CEOs about what they need from government in order to open up investment, and fast-track service and infrastructure delivery.

Additionally, the workshops on DRS proved timely in terms of raising awareness of the issues around scheme design, materials targeted, interface issues with extended producer responsibility (EPR) and kerbside recycling, and the likely costs and benefits for all parts of the sector.

The skills-based workshops were also an eye-opener. They focused on the skills needed in the industry post-2025, and how we can attract and new recruits to our sector, which isn’t one of the ‘sexiest’, at least from the outside.

Some of the keynote speeches were hard-hitting, too. Jeremy Paxman memorably attacked both Defra and Keep Britain Tidy for their lack of impact this last decade and demanded DRS implementation on a timescale that matches Scotland.

Equally, TerraCycle founder Tom Szaky’s vision of ‘loop’ and how this could revolutionise consumer purchasing (by shifting the market focus from packaging to product) was exciting and well-received.

Recoup

Recoup’s annual plastics conference was a roaring success, with delegate numbers up from last year.

A highlight for me was the new pre-conference workshop about the entire plastics supply chain (from manufacture to end markets). The workshop focused on helping new entrants to the sector – as well as those who specialise in just one aspect of plastics production or distribution – to appreciate all aspects of the supply chain.

During the main conference, I particularly enjoyed the excellent chairmanship of BBC’s Costing the Earth and Country File presenter, Tom Heap. His journalistic skills ensured that the panellists and speakers consistently gave honest, simple answers to complex questions about everything from plastic substitution to polymer mixing to recycling technologies.

He also highlighted how mainstream plastic recycling had become, noting that being involved in the industry now potentially makes you more appealing to future partners on dating apps – an unthinkable situation five years ago.

Scottish Resources Conference

My next stop was Perth for the Scottish Resources Conference.

It began with an engaging address by the Scottish Environment Minister. This was followed by a debate between Scottish, English, and Northern Irish civil servants, who discussed such issues as time frames for policy finalisation, the diverging approaches to resource-related issues, and the planned changes at both national and local levels with remarkable openness.

A particularly hot topic at the conference was the Scottish government’s commitment to going live with DRS in 2020. The question of why DRS was being pushed through ahead of wider UK EPR reforms, which most participants felt was the key to making the resource revolution happen, was discussed with particular zest.

Later on, I took part in two interesting workshops on recycling quality, which considered how we can improve quality, the messaging to the public and how MRFs can meet the demands of overseas.

The active nature of Scottish resource policy, the country’s planned legislation changes, and the recent announcement that the Scottish biodegradable waste to landfill ban would have to be delayed because of a lack of infrastructure all ensured that the venue was jam-packed and discussions among delegates continued long after the formal proceedings drew to a close.

LARAC

My final pit-stop on the conference tour was LARAC, for two days of content focused on local authorities.

This event was a bit of a mixed bag, with some of the new speakers perhaps missing the point a little, even as other workshops delivered just the right level of detail and an energising environment.

Although I was disappointed by some of the keynote addresses, which I felt added little to the current live debates and often failed to appreciate the interests and needs of the local authorities offers in attendance, there were plenty of standout case studies – from reducing black bag waste in Swansea to improving food waste capture in East Devon.

What most evident at this conference was a lack of engagement among the audience in response to the major policy changes being planned in England.

When Chris Preston from Defra asked who had read the Defra Resources and Waste Strategy or the four consultations on DRS, EPR, consistent collections, and a plastic tax, less than half the room raised their hands.

What does this say about local authority priorities today? Well, perhaps the officers in attendance at the conference weren’t the strategic ones in their divisions, or perhaps they don’t see the current policy change as relevant to them, at least in the short term. That worries me.

Reflections

So what did I take away from these major sector events?

Local authorities and their supply chains are in a period of limbo, waiting for updates from Defra on their planned policies, targets, schemes, and priorities. Those updates won’t come through until the beginning of 2020, at the earliest, and as such, we’re seeing many short-term and knee-jerk decisions being made while we wait.

But given the direction that EPR reform and global commodity markets are currently taking, source-segregated recycling seems like the better option. Not only is it easier to process and handle, it offers greater security over end markets, ensures greater public responsibility, and the costlier collection service is supported by secured EPR funds.

We are also seeing an increasing number of local authorities questioning the validity of outsourced solutions. Several case studies now highlight the benefits of direct labour and local authority trading company approaches to service delivery and I can understand why this is the case in terms of ongoing austerity, the opportunity to generate future commercial waste income, and the flexibility offered by insourced staff.

But with the planned changes to collection and the new funding come from EPR, will these in-sourced services have the transparency of costs that will give the ‘producers’ the confidence to pay them for the materials they collect and process? Or will there be a heightened need to benchmark and market test services in the future?

It’s apparent that even with the policy reform across the UK continuing to gather pace, the uncertainty surrounding the details of these reforms, the less-than-impending timeframes, and the inability of keynote speakers to confirm or deny specifics is leaving the sector feeling a little uneasy.

So, if you don’t need to make a service decision in the next six months, I would advise you not to do so. Instead, wait for the clarity and detail we all need in order to plan properly for 2021 and beyond.

Uncertainty may increase in the short term, but I remain confident that the long term will deliver the reforms in funding, responsibility, and service innovation that we so dearly want.

This blog was originally published on http://www.recyclingwasteworld.co.uk on 10 October 2019.

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