A record turnout at the RWM 2012 conference suggests the UK waste industry is in robust shape despite the global economic crisis but delegates raised concerns around a lack of political leadership.
The show, held at the Birmingham NEC in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Wastes Management, exceeded records with a 6% increase in attendance over the previous year and countries represented rose to 72.
Unaudited figures, excluding exhibitors, indicate more than 13,500 attendees were drawn to the NEC from 11-13 September, which had a 20% increase in floor space to accommodate more than 700 exhibitors.
“We are delighted with the numbers, especially in these challenging economic times, and exhibitors have reported quality leads and deals clinched on the stands, as well as valuable relationship-building opportunities,” said Alison Jackson, divisional director at i2i Events, part of the group which includes Emap, owners of MRW.
Key speakers included former environment secretary Lord Deben and celebrity physicist Professor Brian Cox, and former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell.
However, many delegates voiced their frustration to MRW about the lack of Government leadership following an appearance by a Defra official described by one observer as a “car crash”.
Defra’s head of waste strategy and regulation Richard Pullen was unable to answer a raft of questions from delegates on when certain key policy announcements, such as the MRF code of practice, would be made and what the department’s priorities were.
He twice said that new ministers would want to “take stock” of policy “and form their own views”, raising the spectre of further delays and leaving delegates to conclude that his appearance had provided more questions than answers about the Government’s approach to the sector.
The Department for Communities and Local Government had also been slated to address the conference but, with local government minister Bob Neill losing his post Government during the reshuffle, the department opted to send no one in his place.
Meanwhile, Labour announced it would consider raising England’s recycling targets in line with Scotland and Wales if elected in 2015.
Shadow waste minister Gavin Shuker told the conference that England’s “unambitious targets merely scrape over the bar” and that the Government’s mixed messages on waste policy was having a “chilling effect on investment”.
The Environmental Services Association also sounded a cautious tone, warning that the energy from waste sector faced a “critical two-to-three year period” because of policy uncertainty surrounding the sector.
David Sher, policy analyst at the ESA, said the industry faced a “really big decade” ahead with changes shaped by the development of alternative residual treatments; the end of municipal private finance initiative; and the shift in focus to merchant plants with no long-term contacts.
Incinerators will move from setting gate fees to become “price takers” in a more competitive market.
He added that the coming electricity market reform would, however, provide a new security on energy revenues.
The sector had a “huge opportunity now to influence policy”, Sher said, to shape the framework needed to support the “changing landscape”.