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Collaboration, clarity and consistency – a call to arms from the recent SUEZ Customer Conference

7th October 2020 Posted by

Being positive

One of the things I really look forward to each year since joining SUEZ, has been our  customer conference for local authority clients, when over the course of two days we provide an informal and welcoming environment in which our customers, from collection, processing and disposal contracts around the UK, can come and learn about sectoral developments, can share their experiences, can network with one another, and can catch up with their SUEZ counterparts in a more relaxed setting. It really is a highlight in my work calendar!

Not only does it provide me with a chance to reflect on policy reforms with my customers, and discuss likely legislative impacts and areas of innovation and adaptation with our senior clients, but it also allows me the chance to hear first-hand from many of our partners about issues at the coal face and how the wider sector debates are translating into local tensions and operational strains, which helps me better engage with government and sector working groups as part of my external affairs work programme.

Over the past few years, I have been involved in the planning and execution of these conferences, with support from colleagues across the business, in Bristol at our Severnside EfW and in Newcastle. However, this year’s conference, planned in Darwen in May had to be rescheduled because of COVID-19, and we eventually decided to make it a virtual conference, where we would try and replicate the best bits of our historical ‘in person’ events on-line.

Adaptability

As we weren’t going to be able to deliver the event in a traditional format, we explored different platforms and tested different virtual environments so that we could still get the ambiance of our traditional key policy plenary sessions, whilst still facilitating smaller working groups sessions to dig a little deeper, and workshops on hot topics that delegates could pre-register for. More importantly, we created virtual networking and drop in sessions over lunch, to help delegates to catch-up around some of the issues, and explore some of the themes in a relaxed but informative way, and I have to say this year was a real success, even if I did spend too many hours staring at multiple screens as we captured questions, facilitated debates and managed the flow of slides and polls etc. I definitely needed an early night after the second day!

Structure

We structured each of the two days around a big theme, with the first session having a lead presentation from SUEZ followed by responses from a couple of our customers, reflecting on how they see the issue in hand effecting their services and situations, followed by open questions from the delegates which I chaired. This seemed to work well in terms of setting them scene and setting everyone up for session two which was a deep dive workshop to answer specific questions that related to the core content of the previous session, and the level of engagement, the obvious willingness to share and learn was clear to all as we got stuck in before reporting back to the wider group before lunch.

The first day focused on the policy reforms facing UK resource and waste management, covering off updates from us on the Environment Bill, extended producer responsibility regulatory reform, the planned deposit return scheme and consistent collections. With the next stage of consultations planned for early 2021, this was an ideal time to reflect on what was happening on each of these critical reforms, to share intelligence, and gather consensus on outstanding issues and concerns. And as we listened to our customers it became clear that they were not all in the same place when it came to understanding and appreciation of the issues, and that many had been so flat out delivering front line services during the lockdown that they were now in catch-up mode!

Day two was focused on the other really big issue facing our municipal customers, and all sectors right now, namely the route to decarbonising the UK and the options for net zero carbon waste systems.  Again, we shared our insights and an extensive amount of modelling that we have done around our current carbon footprint and how this is impacted by changes in the materials we handle, the way we operate our facilities and the desires of our customers. The customers participated in a robust discussion about possible short and long-term interventions and looked at greater collaboration and transparency as being key to making progress.

As I mentioned earlier, we used lunch as an informal drop in networking opportunity, with people joining us whilst enjoying a homemade sandwich, as we reflected on the mornings discussions and looked ahead to what was concerning the delegates. It was a great opportunity for some of the local authority officers to chat with private sector companies like Nestlé and Unilever and for all parties to start to build a mutual appreciation of each other’s issues, expectations and priorities.

The afternoon saw us host four hot topic workshops covering key themes as selected by our customers when we first sought their input on hosting a virtual event some months ago, and which were prioritised according to the responses we had once registration opened. We ran four workshops each afternoon covering HWRC best practice, post COVID-19 a new normal, policy impacts on commodity markets, and social value opportunities in resources and waste management. These were well attended, and the insights, suggestions and ideas generated are being collated and will be circulated to everyone who attended, even if you couldn’t make that particular workshop.

Consensus

In total we had over 70 customers and another 50 SUEZ contract managers and regional senior management in attendance, and it was pleasing to see the level of engagement, their contribution to the deep dive workshops and roundtable debates, without them it wouldn’t have been the same.

So, what were the key take away messages? Well, I won’t share too much, after all this event was for our customers and they had to attend and contribute to get the most from it, but here are a few teasers:

  • The policy reforms that will be with us by 2024 will be the single biggest overhaul of waste management in our lifetimes, and as such we must spend time to fully appreciate the potential impacts on services and sites and embrace the opportunities to engage through the planned consultations in early 2021.
  • The next five years will bring opportunities and risks for municipal service provision in equal measure but if we collaborate, communicate, consult well, and focus on the ticking clock, the need for consistency, and appreciate how contracts will need to change and costs will be covered if compliant, then we should be OK.
  • Household-like recyclables will be key to meeting government proposed targets, so greater attention on commercial streams will be key, and that opens up a host of new communication challenges.
  • Under EPR, DRS and the plastic tax greater data and its transparency in terms of evidence will be key, but do we have the right sampling systems, composition data and baseline appreciation from which to show progress?
  • The capacity of the sector is a concern, not only in the traditional sense of recyclate reprocessing and end markets, but also in terms of the bandwidth of officers within local authorities to juggle the front line day to day service delivery with the challenge of regulatory and policy reform, we all agreed the next three years will be taking on many levels.
  • And for many we just can’t wait to get full clarity on the policy changes, because if we do it will be too late to meet targets or to influence the debate. If the sector doesn’t want to be told by DEFRA what to do then it must engage now, and that means living with uncertainty and for some a very steep learning curve.
  • For our sector to truly decarbonise we must embrace waste prevention and actively influence consumption patterns, things that have always been too difficult for us to handle because of the lack of data and the inability to prove impact was attributable to a particular prevention programme etc.
  • There is a real need for customers and contractors to work together, with their residents, to have the maximum impact on decarbonising the waste stream, and joint and appropriate responsibility is required if we are to make real progress on our net zero ambitions.
  • The sector is already responding to climate emergencies both nationally and locally with electrification of our fleets, food waste reduction and composting programmes and improving efficiency at sites in terms of heat offtake and greener buildings etc. But we must do more in terms of influencing consumers and school children about their role in making informed choices to drive down their carbon footprint.
  • Other areas of focus in the short term to drive down the sector’s carbon emissions will include Reuse, Repair and Communications, and we heard so many positive stories about pockets of activity around textiles, food waste and community empowerment over the two days.

Looking forward

All of the workshop notes, case studies and insights will be collated and shared along with the slide decks in the next week or so, so if you couldn’t make it get in touch and we can help spread the word.

The two days were full on, but they created so many opportunities for learning and sharing, and the on-line platform did a great job of letting delegates engage in their own ways and in the sessions they wanted to prioritise, so we hope it met expectations?

However, for all the good things about on-line conferences, workshops, webinars and such like, and don’t get me wrong I am a huge fan having spent all of lockdown chairing webinars, I am looking forward to hosting next year’s l SUEZ Customer Conference in person, when we can reflect on what will no doubt have been another interesting 12 months in the lives of waste and resource managers here in the UK. So I look forward to seeing you then.

In the meantime, I would like to say a huge thank you to our customers for attending and participating fully, and my colleagues for helping make it another great SUEZ Customer Conference, which in many ways more memorable than those with a site visit and social programme.

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