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Policy needs to address global trends

“What was it like in the olden days?” my daughter asked as she sat on the sofa devouring a generous slice of sponge cake and drinking lemonade. 

“They were good,” I said.  The Netherlands had beaten Brazil and Argentina, and reached a World Cup final for the first time. In the UK, while the three-day-week was in full swing, the Three Degrees topped the charts with ‘When will I see you again’ and Bill Shankly had announced his retirement as Liverpool manager having won three top division titles, two FA Cups and a UEFA Cup.

It was 1974 – the year I was born.  And 40 years later I find myself in my home near Amsterdam with a wife, a daughter, friends and family celebrating a landmark birthday and reflecting on the past.  In the room, with wine glasses charged, are a range of colleagues from industry including the resource sector.  We reflect on the dawn of the new economy, my early days sweeping and picking at Van der Elst plastics and paper recycling, my career across Europe and how it has mirrored the maturing of a sector today’s children take as read.

“Some people really only used one bin?” my daughter asked again.  “Yes” I responded, recognising the fundamental shifts which have happened in my lifetime.  In addition to the end of the Cold War and the opening of the Iron Curtain, a global realignment has seen economic power shift to the BRIC nations: Brazil, Russia, India and China.  Closer to home the UK embraced a new constitutional settlement with the establishment of a Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Northern Irish Assembly and a new settlement for the capital.

Devolution has had a profound impact on how the UK has and will continue to respond to an increasingly complex resource agenda. Each of the four nations have adopted different policy positions – from Scotland and Wales forging ahead with ambitious targets backed by big impacts on corporates, councils and communities, to what I’ve heard described by government as a more pragmatic approach in England.

I’m reminded by a colleague now on his second glass of shiraz that this is no different to the complex policy platforms adopted by nations across the European continent.  What is important, as Shankly would say, is not the how the game is played but the result on the day.  And it is that focus on the big picture we need now more than ever as the EU Commission consults on legislative proposal to review targets under the Waste Framework Directive, the Landfill Directive and the Packaging Waste Directive.

The proposals address global mega-trends and as such Viridor welcomes the ambition to safeguard Europe’s resources, to achieve enhanced recycling, embrace opportunities in a circular economy and build on the progress my daughter found difficult to comprehend.

In my last column I spoke of the realism of trading global commodities and the need for UK investment aligned with a new industrial policy for Britain to allow it to develop domestic capacity and continue to compete on a global stage.

The discussion turns to the future and my daughter’s hopes and aspirations.  The assembled group is optimistic, myself included, for a bright future for Europe, its young people and its green economy.  Just as a paradigm shift was required all those years ago, it is again today.  New targets, new thinking and new ways of working will lead to the development of new opportunities, new industries and practices.

That shift is happening today, from Sheffield to Scotland, new infrastructure is taking root and sprouting, like tulips on a warm spring morning.  Across the UK, Viridor’s £1.5bn investment is transitioning from development to delivery – from our £200m Ardley ERF connecting to the grid, our Cardiff ERF entering commissioning, and our £180m of Scottish investments at Glasgow Recycling & Renewable Energy Centre and the UK’s most advanced glass recycling hub well underway.

That investment, combined with a firm focus on front-end initiatives, will make a real impact on Great British recycling and the UK’s role in a global economy.  But aligning tough new European targets with the realities of politics and investment profiles of 28 member states will not be without challenges.  That’s why, whether London or Cardiff, Stormont or Scotland, we need clear, supportive and enabling policy.

From investment and industrial policy, to balancing trade while controlling the unrestrained export of UK resources, the UK needs to act.  It’s the same for Defra’s current review of the PRN system – we need policy that works.

“Proost” my wife shouts as our glasses clink to birthday celebrations.  With a wry smile I pose for a social media selfie, malt whisky in my hand.  It is Highland Park – a gift from Scottish colleagues. I’m drawn to the heritage of my drink, how my latest investment will transform the sustainability of this global product, and to the debate on Scotland’s own position in the world.  Whatever the outcome, here’s to a brighter future for us all. Cheers!

Herman van der Meij is managing director at Viridor resource management

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