The commercial case for smarter waste handling
There’s no disputing the environmental benefits of carefully considered waste handling strategies. But would the industry adopt more resource efficient business models, if there was increased appreciation for the economic and commercial advantages? This was the question UNTHA UK’s managing director Chris Oldfield has posed in this month’s issue of LAWR magazine. If you missed the article, you can read his thoughts in full here…
The waste and recycling industry is experiencing something of a communications roller coaster at present. In December, for instance, there was uproar when the European Commission’s vice president, Frans Timmerman, announced that the circular economy package was being scrapped. Many professionals have since expressed fear that the proposals will be shelved altogether. However, we are told that the approach will be reviewed in 2015, ahead of a more ambitious strategy being launched in due course.
If this is indeed the case, then this is reassuring – anything that supports the creation of more jobs, economic growth and resource security, should be welcomed. It is just a pity that, following a time when the circular economy was becoming more mainstream – and policy was gradually being translated into practice – the industry has yet again been hit with a clout of uncertainty. Once more we find ourselves experiencing an all too common ‘let’s wait and see’ scenario.
Only time will tell what the outcome will be, but there is an important point to be taken from this most recent industry spotlight. The continuing debate has sparked increased communication surrounding why we work so hard to be ‘green’. And I hope more people will sit up and pay attention to this.
In the wake of the EC’s announcement, for example, Friends of the Earth’s executive director Andy Atkins was quoted as saying that: “Careful resource use is crucial for the long term wellbeing of both our economy and environment,” and “a green and healthy environment and a thriving economy are two sides of the same coin.” I concur with these points entirely. There needs to be more joined up thinking, when it comes to the fiscal and environmental benefits of smarter waste and recycling methodologies and closed loop business models. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Yes, many people like the idea of more environmentally friendly thinking. And they would love to continually invest in more sophisticated waste handling technologies, in order to salvage valuable materials, and/or reduce their carbon footprint, and/or support the EU’s recycling targets.
But, in truth, how many organisations are likely to change their behaviours purely for environmental gain?
Of course there are many businesses who embrace environmentally responsible principles, simply because it is an inherently ‘good’ thing to do. And, as more and more individuals adopt reuse and recycling behaviours in the home, I do believe they will increasingly mirror such patterns in the workplace, which should naturally drive progress. Legislation has a key part to play too, of course, although that is a different debate entirely.
However, for many organisations, especially those that have battled through the difficult financial climate of recent years, being ‘green’ is nowhere near the top of their list of priorities. To some extent this is understandable. Having spent months, if not years, struggling to keep their heads above water, the focus for many companies continues to be survival and compliance, and not much else.
So, if we take legislation out of the equation, for now, what more can be done to fuel change?
Industry commentary by Pinsent Masons’ Associate Fiona Ross late last year, hit the nail on the head – if we are to become better engaged as a recycling society, we need to think more in terms of the circular economy (albeit in whatever guise that may currently take), raw materials and the bottom line for UK plc.
This is because the value of waste hierarchy compliance extends far beyond environmental gain. We need to give greater thought to the economic benefit that reuse, recycling and closed loop business models can achieve. If we do, maybe this will encourage more people to commit.
After all, raw materials are becoming increasingly scarce and costly. Greater resource security gives us some national fiscal comfort, plus it places us in a more competitive position to design, engineer, innovate, manufacture and remanufacture. It gives us a stronger platform on which to successfully trade internationally, it creates jobs and it educates communities. And, on an individual business level, sustainable practice can have real bottom line benefits, not least because it becomes another positive brand differential.
The important thing, of course, is that we initiate more widespread communication of these messages. Visitors to the ‘Earth Day’ website, for example, will see that the 2015 initiative is being positioned as the year in which economic growth and sustainability join hands. This may be an American-led initiative, but as Earth Day celebrates its 45th anniversary, perhaps this is a sign that everything is starting to slot into place.
Environmental protection is incredibly important, and that objective should remain at the core of our corporate social responsibilities. But the underlying principles of the circular economy – and indeed greater respect for modern waste management practices on the whole – can make good business sense too.
I hope we stand firm on our commitment to the circular economy because, quite frankly, we must. Perhaps the concept just needs to have a bit more of a practical and commercial focus, rather than an academic one.