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Waste management enthusiasts gather in London to talk policy, priorities and the circular economy

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'Priorities for UK waste and recycling policy and developing the circular economy', a Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Keynote Seminar, saw speakers address the current landscape and road ahead, writes Thomas Lawrence

Recent weeks have seen the issue of waste in foodservice and hospitality catapulted into the public eye. From food (Tesco will work with charities to ensure any food fit for consumption will go to people rather than landfill by March 2018) to packaging (McDonald’s has pledged to ensure all its packaging comes from recycled sources by 2025), big business is taking bold steps to make waste a thing of the past.

This made the conference on food waste and the circular economy, held on 18 January at Hallam Conference Centre, particularly timely. Policy makers and captains of industry gathered for a morning of insightful discussion.

Cautious optimism

After an introduction from the Environmental Audit Committee’s John McNally MP, Dr Marcus Gover of the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) kicked off the event with his take on the waste and recycling landscape in the UK. His overriding message was an optimistic one, despite current limitations. Introducing change in households will be a resource intensive process, he said, but “real opportunity” already exists to minimise waste in closed systems like large-scale corporate events.

There followed a panel from some of waste management’s luminaries on pioneering local and business led initiatives. Lugano Kapembwa’s work for the Canary Wharf Group was a notable highlight, demonstrating how targeted campaigns on specific issues – for example recycling milk bottles for use in other packaging across the estate, and a ‘Wake up and smell the coffee’ campaign to encourage reuse and recycling of disposable cups – can make a real difference in the fight against waste.

Similarly, Bruce Reekie’s reports from Perth and Kinross Council’s waste services team offered an illuminating perspective on the range of local solutions being trialled. While CIWM’s Dr. Colin Church set the tone with his analysis that waste management was a “victim of austerity”, Reekie showed how councils were managing to be innovative despite budgetary constraints. His talk on risk sharing with contractors to preserve frontline services, while striving to implement directives from the Scottish government’s Zero Waste Plan, reflected the delicate balance being struck by councils across the country.

Leveraging power

Dr Andy Rees of the Welsh Government’s Waste Strategy Branch and Dr Liz Goodwin from the London Waste and Recycling Board then took centre stage to expand on the devolved policy context. In Wales – where sustainability is embedded in the constitution – Rees elaborated on how the government is leveraging its powers over waste management. This includes a scheme allowing 99% of households to have separate food waste collections, pushing to go further with more robust assessments on products like sweet wrappers and taxes on disposable plastics.

Goodwin pointed out the advantages of flexible policymaking in devolved areas are counterbalanced by the international agenda often pursued by businesses. Thus, the much-vaunted circular economy has seen “little progress” since entering the popular policy discourse; more work needs to be done, and Goodwin says it’s now part of the London Environment Strategy’s 4 strategic objectives.

After a coffee break, the circular economy debate intensified with a panel of analysts discussing the legal, production and supply chain ramifications. The main thrust of the panel echoed Goodwin’s earlier sentiment that the circular economy had been a long time coming, with additional insights on the roadblocks and opportunities ahead.

PRNs, for example, were in the firing line, with Henry le Fleming of PwC acknowledging their uses but arguing they ought to be more “changeable” to support the right behaviour among businesses. The European Recycling Platform’s John Redmayne emphasised the scale of this issue. With so many products internationally manufactured, UK-imposed initiatives on the circular economy can only ever represent part of the battle. As Clearfleau’s MD Richard Gueterbock pointed out, many firms taking the lead with innovative solutions like bio-gas are SMEs – a “supportive framework” is needed from stakeholders to make circularity more feasible.

Proceedings concluded with a keynotes speech from Dr Lee Davies, head of resource efficiency and circular economy strategy at DEFRA. Guests were treated to the government’s “coherent vision” for implementing the circular economy in the coming years. These included targets such as eliminating avoidable food waste by 2050 and digitising the waste tracking process. Like many circular economy initiatives, it was acknowledged many of the details remain hazy; but crucial for Davis was promoting infrastructure to make the circular economy possible and expanding already successful policies from devolved areas.

Attendees’ perspective

With so many insights on offer, attendees were left with lots to mull over. What were the standout highlights for attendees?

Mick Jary, specification manager at Meiko UK, was particularly enthusiastic about Kapembwa’s efforts at Canary Wharf. His work demonstrates that “personal behaviour can be changed” by targeting habits and offering sustainable alternatives, similar to the fight against smoking, says Jary. Matthew Merritt-Harrison FCSI agrees. “He was looking at the whole lifecycle of a product, reducing the waste, then following it through as opposed to just sending it to a waste centre which can’t process it properly,” he said. Both agreed his work was one to watch for consultants and manufacturers alike.

Initiatives coming out of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were also held up as examples to the whole industry. There, waste management is firmly on the legislative agenda and businesses are responding accordingly. “The challenge for businesses is balancing costs with what’s good for business”, says Merrit-Harrison. “It’s effective in the devolved governments because it comes through legislation, meaning everyone has to comply and no one loses competitive advantage.”

Detailed legislation

There were, however, missed opportunities at the seminar. Much of the circular economy discussion trod well-worn ground and long-established targets. More detail on the legislation that will have to underpin this would have been welcome, as concrete central government action remains slow on the uptake.

For now, strategy documents presented by Davies are the best indication of where legislative momentum lies. “For any business to commit to investment on a knee-jerk basis is the worst thing you can do,” warns Jary. Nevertheless, he says, “At least a strategy document offers a path for investment over the next 2-3 years. We as manufacturers may need to invest in R&D to comply, consultants can show their clients what these documents contain and advise on how to comply now.”

The clear takeaway for businesses is just how much is already being done to maximise efficiency in waste management, and the scope to do more over the coming years. From trailblazing policy initiatives in devolved areas to campaigns by individual businesses, there are success stories from across the foodservice and hospitality sectors showing how minimising waste is good for bottom lines as well as the environment. Last Thursday’s seminar was a thought-provoking overview – consultants should take note.

Thomas Lawrence