It’s a mild night in Amsterdam in early June.
I am camped in front of our TV with an ice cold beer in one hand and the remote control in the other, watching a match broadcast from Berlin’s Olympia stadium. The commentary showcases the road to Berlin and the best in European football. Seventy- seven teams from 53 associations: what a competition.
With another beer, I’m starting to draw comparisons between our own industry’s recycling league table and the European Commission’s latest circular economy (CE) package. I am reminded, just as in football, of the challenges that competition will present for many nations.
The economic realism of 28 member states with differing collections, reuse, recycling and recovery infrastructure, investment profiles and recycling performance strikes home.
But following Defra’s ‘step-back’ in the previous parliament, our sector needs leadership. Europe has the potential to reconnect policy in partnership with national governments, realising the opportunities of a resource sector central to the green economy.
It is leadership that will deliver the Commission’s ambition to develop a more circular economy. To that end, I am encouraged by the appointment of Rory Stewart as resource minister. He is articulate, experienced and globally connected, with a strong understanding of the need for leadership and partnership. He has promised to listen, and I am looking forward to his session at the Viridor-sponsored All Party Sustainable Resources Group this month.
At last month’s Resourcing the Future conference, Stewart spoke of the UK’s success story. He was right to do so: we have come a long way, where investment in containers, collections, consumer education and world-class infrastructure has delivered. But what is clear is our point of inflexion and the stark choice we face: further success or substantial failure.
For Britain to be a beacon for resource leadership, we need fresh thinking and smarter working from the Government: a national resources council; looking seriously at a fourth utility model; locking-in quality to lock out the costs of contamination; getting tough on waste criminals; recognising the value of energy security and restraining refuse-derived fuel export. We need a new approach from Liz Truss at Defra, Amber Rudd at DECC, Greg Clark at DCLG and Sajid Javid at BIS – and Stewart is the man to draw them together.
So too in Europe. The CE package could be a real boost for Britain but it is vital we strike a balance between rhetoric and reality. As the minister said: “We have to make sure that whatever the Commission comes up with is right for the UK.”
A fresh package from Europe should support, not short-change, the UK. While ambition is welcome, progress and investment of individual member states must not be undermined by a one-size-fits-all blanket target which would be wrong for all countries.
Focused interventions such as individual targets for specific material types may be more appropriate.
Aligning with the UK, the Commission should recognise the importance of quality, not mere quantity, and should seek to ‘lock-in’ this metric. It should do so by encouraging the development of quality-focused collections, sorting and reprocessing infrastructure while supporting subsidiarity by avoiding unnecessary regulation.
The Commission should encourage prioritisation of preventative spend and smarter commercial contracts by refocusing on shared risk, on engaging, consistent communication, delivering savings through increased waste prevention, and on contamination costs.
It should also prioritise the fight against rising waste crime which threatens the sector’s development and member states’ economic and environmental interests. The EU must prioritise strong regulatory regimes, avoid policy drivers which move the goalposts, add substantial cost to member states’ governments and undermine multi-billion pound investment in infrastructure.
Energy recovery must be recognised as an important transition technology in a revised waste hierarchy, supporting energy security and enabling social policy when linked with distributed energy and ‘smart city’ grids.
Back on TV, Barca lift the cup. Time to pack my bag – it’s China in the morning and some tough negotiations. The resource vision on a larger stage still. But as footballer Lionel Messi said: “If you’ve got a goal you’ve got to fight, work hard and sacrifice for it.”
Herman Van Der Meij is managing director of Viridor Resource Management