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Circular economy is now mainstream

It’s a cold, frosty and dark winter’s night in London.

But on a bustling Oxford Street, the festive season is under way. People rush to carry their Christmas treasures home, to be wrapped in shiny paper, with ribbon and bows. Resources are being consumed.

It’s a time for families to reflect on the year, to speak of what Santa might bring on Christmas Day and to look forward to the New Year to come. For my daughter, aged eight, the theme this year is art. We’re moving from pencils to paints, neatly wrapped by a sales assistant at Selfridges, before a race across London to catch the last flight back to the Netherlands.

It’s been the usual long but productive day. Settling down before take-off, I have one last check of my emails, calendar and texts. Some good contacts made today, with follow-ups required. I add to my to-do list. In doing so I think of what the year has meant for opinion our sector and our aspirations for 2015.

This year, as with the last, we witnessed an acceleration of the new global realignment, a shift from west to east. The continued emergence of the BRIC economies and a commanding domination of the world’s largest consumer country, China, where its Operation Green Fence policy forced many people to think differently about quality.

While some struggle to adapt, others, with an international outlook like Viridor, will grasp the opportunities this new globalisation brings.

Circular thinking has become mainstream. More than any other year, we have translated policy into practice. Markets are consolidating; cutting-edge consumer brands like Coca-Cola Enterprises and Procter & Gamble have reworked their business models, redesigned their packaging and redefined their supply chain. Interdependence and integration are key.

Chinese inspections

This year too, quality has counted more than ever. It is the next big thing – from China to Canning Town, corporate partners are demanding higher spec secondary raw materials.

But, like M&S, it is affordable quality that counts. On a recent long-haul flight I watched Jobs, the film that follows the story of Steve Jobs and his iconic Apple brand. In it, Jobs learned a valuable lesson, that quality commands market value but also that high-cost producers are destined to stumble. It is a lesson some in our sector have learned this year.

Quality has driven new thinking, alternative working practices and fresh investment. From front-end investment in award-winning consumer communication programmes in Greater Manchester to the latest smart sorting plastics recycling facilities at Rochester, or a national network of next-generation energy recovery facilities, I am pleased with our performance.

But to keep that continued focus on quality through investment, this Christmas and next, our sector needs a Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) system that is fit for purpose. It needs to go back to the future, to its original objective of funding investment in UK infrastructure, domestic capacity supporting British manufacturing and not a purchase subsidy. With tough European targets, it is right that Defra reviews this area.

With investment in infrastructure comes investment in skills. Our sector is transforming as it embraces high-tech solutions for the waste that people throw away. We are at the heart of a green economy, and a new generation of graduates, apprentices and new entrants are testament to that.

And this year, too, there has been recognition of the huge economic benefit our sector brings to communities. From investment and jobs, skills and training, to supporting SMEs and education – our sector is standing up and being counted.

I think back to my meeting earlier in the day, when there was recognition from Defra on the role of energy recovery, the need for UK capacity, for a quality standard, greater enforcement and steps to control the unrestrained export of a vital British energy resource. Has Christmas come early? Not quite, but a small gift is always welcome.  

Herman van der Meij is managing director of Viridor Resource Management (VRM)

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