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Getting down to business

peter maddox

WRAP has undergone major changes since it was set up as a quasi-govern­mental body in 2000. It has been central to the UK’s discourse on waste manage­ment and recycling for the past 18 years.

After becoming an independent reg­istered charity in 2014, WRAP has continued its trajectory away from Gov­ernment funding towards income from businesses. It has increasingly global ambitions, but it will have to find a new niche in which to operate as major pol­icy initiatives take hold under the Gov­ernment’s forthcoming resources and waste strategy.

As a man helping to spearhead WRAP’s development, director of gov­ernment programmes Peter Maddox has a unique mix of commercial and technical skills gained from his time working as a plastics chemist for oil giant BP.

“It’s rather curious that the first thing I worked on was BP’s manufacture of polymers for milk bottles,” he says. “Little did I realise 20 years later when I joined WRAP that my first project was going to be putting recycled content into the same milk bottle polymers.”

Another thing Maddox learned at BP was that he enjoys a challenge: working on a three-year joint project in Mar­seilles with Dow on new plastic films helped him to understand the impor­tance of partnership working.

“I started to get interested in climate change while at BP,” he says. “A big con­cept emerging at the time was the full life cycle assessment. Then suddenly, out of that came an offer to work at WRAP and I jumped ship – a very dif­ferent ship, from a global manufacturer to a relatively small company.”

Maddox was appointed head of man­ufacturing. Although he was valued for his hard-headed commercial know-how, he had to learn a new skill set fast.

“We put together the plastics pact with nearly 100 members in about six months. We’ve got them to commit to take action, commit to clear targets and we will hold their feet to the fire.”

“I had very little experience of how Government policy can shape markets. I’ve also had to learn about local govern­ment and how you bring policies together to create change. I soon got very heavily involved in developing our planning with Defra,” he said. “One of the key challenges over the years is our changing relationship with the depart­ment, and I’ve been at the heart of that.”

Working in a political environment can sometimes be murky compared with the straightforward goals of busi­ness – does he ever get frustrated? Maddox’s answer reveals a typical level-headed calmness, a valuable qual­ity in dealing with politicians and civil servants.

“Frustration, I’m not sure. It certainly takes some learning. In the commercial world, you don’t appreciate how impor­tant policy is to act on behalf of the pub­lic good and the environment – getting the right trade-off between businesses and the public. There are trade-offs all over the place and it’s been fascinating.”

WRAP is known for setting up volun­tary agreements with retailers and manufacturers, including the Courtauld Commitment for food waste, the Sus­tainable Clothing Action Plan and this year’s Plastics Pact. Using an analogy from his chemistry days, Maddox says WRAP’s role is to “catalyse change”.

“We’re effectively getting others to take action, which is quite different from our original remit. Back then, WRAP delivered some fairly heavy-handed market interventions.

“Recycling rates were very low, there was a lot of spending through capital grants and reports for local authorities to increase their infrastructure, skills and capacity. Ditto in the waste man­agement sector, getting the capacity of the industry to take materials.

“We had a lot more money back in those days. Fast forward, what you see is a completely changed emphasis. It is more about figuring out what works, getting the evidence, talking to the right people and getting them to take that forward. Presenting the economic and environmental case for change is at the core of what we do.”

Maddox is particularly proud of the Plastics Pact, launched on 20 April, which brought together businesses, Governments, NGOs and trade bodies over a set of agreements including to eliminate single-use plastic packaging through redesign, innovation or reuse by 2025.

But are voluntary agreements what we really need when the UK waste sec­tor is yearning for hard-nosed policies – such as banning food waste from landfill and minimum recycled content – which would stimulate the market and end up with far more recycling?

“It would be very powerful to have a combination of voluntary action with strong market signals from the Govern­ment,” says Maddox. “Regulation and policy takes a lot of time to implement. We put together the Plastics Pact with nearly 100 members in about six months. We’ve got them to commit to take action, commit to clear targets and we will hold their feet to the fire.

“If you look at the parallel discussions going on around plastics policy, includ­ing extended producer responsibility, the reality is that some of these meas­ures won’t be in place until 2022 at the earliest. Voluntary agreements can move businesses quickly.”

Some Governments can move very quickly indeed – Wales has achieved a world-leading recycling rate in a relatively short space of time through drafting legislation: “The Welsh have been a lot more ambitious. They’ve got food waste collections in every local authority – but those authorities need to know how to procure and implement those collections, which is where WRAP Cymru can help.”

Maddox has been meeting Defra staff and ministers regularly about the devel­opment of the resources and waste strategy, and he is clear that what the UK needs is increased demand for recy­cled materials. He says it is a very excit­ing time at Defra.

“I have worked with several directors and deputy directors. They have come and gone, I’m still here. They have never been so busy, they’ve got a very good secretary of state. This is our moment. WRAP is ready to facilitate all the con­sultations when the strategy comes out, as well as from the Treasury on the plas­tics tax. We need a step-change.

“It’s all about demand, not push … having minimum recycled content and rewarding packaging that has at least 30% recycled content would send very strong signals to the market. We want money invested in UK recycling plants and for those plants to generate a good return and be sustainable.”

Does he think that WRAP should make more of a splash in the wider media? It is certainly capable of doing so – its report that 7.3 million tonnes of household food waste was thrown away in the UK in 2015 created many head­lines and dramatically increased public awareness of the issue.

“I think that we have tried to be a bit more expressive. I think you will see more of that: we need to start talking more about what we do.”

A restructure earlier this year saw WRAP set up a business unit called WRAP Global, which is currently work­ing in 20 countries in partnership with United Nations Environment and food and manufacturing giants Nestlé, Tesco and Unilever.

“Our vision is for a world that uses resources more sustainably,” he says. “We have to look beyond UK shores. WRAP Global is there to take that expertise to foreign governments and businesses to explain how we got things to work. One of the most successful demonstrations of that is how WRAP has been instrumental in the UN Sus­tainability Development Goals (SDGs).”

Maddox says SDG 12.3, which is to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels by 2030, is “one of the most powerful”. WRAP was one of the founding members of a co- alition to mobilise action towards it.

“In the UK we’ve got the chief execu­tives of Tesco, Sainsbury’s and WRAP leading the way. WRAP is incredibly proud of what we’ve been able to do there. It’s very exciting times for the organisation.”

The waste and resources sector is probably going through the fastest rate of change ever. The crucial question is, how is WRAP going to remain relevant?

Maddox says: “We are restructuring the organisation for the future. We have to be more nimble, more receptive and more commercial. We are responding to more commercial enquiries.”

Following years of Government grant reduction and staff cuts, Maddox says he now wants to build up the team, and is resolutely upbeat and ambitious.

“We are unique – there are not many organisations out there like us that work in the space between industry, Govern­ment and citizens,” he says. “If WRAP wasn’t here tomorrow, you’d have to start it again.”

CV: Peter Maddox

  • WRAP: Began employment in 2007 and has held the positions of head of manufacturing, head of strategy and planning and operations manager.
  • BP, 1989-2006: Joined as chemist, went on to other positions including technology strategy manager.
  • Royal Institution of Great Britain, 1987-89: research fellow.
  • University of Oxford, 1980-87: 1st class honours BA and DPhil in chemistry.

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