WRAP’s first 18 years – saluting success and looking to the future

8 October 2020

The first Chair of WRAP, Vic Cocker, thought that WRAP only needed to exist for a few years. The then Government had given WRAP a very specific job to do – find markets for the increasing quantity of recyclables being collected from households, as policy-makers aimed to push the UK up the European recycling league table. It worked – in 2000, at WRAP’s inception, household recycling was 11%, and the UK was in the bottom three performers in the EU in terms of the proportion of waste sent to landfill. However, by 2010, the recycling rate was just over 40%, and the UK was firmly fixed in the middle of the EU league table.

How was this achieved? On the push end, government set statutory targets for local authority collections, so recycling rates increased rapidly. But on the pull end, WRAP deployed a winning mix of capital grants, loans, managerial support and materials knowledge, to ensure that there were plants to turn the paper back into paper, and the plastic back into plastic. We also found useful things to do with glass (with hindsight, some were more useful than others) and cajoled the construction industry into recycling its waste back into buildings.  

So at any point after around 2006, WRAP could have said ‘job done’. But by then it was clear that the organisation, never a formal government agency but a body combining government money and clout with the mindset of a company, had the formula for achieving impact in what was, frankly, a neglected arena. Waste and material resources have never had the publicity of climate change or wildlife, so to make an impact in our space was then an unusual and extremely valuable thing. 

That formula is the one that resonates throughout our timeline, and is the one WRAP deploys today – target, measure, act. We frame the questions, we research the evidence base, we test the solutions, we bring the players on board, we generate ambition, and we monitor the outcomes. I can verify, from talking to institutions from across the globe, that with this combination of skills we are indeed a rare beast.

There have been many ‘firsts’ for WRAP. With research, first to truly understand the composition of the average household waste bin, and first to map the quantities of, and reasons for, food waste. First to understand in detail the carbon and water implications of products and thus the impact of the wastes they turn into. That enabled us to answer the question ‘what are the worst things to waste’? and focus the activities in our current Business Plan on three key waste streams – food, textiles and electrical equipment. First to expose the places in the clothing supply chain that cause the biggest impacts.  And first to illustrate the not very ‘Circular Economy’ of the UK, by mapping resource flows and showing how little, at the time, was being recycled. This seminal ‘Sankey’ diagram showed how much more we needed to do, became the rallying cry not just for WRAP, but for new important players such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 

Our research feeds our award-winning voluntary agreements for which we are increasingly highly respected. It also feeds our policy support to governments. The Courtauld Commitment delivered food waste reductions across the supply chain that were worth over £100 million between 2012 and 2015, the Hospitality and Food Service Agreement reduced food and packaging waste by 11% over the same three years, and the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan is on track to deliver 15% reductions in the carbon and water footprints of, and the waste sent to landfill by, the UK clothing industry by 2020. The UK Plastics Pact, which addresses the current public and political concern over this complex material, uses all our experience to date to deliver an agreement that will be revolutionary. At the same time, we are able to provide governments with the evidence to consider which policies they might adopt to complement such an agreement, and have been rewarded with new propositions such as the new tax proposed for any plastics not meeting a 30% requirement for recycled content. 

These days we do less direct support to individual businesses, concentrating on promoting solutions for whole communities of businesses, in the UK and increasingly internationally, enabling them to take ownership of the mission themselves.  ‘Target, measure, act’ is a powerful mantra for our times, for governments as well as businesses, and WRAP has the expertise to help make it a reality across a wide landscape. But none of this would be possible without the unstinting support of governments, national and local, businesses of all sizes, and colleagues from NGOs and academia. 

Ultimately, our success will be measured by the point in the timeline that all businesses can validly claim to be part of a genuinely circular economy, where re-use and recycling are the most economic options, where few materials escape the system, and prevention of waste, lowered consumption and carbon and water efficiency are top of mind. That would be a world where the whole system works seamlessly, and where citizens, businesses and policy-makers play their part without having to think about it too hard.  At that point, we really could say ‘job done’.