COP26 – resources and waste management on the margins

8th November 2021 Posted by

Blog by Dr Adam Read, Director of External Affairs at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK. This blog was originally posted by EfW Net.

I thought that after spending last week in Glasgow for COP26, now would be the perfect time to reflect on what happened, and to assess the implications for the waste and resources sector. The less said about the journey the better, but an 11 hour trip following the closures at Euston Station, the lack of overhead power at Milton Keynes and again at Coventry affecting all the trains heading north, plus the closure of the M6 due to a lorry shedding its load of plastic water bottles (the irony wasn’t lost on us) tested our patience and ensured we missed the first of our planned target fringe events. Though after some re-planning of our itinerary, we were ready to roll with a full day in the Green Zone. We checked out all the exhibits, displays and workshops targeting the general public, and although hopeful, we had low expectations of what we would find given the focus on the event in recent weeks – energy, transport and finance being the core themes.

Showcasing the big issues

The Green Zone had a real buzz of anticipation, as the energy sector, supermarkets and transport companies presented their headline commitments, plans for decarbonisation and latest technology innovations. The highlight for me was the number of stands that not only demonstrated how consumers can lessen their impact on the climate, through changes in their decisions and lifestyles (including choices of energy provider, ambient temperatures at home, your vehicles and fuels, and dealing with food waste better) but also allowed participants to pledge to change their behaviour and commitment to doing something different. If the thousands of visitors in week one at COP all leave with a heightened desire to make a change, however small, then COP will have been a success!

Our travels around Glasgow were regularly derailed by any number of peaceful marches and ‘stand-offs’ making critical routes from the city centre to the COP hub at the Glasgow Science Centre. As a result of which, ourselves and many others missed meetings, workshops and fringe sessions. However the campaigning worked as everyone was clearly very much more aware of the core issues on show, from indigenous rights, to deforestation and empowering the youth of today, although the Glaswegians may not have been so supportive as their daily activities ground to a halt at times!

So why were we there?

Attending COP26 for me was all about making sure that the issues of consumption, resource use and waste management were given a voice, given how little these issues featured on the main COP26 agenda or on the large number of official fringe activities. However, consumption and the circular economy were raised by speakers across sessions in the Blue and Green Zones, plus any number of the fringe sessions on offer. Experts, academics, policy-makers and campaigners accurately recognised that we cannot continue to live using three planet’s worth of resources. To address this fully we must look at what we consume, how we produce it, how much can be recycled, and where appropriate the need to move to reuse and refill models. This so that we consume less and change ownership patterns, with consumers leasing more and thus changing their attitude to waste, as once they have used the packaging or product it is designed to be returned to the manufacturer/brand who will prepare it for its next use.

This provided a bit of a boost for all participants coming from the resources and waste sector perspective. Leading figures across the first week identified the need to consume less, go circular and think recycle, from Kwarsi Kwarteng MP and Senator John Kerry, to former Prime Minister Theresa May and media stars like Tom Heap. From the World Leaders Summit to the themed sessions on Energy, Nature and Youth Engagement, the resource agenda was on show, and this can only be good for a sector that is trying to move to the centre of the net zero policy agenda. Hopefully it will ensure that this momentum will continue in week two with the themed days around Adaptation, Gender, Transport plus Cities, Regions and the Built Environment.

SUEZ had decided months ago that the lack of formal acknowledgement of resource efficiency, circular economy and waste management on the COP agenda needed to be addressed. Working with our partners – the Aldersgate Group, ReLondon, The Green Alliance plus the CIWM – we put on four fringe sessions to rebalance this failing. Our sessions, all during the first week, focused on some big issues from our perspective, identifying how we can contribute effectively to the decarbonisation agenda. We also explored where policy intervention could enable significant steps forward in not only our sector’s evolution but also where our sector could help speed up and underpin the transformation in other sectors, including agriculture, manufacturing, and power generation.

The headlines from these four events can be summarised as:

  • The resources and waste management sector are already delivering significant decarbonisation benefits, from food waste composting/digestion and packaging recycling, reducing our reliance on landfill, but there is much more we can do.
  • Priorities for action must be around food waste reduction and reprocessing, including redistribution, taking plastics out of the residual waste stream and improving the quality of recyclate to make it more available to manufacturers;
  • The raft of policy reforms already underway across the UK (from EPR and DRS to consistent collections and plastic tax) must not be delayed as any delay slows down our carbon impacts.
  • New technologies will have an increasing role to play in the decarbonisation journey, in both our sector, and those that we support and align with, and carbon capture storage and utilisation is seen as being a critical technology step that needs to be proven in the short-term.
  • Many of the planned improvements across the net zero agenda (from transport and power, to recycling and the circular economy) will be reliant on consumer engagement and activity, but right now most of the public remain ignorant of how their actions impact on the climate and what options they could choose to embrace.

Reflections and hopes 

I am more optimistic right now than I was on the journey north to Glasgow. Resource management, food waste prevention, critical raw materials, consumerisation and the circular economy all had plenty of air-time last week. The core messages will no doubt continue in the coming weeks, as we reflect on COP26  long after the campaigners and politicians have left the city.

But, will resources and waste management get a seat at the policy top table? I am less certain of this. We must continue to share the strong evidence we have for how our efforts around recycling, waste prevention, food waste reduction and how we continue to deliver significant social befits and biodiversity deliver positive impacts. With compelling evidence and the continuing efforts of organisations across our sector we will be heard, but getting the narrative right and shining a light on what we can do and how we can help the net zero drive is key.

Now, I am back at work, the emphasis is very much on taking the core messages from COP into our meetings with customers, policy-makers, politicians, partners and the wider value chain. We must learn our lessons and push forward collaboratively. We have so much opportunity to prove our value, to raise our credibility, and to help drive forward change for the better. There is an increased urgency for the private sector to accelerate action and mobilise the trillions of pounds needed to support the transition to a net zero and sustainable economy, and we must step up or we will continue to be marginalised.

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