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The Big Interview: Vic Emery

Warships and waste sound like two unlikely bedfellows but, for a young ship-builder, they relate well to each other. Vic Emery started his career in naval architecture, helping to construct armoured vessels – giving him an early insight into the importance of material optimisation and the need to design waste out of projects.

Having since accrued a wealth of experience as an industrialist and businessman, Emery is the ideal choice in many respects for his latest role as chairman of Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS).

MRW’s conversation with Emery inside the Stirling headquarters of ZWS is the first time he has talked to the press about his appointment since taking office last summer. He is keen to get to his main point that the nature of waste is changing.

“You design products to last and to reduce the whole life cost,” he says. “If you take, for example, a warship or a nuclear submarine, the maintenance costs normally run to three or four times the cost of building it. It’s about making sure that the resources being deployed are reusable and that we make the best use of them.”

He is talking about the circular economy, of course, a resource-led model that is now a focal point for ZWS. Scotland is aiming to demonstrate leadership in the field, and is one of only three regions in the world to have signed up to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Circular Economy 100, a global business platform bringing together leading companies and innovators to help accelerate this transition.

Emery says that, economically and politically, it makes sense that Scotland should be heading in this direction.

“The circular economy is really an industrial reinvigoration. It will help Scotland’s industrial base to try to re-establish itself after being chipped away during the past 50 years. It is where we need to be heading so we utilise the resources that Scotland has.

He added: “We need to ensure that we choose the right materials in the first place, that those materials are reusable and that we create other opportunities within Scotland for our zero waste agenda.”

Local authorities are the delivery arm of what we do. Local authorities must be an early focus for us … for securing some of the benefits of what we are doing

Emery says he wants to make a genuine difference at ZWS and help guide the organisation as a newly formed independent corporate structure. One of the immediate internal priorities is around governance – an area in which he has a proven track record because he is also chairman of the Scottish Police Authority.

For ZWS, it is about putting certain corporate structures in place, such as contracting arrangements, limits of authority and auditing functions. ZWS chief executive Iain Gulland is also developing a long-term plan for the organisation, and key objectives will be set within that.

Fundamentally, Emery believes that delivering best value will act as a key enabler: “Are we auditing things properly? Are we getting value for money? What are our primary stakeholders’ requirements? Do we understand where they want to go? We have national targets and clearly that is one of the things we need to address.”

Now no longer part of WRAP, Emery feels that ZWS needs to shout a little louder and learn to partner on its own terms. “It needs to raise its profile,” he says. “Zero Waste Scotland is about changing cultures, but the delivery mechanisms are through other people. There is a huge partnership piece to be delivered.”

As well as engaging with industry in more meaningful ways, Emery would like to see ZWS build stronger links with Scotland’s 32 councils to create greater consistency around approaches to recycling and the circular economy.

“Local authorities are the delivery arm of what we do. We can forge a deeper relationship with them by engaging at a senior level and that is, hopefully, where I can help. Local authorities must be an early focus for us … for securing some of the benefits of what we are doing.”

One area where councils could play an instrumental role is in helping to tackle waste crime such as littering and fly-tipping. “Waste crime is valued at around £2bn a year to Scotland,” Emery notes. “We shouldn’t underestimate the degree of waste crime that is going on. We need to do whatever we can to stop that because it’s a huge loss to the economy.”

Asked if his contacts within the police authority will help in that respect, Emery replies “absolutely”, but adds: “My message here is around prevention. Yes, we should have tough enforcement for those who do not obey, but this is about stopping it happening in the first place.”

The circular economy needs to be about how we conduct ourselves

Food waste is another major challenge facing Scottish councils, particularly in the wake of the Scottish Waste Regulations introduced last year.

He says: “I think food waste is a big issue – I don’t think it’s handled consistently across Scotland. We need to look at how it is operating, so it is easy and convenient for the user. Some of the larger authorities here don’t even do it. Some are recycling food waste by putting it in with garden waste and that’s wrong because you cannot get the same energy out of that mixture compared with food waste alone.”

Emery is keen for Scotland to keep hold of its resource potential, and that means optimising existing infrastructure where possible: “We have not got to the end by any means of the recycling agenda. There are some significant and interesting challenges ahead.”

What could help on this front is public messaging, and ZWS has a crucial role to play, according to Emery. He says it has already demonstrated huge success with its orchestration of the country’s mandatory carrier bag levy introduced last October. Since the charge came in, major retailers are reporting reductions of up to 90% in the distribution of single-use bags. In addition, more than 250 retailers in Scotland have registered an interest in ZWS’s Carrier Bag Commitment, agreeing to give the net proceeds from the charge to good causes.

“A nominal charge of 5p per bag issufficient for your average shopper to ask do I really want to spend 5p? I think it will have a profound effect, and it already has in Wales, as we know.”

Emery believes this experience will stand the organisation in good stead to facilitate further initiatives based on behaviour change, especially around the circular economy as waste becomes an increasingly prized asset.

“The circular economy needs to be about how we conduct ourselves,” Emery explains. “It needs to be broken down into its elements so that people behave as if they are in it without realising, so that they are actually contributing to it. It becomes second nature.”

For that to happen, he argues that you need to look at the wider context: the systems and infrastructure that underpin resource flows. That means thinking not just about products and materials at end-of-life, but also before they are made. “The whole circular economy starts there – the way we buy things, the way we wrap things, the way we use things, the way we dispose of things, the way we reuse stuff,” he says.

Given Scotland’s ambitious resource agenda and clear zero-waste policy roadmap, it is little wonder that it is viewed with some envy by waste professionals working south of the border. It has yet to be seen whether the promise of more devolved powers to Scotland will affect this trajectory but, given the fact that much of the country’s waste law is already fully delegated – the most recent example being landfill tax – it may make little difference.

Asked if Scotland should set a benchmark for the rest of the UK, Emery replies: “My ambition is that we make a difference for the people of Scotland. We need to be the best that we can possibly be. I don’t think of it as a competition or a race. Do we want England and Wales to adopt what we do in Scotland? The answer is ‘yes’ if they think that is appropriate to them, but we must do what is appropriate for Scotland.”

CV: Vic Emery

Emery has decades of experience in shipbuilding and in 2008 was awarded an OBE for his services to the industry.

During that time he became managing director of BAE Systems warship division, managing the business on the Clyde and in Portsmouth. He also sat on the operational board of BAE Systems from 2003-08.

In the public sector, Emery was convener of the Scottish Police Services Authority and Scottish Crime & Drug Enforcement Agency (2009 – 2013). In 2012 Emery was appointed chairman of the newly formed Scottish Police Authority.

A former board member and chairman of Scottish Enterprise Glasgow, Emery also currently sits as a trustee of the Scottish Maritime Museum. In 2014, he became president of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and chairman of Zero Waste Scotland.

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