Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Beyond our bins: An inside peek at the UK's largest waste exhibition 'RWM with CIWM'

Having delivered a presentation last year at the country's largest waste management exhibition, I was keen to revisit RWM with CIWM and have a decent peek at what's really happening beyond our bins.

It looks like I wasn't the only one!.

The star attraction was not quite the latest wheelie bin that teleports your waste to the nearest recycling centre, but the rather marvellous Professor Brian Cox, who, thinking about it, could surely one day make that kind of magic happen.

He was, unsurprisingly, a teeny bit popular, so I tried another route in...

...but for want of a pair of stilts and an invisibility cloak, I failed, like a balloon that had popped too soon!

So very near to the particle recycling party, but yet so far.

And sadly very much out of earshot.

Thankfully, with the industry press fairy godmothers at the helm, I can still share the words of the prof, who not only teased the audience of waste professionals with the concept of space disposal, but on a serious note, reasserted that the Earth's resources are rare and must be protected.

But, I must confess I didn't trek all the way to Birmingham's NEC, just to see the professor.  I wanted to get a picture of how the waste industry is planning to helping householders and businesses waste less.  I soon got the impression that despite there still being many hurdles, those involved in the waste stream are ready to face these challenges, hurl themselves forward and keep improving targets.

Of course, the issue of targets is an interesting one and I was intrigued to discover what a panel of thought-leaders from the industry felt about the realities of Zero Waste.

Featuring senior representatives from APSRG, CIWM, WRAP and SLR Consulting, the message came over quite clearly that the view of panellists was that we will never quite reach 'zero waste to landfill'.

However, it was also discussed that great strides towards a zero waste economy are actually possible and regardless of never being able to hit zero, the benefits along the route are really worth the journey.

Maybe it is the optimist in me, but I would like to think that the members of the panel were all holding onto a secret hope that even though they said we'll never hit the magic zero, we will one day reach the rather cheeky figure of a 99.99% waste reduction rate. Okay, maybe I'm a tad extreme, perhaps for now I'll settle happily at 98%.

After all, this is the same panel which acknowledged that in 1980 the industry didn't even aspire to a 5% recycling rate and would have laughed at targets as high as 50%, a figure that in many areas is currently being met.

Another 32 years of innovation and rethinking will present a different picture, I am sure of it.

The industry already speaks of waste as now being a matter of logistics, with businesses such as Stobart  taking an interest.  It also acknowledges how it needs to be better at communicating the opportunities of designing out waste with designers and manufacturers, a process that really it shouldn't fear.  Better product design will bring better recyclate, which can be more easily streamed, fetching greater financial value in a properly managed circular economy. 

Elsewhere, we are also seeing stronger partnerships between recycling companies and manufacturers, such as Coca-Cola's joint venture with Eco Plastics.  From the retail perspective, Sainsbury's is seeking to work with local authorities to roll-out better recycling facilities at the company's stores, which will include mixed plastics recycling as well as banks for small electricals.  As for local authorities, those in charge of Household Waste Recycling Centres are increasingly seeking partners in the third sector to help push reuse, as illustrated by this recent example from Buckinghamshire

As for kerbside innovations it's great to see that developments in wheelie bin design, as well as collection vehicles, can now enable easy and smarter recycling opportunities, which offer better quality recyclables for the end markets.

However, for the industry to maximise its efficiency, it is also in the area of consumer education, where the waste sector needs to urgently innovate.

We can aspire to having the best recycling facilities in the world, yet if the materials needed to support that zero waste economy still end up in landfill or incinerators, the industry might as well pop on its slippers and smoking jacket and spend the next few decades staring into the flames of the comparatively unimaginative energy from waste.

The waste reduction and recycling messages must not just continue as they, they must be stronger and more innovative to capture the imaginations and support of a greater public, to inspire individuals and organisations to increase participation.

Independent businesses need to better understand the process of diverting their landfill waste to a recycling service, which many currently see only as a fincancial burden rather than the economic incentive that diversion offers.  And community leaders, should be encouraged to create zero waste plans that support their local areas, through recycling incentives and third-sector benefits.

Wherever EfW facilities exist, recycling messages need to be stronger still, and yes, I do recognise the irony.

There are so many fantastic innovations taking place that the waste sector has a huge story to tell.  Yet, the headlines which hit the mass media are normally those that knock the recycling process, leaving local authorities to work harder at the 'Reduce, Reuse, Recycle' message to battle the bad news stories.

It is encouraging to hear that industry journalists, such as the strong editorial team at MRW, are now forging closer links with the national media to help bring, into the public arena, news that would have once remained solely in the sector.

For it is the national media that has a key role to play in helping to change our behaviour.  As well as the "how to" advice that comes from local authorities and the Recycle Week campaigns organised by WRAP, we also need innovative features to entertain magazine & newspaper readers, TV viewers and social-media users.

Features that close in on exciting technologies, quirky recycled products, popular economics and science, or even delving into the odd celebrity bin!  It really is time for the sector to find its place in modern and popular culture.

Just imagine if someone like Clare Balding got uber-excited about waste reduction and let the cameras follow her rubbish, recycling rates would probably double by December, and if she did a double-act with Prof Brian Cox, we'd be hitting zero waste by the end of the decade.

Now there's an idea.

I rather like that.

I'll bear that in mind as I wander back to my washing-up!


For an excellent industry overview of the highlights of the RWM with CIWM, visit Edie Waste and LetsRecycle.


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