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Big Interview: Liz Goodwin

While at a conference in Scotland, Chiara Francavilla took the opportunity for a one-to-one with WRAP chief executive Liz Goodwin, looking at the future of the organisation

You had better not try to fool Liz Goodwin, WRAP’s chief executive. She has an analytical mind from a background in the chemicals industry that allows her to quickly notice incongruencies.

“Because I’m a scientist, I’m good at spotting when someone is telling me bullshit,” she says during a break at the Scottish Resource Conference 2013 in Glasgow. We both laugh at this boldness, something I had not expected given her calm and composed public persona.

Both sides to Goodwin’s character are needed to lead WRAP, a unique organisation that sits in between business and government. Its role is not always fully understood, and she is keen to promote broader awareness of some of the issues that affect it.

These are challenging times for the publicly funded body, especially after the significant reduction in Government support that was announced in June as part of the Spending Review for 2015/16.

We will be an international organisation, working to help make the world a more sustainable place

Scotland is now WRAP’s biggest funder, at £26m in 2013/14. Northern Ireland and Wales provided £3.4m and £3.2m, respectively.

But Defra’s cut in WRAP funding from £25.7m in 2013/14 to £15.5m for 2015/16 did not come without forewarning. Goodwin says she put forward some “aggressive” reduction proposals of her own, describing what WRAP would or not be able to do with less money.

Goodwin envisages that WRAP will become an organisation that, during the next five years, will work for a larger number of smaller funders. This means that projects will be more targeted and limited in scope.

For example, initiatives such as a scheme to improve the waste collection infrastructure in Northern Ireland will become more common. This is in contrast to WRAP’s extensive project to drive the circular economy in Scotland at the moment.

But less funding does not mean lower ambitions. Goodwin’s vision for WRAP is to expand its footprint and transform it from a promoter of resource-efficiency in the UK to having a global scope.

“We will be an international organisation, working to help make the world a more sustainable place,” she says. “It also means more opportunities, so it’s exciting.”

WRAP’s global expansion could allow it to tap into international financial resources. It is already receiving some support from the EU for a project on resource efficient business models and the United Nations Environment Programme as part of its ‘Think.Eat.Save’ food waste initiative.

But WRAP will not start selling its expertise to cope with reductions in funding, as some in the industry have thought. Goodwin is adamant about that. As she puts it, WRAP’s biggest asset is being seen as independent. This asset would be endangered if the organisation adopted a commercial, consultancy-style approach to funding.

Liz Goodwin

“We did have a discussion about that a couple of years ago, but we knocked the idea on the head,” she adds. “This does not mean that we do not have to be more commercial in our approach, making sure that we are really testing the value for money that we provide.”

Similarly, to preserve its crucial independence, WRAP will not become more involved in policy making, Goodwin says. This is despite the desire of some for it to do this, given the organisation’s privileged position between politics and business.

WRAP is involved in policy making, but only as much as sponsors let it, she reveals: “It is up to the funders whether or not they want it. For example we feel very much part of the team in Scotland. We bring our practical experience to the policy debate, so that policies are created in a way that can be implemented.

“But in England, Defra may be less comfortable [with this] and that’s fine.”

Besides respecting what funders want, WRAP also needs to keep demonstrating that it is value for money. This consists of delivering what has been promised and doing it in an efficient way, Goodwin explains.

But measuring WRAP’s impact has become more difficult as a result of an evolution of the organisation. In the beginning, projects were mainly related to building infrastructure for recycling, so their outcomes were easily assessable. But as projects become increasingly complex and require the collaboration of various stakeholders, evaluation of the organisation’s performance has been more difficult.

This also reflects a change in WRAP’s focus and priorities. It has moved from creating recycling markets to waste prevention. Has the recycling industry understood the shift?

“Possibly not,” answers Goodwin. “We have been on a bit of a journey, and the agenda has moved on. When we started, we had a really narrow focus on creating markets for recycling materials. Then we were asked by the Government to take on waste prevention, and gradually we moved to resource efficiency.

“Now we are far more about product sustainability and sustainable consumption. It is an evolution, and it is quite possible that some of the industry has not realised that.”

But she says that the waste and recycling industry is still very important for WRAP and should not feel left out.

Reprocessors are a vital part of the circular economy

“Reprocessors are a vital part of the circular economy,” she says. “There are still plenty of reprocessing issues to be tackled and markets to be created.”

She mentions that WRAP has in the past helped to set up a market for PET bottles and is in the process of creating one for pots, tubs and trays. It has been conducting research on how to increase the recycling of household mixed plastics, such as by promoting the separation and conversion of food-grade materials back into food-grade materials.

But industry insiders have asked whether WRAP could do more to be transparent. Goodwin acknowledges the importance of this.

“But transparency has a cost,” she points out. “We try to be transparent, but we have to make a judgment on how much because the cost [in terms of bureaucracy] is being bought by the public purse.”

With the pragmatism of a scientist, she adds: “If anyone wants to ask us about any of our figures, I’m absolutely happy for them to come and spend time ploughing through the accounts.”

Liz Goodwin’s CV

Goodwin has a PhD in chemical physics. She held a number of technical and production-related roles with British chemical company Imperial Chemical Industries and pharmaceutical firm Zeneca.

She joined WRAP in 2001 as the first director of materials programme, and became chief executive in 2007.

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