Unprecedented appetite for change at RTF18

15 June 2018

The Resourcing the Future Conference is one of those events where I wish I could distill the collective expertise in the room and share it instantly with policy-makers in governments and decision-makers in businesses across the UK. Are compostable plastics good or bad? Carbon metrics better than weight-based? Need to know how to build markets for secondary materials, prevent waste crime or achieve consumer behaviour change? The assembled staff, members, and stakeholders of CIWM, ESA, the Resource Association and WRAP demonstrated between them an extraordinary level of experience and wisdom.

The imminence of England’s Resources and Waste Strategy lent urgency to the discussions and meant a sharpening of the prescriptions from the speakers. With the key people responsible for the Strategy joining us in the room, we had the opportunity to shape the emerging plan. 

So what were the key themes? Plastic came up of course, but unlike in the public sphere, in this audience plastic is not the only game in town. Plastic may be the most currently visible ‘stuff’ crisis, but other materials are still leaking from the economy at an unnecessary rate. What the plastics furore has done, as two key reports* launched at the conference demonstrated, is shine a spotlight on how we use materials, and for how long. The idea of making something used for a few seconds (coffee stirrers for instance) from a material that will endure for years, is becoming increasingly bizarre. As more than one speaker pointed out, we have been urged to embrace disposability as a pillar of the economy. Now we have to unlearn those habits. Rather than disposability being an economic boon, we have to think about all the missed opportunities, financial, social and environmental, from failing to recover products and materials. 

We heard that the solution for plastic, as for any other material, embraces not having the thing at all, using an alternative material, or designing for multiple use followed by recovery and recycling. The second two options still need markets for the recovered stuff if the circular economy is to mean anything. WRAP has been supporting market development since its inception, fighting an uphill battle against global economic forces. But what we heard at RTF18 was a willingness in all sectors to entertain binding measures that create greater market stability. Chief among those was recycled content requirements: the audience gave that the most votes when asked by Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee.   

I came away more convinced than ever that the actions needed to use resources sustainably – WRAPs vision – are relatively few. Design for re-use and recovery, more consistent collection and greater demand for high quality secondary materials dominated the list in this forum. If the forthcoming Resources and Waste strategy found ways to simulate all of those, we would be a long way forward. As Colin Church from CIWM remarked in his closing comments, we are experiencing an unprecedented commercial, political and media appetite for change, so we all have plenty to work with. 

*Eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042: a use-based approach to decision and policy making and Completing the circle: creating effective UK markets for recovered resources