The changing waste and recycling sector – what difference does a year make..?
A lot can happen in 12 months, and Chris Oldfield’s career is a testament to that. In October, he announced his retirement as chairman of UNTHA UK, bringing to a close almost 50 years in industry. He shared his 2017 highlights – and a couple of predictions for 2018 – with Materials Recycling World magazine. If you missed it, read it in full here…
A day can be a game-changer in the world of waste and recycling, so to reflect on a whole year is no easy task. The early part of 2017 seems like a lifetime ago, but that perhaps further indicates how significant the past 12 months have been.
Has it been a straightforward year? Far from it.
It would be impossible to review 2017 without mentioning Brexit. This is not the time to enter into a political debate but, personally, I believe the negotiation process to date has been poor. The lack of clarity surrounding ‘what’s next’ also suggests it will be some time before the Government can re-focus on any topic other than the ‘leave’ deal. This is worrying, especially given statistics which suggest that recycling is starting to flat-line.
So, I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again – the industry cannot rely on legislative or top-down direction to drive environmental progress in the UK. Certainly not at the moment.
However, do we actually need such top-down direction? It would be nice, don’t get me wrong. And I’ve often commented on the extent to which legislation drives innovation – we only have to look at the change that the landfill tax directive kick-started all those years ago.
Yet I also believe that this is an industry with innovation at its heart. From the continued engineering of technology to the development of circular business models, there are many ‘go getters’ in waste and recycling (thank goodness!) I think these people are the true instigators of change.
Admittedly, ongoing Brexit discussions have weakened industry confidence to some degree, which perhaps explains why a handful of firms have opted to sit tight on their projects. This is worrying because, as my colleague Marcus Brew told a journalist recently, ‘it’s uncertainty that kills the market’. The last thing we want to see is a domino effect in which progress grinds to a halt.
But others, it must be said, have marched on – and not just the big boys. UNTHA UK has been approached by a number of start-ups and young businesses this year, led by entrepreneurial forward-thinkers. They have spotted a market gap and are keen to capitalise on the opportunity for smarter environmental thinking and the wealth in waste. This is great to see!
We need more trailblazers. There are many ‘unsung heroes’ in the industry, but at a time when others could benefit from some inspiration, let’s give them more airtime. They could even act as catalysts for greater closed loop thinking within the UK, which surely won’t hurt if it’s unclear what our resource security will look like once we’ve left the EU.
All of this Brexit commentary aside, it has continued to be a pleasure to be part of a global brand. The benefits of international learnings and knowledge transfer far outweigh the drawbacks. We just have to be savvy in the decisions we make, but who doesn’t?
Of course 2017 has been a year of change, but when is this ever not the case? The difference is perhaps the pace and magnitude of that change. Organisations that refuse to be agile will struggle in 2018, I fear. Of course it’s still wise to have a long-term business plan, but that plan must be continuously reviewed and iterated for it to remain valid and effective.
We continued to reshape our strategy as the year unfolded, for example, and the effort has paid dividends. We’re making the most of the shredding versatility within our product range and are talking to different sectors, that need to tackle different input materials, and at different points in the supply chain.
As a result, our order book is now made up of clients large and small that are embarking on extremely diverse waste, recycling and product destruction projects. This variety presents a very mixed yet healthy engineering ‘make up’ for UNTHA UK, well into 2019. I’d encourage other firms throughout the sector to be equally open-minded and flexible in their approach, so they don’t find themselves going down a blind alley in the months ahead.
On a personal note, I hope you will allow me the final indulgence of mentioning my own 2017 milestone – hanging up my high vis and handing the reins of UNTHA UK over to Marcus Brew and the team. Retirement from the world of waste came with mixed emotions, which I suppose is understandable following a career spanning almost half a century. However, after several years of succession planning I knew the time was right. It’s an indescribable feeling reflecting on decades of relationships built, challenges overcome and achievements secured. But I’m happy in the knowledge that my vision will be carried forward and built upon, and I’m excited to seeing how the story continues.