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‘We need more entrepreneurs’

One day can be a game-changer in the world of waste and recycling, so to reflect on a whole year is no easy task. The early part of 2017 seems like a lifetime ago, but that perhaps further indicates how signifi­cant the past 12 months have been. Has it been a straightforward year? Far from it.

It would be impossible to review 2017 with­out mentioning Brexit. This is not the time to enter into a political debate but, personally, I believe the negotiation process so far has been poor. The lack of clarity surrounding ‘what’s next’ also suggests it will be some time before the Government can re-focus on any topic other than the ‘leave’ deal.

This is worrying, especially given statistics which suggest that recycling is starting to flat-line. So, I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: the industry cannot rely on legislative or top-down direction to drive environmental progress in the UK. Certainly not at the moment.

But do we actually need such top-down direction? It would be nice, don’t get me wrong, and I have often commented on the extent to which legislation drives innovation. We only have to look at the changes the Landfill Tax Directive kick-started all those years ago.

Yet I also believe that our industry has inno­vation at its heart. From the continued engi­neering of technology to the development of circular business models, there are many go-getters in waste and recycling. Such people are the true instigators of change.

The Brexit discussions have weakened industry confidence to some degree, which per­haps explains why a handful of firms have opted to sit tight on their projects. This is wor­rying because, as my colleague Marcus Brew, Untha’s managing director, told a journalist recently, “it is uncertainty that kills the market”. The last thing we want to see is a domino effect in which progress grinds to a halt.

But other companies have marched on – and not just the big boys. Untha UK has been approached by a number of start-ups and young businesses this year, led by entrepre­neurial forward-thinkers. They have spotted a market gap and are keen to capitalise on the opportunity for smarter environmental think­ing and the wealth in waste.

This is great to see – we need more trailblaz­ers. The waste and recycling industry has many unsung heroes, and at a time when others could benefit from some inspiration, let’s give them more airtime. They could even act as catalysts for greater closed-loop thinking within the UK, which surely will not hurt if it is unclear what our resource security will look like once we have left the EU.

Brexit commentary aside, it has continued to be a pleasure to be part of a global brand. The benefits of international knowledge transfer far outweigh the drawbacks. We just have to be savvy in the decisions we make.

Of course, 2017 has been a year of change but when has this ever not the case? The difference is perhaps the pace and magnitude of that change. Organisations that refuse to be agile will struggle in 2018, I fear. Of course it is still wise to have a long-term business plan, but that plan must be continuously reviewed and iter­ated for it to remain effective.

Untha continued to reshape its strategy as the year unfolded, for example, and the effort has paid dividends. We are making the most of the shredding versatility within our product range and are talking to different sectors, that need to tackle different input materials and at different points in the supply chain.

As a result, our order book is now made up of clients large and small that are embarking on extremely diverse waste, recycling and product destruction projects. This variety presents a mixed yet healthy engineering ‘make up’ for Untha well into 2019.

I would encourage other companies across the sector to be equally open-minded and flex­ible in their approach, so they do not find them­selves going down a blind alley in the months ahead.

I hope you will allow me the final indulgence of mentioning my own 2017 milestone: hang­ing up my hi-vis and handing the reins of Untha over to Marcus and the team. Retire­ment from the world of waste came with mixed emotions, which I suppose is understandable following a career spanning almost half a cen­tury.

But after several years of succession plan­ning, I knew the time was right. It is an inde­scribable feeling to reflect on decades of relationships built, challenges overcome and achievements secured. But I am excited to see how the story continues.

Chris Oldfield retired from the industry in October - after 50 years in the business

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