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WRAP chief takes resource efficiency message to South Africa

WRAP chief executive Liz Goodwin was a keynote speaker this week at the WASTEX Africa conference in Johannesburg - by Skype. She was invited to address the event on the WRAP model and its journey from recycling to resource efficiency. This is her speech in full.

“Most, if not all of you who are attending the conference, will have some experience in or involvement with recycling and waste management …

….. perhaps within your business, or government department, or within a province or municipality …

The chances are, I’m guessing, that for many of you, this will be a relatively new area, and one which you are exploring together.

Here in the UK it may be that we are a little further along on the waste management journey  … or perhaps, the resource management journey, as we might more accurately describe it ….

… and I’d like to take this opportunity to share with you WRAP’s experience in this increasingly important area.

Let me start by telling you a little about WRAP – the Waste & Resources Action Programme.

History

We were originally set up in 2000 by the UK government with a focus on recycling and on stimulating markets for recycled materials. That meant identifying market failures and finding solutions.

At the time, there was widespread interest in environmental issues; the economy was then in healthy shape, manufacturing outputs were high, and exports thriving ….

But in recent years, that agenda has changed, and changed radically …..

As a result, while there remains real underlying concern regarding the environmental challenges, the difficult economic climate means our focus has shifted to the need to stimulate growth and create jobs.

I know these goals are just as important to you, and to your government.

Mantra

So while supporting and encouraging recycling is still an important part of our work, our mantra today is very much one of advising, and working with, governments and businesses on how to get greater value out of resources.

I think it’s fair to say that viewing waste, not as something ‘just to throw away’ but as a valuable material in its own right, is relatively new thinking for us in the UK.

But it is an approach that has paid dividends and presents some great opportunities, not only for making better use of our precious resources, but also for creating a foundation on which to build a more sustainable economy …

… and an economy where we focus on and benefit from designing out, or minimising waste, seeking greater opportunities to re-use and recover materials ….and working our way down the waste hierarchy, use landfill as the very last, least preferable option.

Valuable

Let me tell you, this is an approach that works. Today, the UK recycling sector now generates more than £13bn a year in sales, employs more than 40,000 people and contributes around £3bn in gross value added each year to the UK economy. The sector has grown its sales revenue threefold since 1998, outstripping growth in the overall economy over the same period of time.

Let me explain what I’m talking about …

Let’s take as our example the humble plastic bottle.

In 2000, in the UK just 3 per cent of plastic bottles were recycled. The remaining 411,000 tonnes was sent to landfill.

There was no infrastructure for reprocessing plastics.  Collection of the material was difficult  … if they thought about it at all, consumers believed that landfilling was the only available solution …. there were market failures in all parts of the loop.

Circular

You might be wondering what I mean by the ‘loop’.

WRAP is a huge advocate for what is called the circular economy. To put it simply, a circular economy is a way of safeguarding scarce resources ….

..  by keeping these resources in use for as long as possible, for example, by re-using material when we are finished with it.

This makes sure we get the maximum value from these resources ….  And it’s an approach that also brings significant business benefits, as I hope to show you ….

To return to the problem of plastics bottles … we tackled the issue head on.

We brought together local authorities, waste management companies, bottle manufacturers, brands such as Coca Cola, retailers, and banks.

Together, we develop a shared ‘closed loop vision’, taking the humble plastic bottle back to its beginnings and mapping a new journey for its lifecycle – one that did not involve landfill.

Progress

The result of that approach?

World-leading technology was developed, to produce recycled material that meets this country’s high standard specifications for food-grade plastic.

Investment was secured to build a new plastics reprocessing plant. 

When the resulting Closed Loop Recycling plastic bottle factory in London opened in 2009, it provided more than 100 local jobs.

Today, the plant processes getting on for a billion discarded soft drinks and milk bottles made from plastic a year…. and recycles them back into food-grade plastic.

This recycled plastic is used to make new bottles and food packaging.

Using recycled content means that far less virgin plastic is needed – saving money, and avoiding the need to import virgin materials. The amount of food grade recycled polymer from drinks bottles going back into closed loop applications as bottles is at least 66,000 tonnes - with a sales value of more than £66m.

Smart

Another thing to remember about this is that this is a complex, ‘smart’ manufacturing process – Closed Loop Recycling is not a waste management operation – it’s clean, high tech.

The work of this one London plant alone means 875 million bottles that would otherwise have been exported for recycling, or sent to landfill, will now be reprocessed and remain in the UK. This represents around 10% of the plastic bottles that are currently collected for recycling in the UK, saving approximately 52,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

And since CLR was created, other plants have been set up in the UK to reprocess food grade plastic bottles … currently processing around 4 billion bottles a year.

Plastics also have an economic value - recycled plastic bottles, for example, at today’s prices, fetch around £200-£300 per tonne – and it’s this value that drives the loop and makes it financially viable.

Our research shows that one of the barriers that discourages people from recycling is a lack of understanding about how to recycle, and lack of knowledge about what happens to the materials after they’re collected.

So we created guidance for councils to help them establish effective collection schemes, and produced advice to help them communicate with their residents.

Specifications

Not only has WRAP’s work catalysed the building of similar factories across the UK, all contributing to regional growth and the UK economy, it has also encouraged retailers and brands to specify more recycled content in their packaging ….

This all, in turn, provides yet more market pull for recycled materials. 

We currently recycle just over half of all plastic bottles from UK households (according to Recoup) … there are four plastics reprocessing plants in the UK able to produce food grade recycled plastic from plastic drinks bottles  …

Nearly all plastic milk bottles have recycled content of at least 10% ….. and our dairy industry has set targets to reach 30% by 2015.

In England, almost all local authorities now provide plastic recycling services for 20 million+ households, and many of those councils use the WRAP technical guidance and communications advice to help them get the best from those services.

And to bring us right up to date, and to remind us of the truly inspiring London 2012 Olympic Games …. Coca-Cola pledged to recycle bottles from the event in just six weeks. A joint venture with ECO Plastics (which received funding from WRAP) allowed more than 10.5 million clear plastic PET bottles – around 465 tonnes - from all the London 2012 venues to be recycled.  

I know this is an area which will interest many of you as you seek to boost your own plastic bottle recycling figures – which for 2011 were, I understand, at well over 1.4 billion bottles a year.

Innovation

I think it’s also important to acknowledge that all these developments are also a great example of innovation. The UK, for example, was the first to develop a process for creating food grade HDPE from recycled plastics, We are now looking for further innovative solutions for other things such as food grade polypropylene and rigid black plastics – to help ensure the UK stays at the leading edge.

I mentioned funding just now: We know that difficulties in accessing finance – particularly when the economic climate is tough – can present another barrier to encouraging the growth of recycling and reprocessing infrastructure.

WRAP operates a variety of loan funds and business grants designed to help companies overcome some of these challenges, helping them to turn their ideas for innovation and growth into a reality. It was support of this nature that has helped Closed Loop Recycling and others create or expand their reprocessing operations.

Chain

The plastics example demonstrates very clearly how WRAP works - applying its skills, experience, evidence-based research and partnership working approach, alongside with, and  influencing all parts of the supply chain.

Our experience – not only in creating and developing the infrastructure required for plastic bottle recycling, but also in other areas …

…. such as reducing food waste, reducing the amount of construction waste going to landfill and encouraging innovation in packaging …

… suggests that working in partnership is the key to making change happen.

Yes, there’s a role for legislation, for example, when health and safety is at risk, but here at WRAP, we’ve found that the voluntary approach – we call them Voluntary Agreements - can also be very successful.

Voluntary

We believe this is because they give signatories, no matter what sector they are from, the flexibility to develop environmentally-sound solutions which work for both their business and their customers.  We’ve run a number of these voluntary agreements in the UK and I’d be pleased to tell you more about these if you’re interested.

We also know that access to information is important and that’s why we’ve made our website a source of resource!

For example, local authorities can explore and download a range of reports, communications templates and recycling guides to help them.

Small and medium sized businesses can log on and learn about opportunities for commercial and industrial recycling, water saving and resource efficiency.

Consumers can visit WRAP’s well-established recyclenow.com website to find out information on everything from their nearest recycling centre and what materials it will accept, through to what happens to small electrical items they recycle, ….

And at lovefoodhatewaste.com there is a wealth of support for anyone who wants to save money and reduce unnecessary food waste. In the UK, although we’re improving, households alone still throw away 7.2 million tonnes of food a year, much of which could be eaten …

….  so there’s real scope for change …

Benefits

The overall cost to the SA economy of the 9-10 million tonnes of food that’s wasted each year is more than 60 billion Rand but the breakdown is, I know, somewhat different – with the lion’s share of food waste coming from agriculture and the supply chain rather than the consumer side.  And this at a time when 70% of poor urban households in the country live in conditions of food insecurity!

In the UK, too, waste created ‘from farm to fork’ is also an issue, and much of our focus is on working in partnership with manufacturers, retailers and brands to help them reduce the amount of food and drink that is thrown away.

These online resources I’ve mentioned are all important tools in our armoury, particularly as they provide easy access to free help and advice for organisations and individuals. But so, too, are the partnerships we create and develop, bringing together organisations from across the supply chain to find solutions.

I hope I’ve given you some insight into a small part of our own recycling journey here in the UK.

As I’ve indicated, we’ve come a long way since WRAP was first launched in 2000 and we’re continuing to develop new ideas and avenues to increase recycling, re-use and waste prevention, and help us all use resources more efficiently.

I’d be happy to explore these avenues further with you, and share your insights. I look forward to any questions you may have.

Thank you.

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