The Department for International Trade (DIT) was set up last year in the wake of the Brexit vote, and it was one of the first things Theresa May did on entering office as the new prime minister.
The DIT took over from UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), which was based at the former business department. It was given the daunting task of developing trade policy and striking individual deals across the world as the UK leaves the EU. Its success is critical to the UK’s economy, and home-grown waste management expertise has a part to play.
Deborah Sacks, who started at UKTI two and half years ago, is the waste sector specialist at the DIT. Her role was originally about inward investment and what “fancy high-tech approaches” the UK could use from other countries to manage its own waste better. But she now also helps trade missions across the world to help export our own technology.
“There are a number of markets the UK is interested in because they are large markets or are politically important,” she says. “We have high-value campaigns for waste management in east Africa, China and Indonesia.”
During the summer, Sacks was with a delegation on a week-long trip to south China, taking in cities such as Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Zhanjiang.
“Our colleagues in China said come and see what is needed and bring some companies to see what they can do,” she says. “Guangzhou is the manufacturing hub of China – there is huge population growth and they need to put the infrastructure in place accordingly. Shenzhen was a town of a few thousand people 35 years ago but it’s now millions.”
The waste management response in Shenzhen has had to be swift, and the result is the world’s biggest incinerator, which processes 5,000 tonnes a day of waste – one-third of the waste generated by the city’s 20 million inhabitants. Sacks says that with virtually no formal segregation or recycling at all in the region, the priority is simply to reduce the waste mountains. As China shifts to circular economy (CE) ideas, it is looking higher up the waste hierarchy.
“Anaerobic digestion is a massive opportunity, and particularly in rural areas where there is very little service at all and people need renewable energy,” says Sacks. “Municipalities in China are really interested, have talked about the CE and want to take the lessons learned in the UK, such as from London’s waste management strategy.”
Indonesia is also a major target for Sacks – UK exports of goods there totalled £467m in 2014 – and it lined up for a UK delegation this year. It is the world’s fourth most populous country, at 252 million, and has a huge waste problem. Its poor infrastructure cannot cope with an estimated 175,000 tonnes a day of waste being produced, largely because a growing middle class is consuming more and more. It has even been reported that an environment minister once considered declaring a state of emergency.
In September, an Indonesian delegation made it to RWM 2017. Sacks needed to find out about the regulatory context for this priority market: “We met a developer looking at ecotourism – some of it in islands that are off-grid,” she explains. “Energy from waste, biomass and AD fit the bill, as well as managing waste in remote areas. They need skills.
“I’ve also had contact with the mayor of Surabaya [a port city on the Indonesian island of Java] about a clinical waste facility. Contracts are out, companies are bidding. There is a lot going on.”
A quick scamper on the DIT exporter opportunities website reveals 35 potential waste contracts from everywhere from the Dominican Republic to Kazakhstan. Sacks and her team is looking to build on that. But where the DIT will need to up its game is its database, which does not properly categorise waste management. It is currently difficult to isolate information on waste and recycling firms’ successes or failures abroad – there are no available figures to indicate whether UK waste firms are doing more or less trade overseas now compared with three years ago.
But Sacks is resolutely upbeat. She particularly has time for SMEs who “box clever”, and also points to a US company with a development arm in the UK – meaning that jobs would be created here if it gets orders from abroad.
“I really like talking to those UK companies who are making a difference. There are some very clever people coming up with some very good schemes. Advanced Plasma Power, Chinook, Biomass Power – I think they can deliver and they are manufacturing their kit in the UK.
“Looking at waste management sites is what I live for,” she adds. “People are really interesting, and we have a lot in common because we’re looking at the same things.”