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Towards a new mindset

We are used to the idea that things change. Some people like that, others hate it. But we tend to see it as largely incremental. Tomorrow will be much like today. Next year will be different, but in ways largely predictable from past trends. In the waste industry we need things to be like this. How else can we have the confidence to make long-term investments?

Of course world developments are not really linear. Most of the great leaps forward – and back- come from innovations that take us off the incremental track. Suddenly everyone is talking about disruptive innovation: ideas that lead us to look at the future differently and open up new types of human activity. The printing press, antibiotics and the worldwide web are just three examples.

Unsurprisingly disruptive innovations are difficult, but not impossible, to plan for. These innovations do not generally appear overnight. The iPad has revolutionised personal computing but Microsoft were pushing tablet PC’s 10 years ago. They just didn’t get all the elements together – function design and content. Apple did. Game changing ideas usually result from the coming together of several partial ideas over a number of months or years. Staying in touch with developing ideas and not just the latest equipment seems to be essential if waste companies are not to be caught out.

So what are the emerging ideas that could change the way the waste industry works? In my blog (www.isonomia.co.uk/?cat=47 ) I identified a couple of innovations that I thought could have far reaching effects but suggested it was important to have a broader public discussion to identify other factors. My two suggestions were the circular economy and devolution.

The circular economy goes well beyond zero waste to landfill. Disappointment at the outcome of the governmental portion of the Rio+20 conference hid the fact that some very significant global businesses are now looking seriously at new business models in which they effectively retain ownership of their products while they are in use by the customer and then reclaim them for reuse or recovery once the customer has finished with them. Such products may never enter the waste stream and will be moved around by retail logistics operators rather than the waste industry. Their disassembly and reuse will fall to new operations based in manufacturing where shredders and magnets will not feature. The risk for the waste industry is that these emerging closed loop operations will leave them on the outside. Major logistics operators are already sizing up the opportunities.

Devolution has been with us for some time but we are only just beginning to see its power in the waste sector. As Scotland and Wales have gained confidence in their powers they are increasingly taking a different view on what they are trying to achieve and how they want to go about it: whether that is on carrier bags, the implementation of the Waste Framework Directive or the use of landfill bans. For the first time we are seeing a break up of monopoly government leading to the emergence of alternative approaches and the ability to road test them.  

Devolution has a long way to run. With the government’s localism project conferring additional powers and responsibilities on “city regions” we can expect disruption to existing patterns of waste flow, as those city regions look to the green economy for jobs and growth. Waste companies may need a new mind set if their role changes from handling waste materials as cheaply as possible to sourcing key raw materials for regional businesses as efficiently as possible.

In some places we are already committed to ways of working developed when waste growth was projected at 3% a year and food and most plastics were seen as not economically recyclable.  As a result of those views, some estimates suggest we already have more waste facilities planned than we will need overall but maybe not of the right type in the right place.  The agile companies that understand sustainability and resource cycles will do better in future than those who try to swim against the tide by trying to make the future fit their linear projections.

Phillip Ward, former director of local government services at WRAP

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