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Why there is virtue in complexity

Stuart Hayward-Higham

A few months ago, some colleagues and I had a meeting with our chief executive David Palmer-Jones to discuss the array of policy and practical interventions flowing through our sector, in an attempt to understand their potential effects and opportunities. 

At the time, these included changes to energy incentives; potential bans on single-use plastics; deposit return schemes; new products com­ing to market; and the status of the UK’s subscription to the EU circular economy (CE) package.

We also discussed outputs from recent Defra workshops on the Government’s resources and waste strategy, and the National Infrastructure Com­mission’s assessment of waste infrastructure. For us, this con­versation highlighted the great scope and complexity inherent in our sector’s contribution to UK plc.

The meeting ended in a common agreement that to take and respond to each of these topics as opportunities arose would probably fail to fully describe how they are all inter-related and connected.

Seven weeks later Suez pub­lished its manifesto, A vision for England’s long-term resources and waste strategy, which brought together our current thinking alongside eight years’ worth of detailed work on topics critical to our sector.

The report details 80 policy interventions across 22 differ­ent themes, and sought to describe our sector’s activities: from the origin of waste to the final products we currently, or could, make. We wanted to help demonstrate both the complexity and opportunity in our view of the world.

In pulling together all the strands of activity, we were able to show the huge potential that an holistic waste and resource strategy has – from adding up to £9bn in gross value added to the economy, to saving tens of millions of tonnes of CO2e.

But it is also clear that more than 70% of this benefit is likely to occur in the value chain outside the direct activi­ties of our sector. These benefits can only be realised if they are connected, co-ordinated, sequenced and compounded rather than delivered in isolation.

So the very nature of our sec­tor’s interactions across the value chain and numerous supply chains mean we need to understand how they operate and where we can add value. We also need to be able to col­laborate across the value chain to help each component deliver its CE potential.

Working in the waste and resource industry is complex. But that very complexity cre­ates huge potential for us to leave our ‘sector silo’ and play a lead role in the delivery of this huge, but very necessary, change as a fully embedded and essential element of the UK’s sustainable economic future.

Stuart Hayward-Higham is Technical development director at Suez Recycling and Recovery UK

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