Posted on Wednesday 31 March 2010 by Ulster Business

Waste has become a hugely emotive and important factor not just for individuals but also for the business world. John Quinn, CEO of the umbrella waste management group, arc21, looks at future trends in waste policy and the implications for business.

The private sector tends to view the public sector with a degree of suspicion, often citing differing attitudes towards risk and the decision-making process. While that may be a gross caricature and a sweeping generalization, there is some truth to the position. Business, after all, is driven by profit whilst Government is accountable to the public; two masters with very different modus operandi. That may be an interesting philosophical argument, but what, you may wonder has that to do with businesses and the business of waste? The ‘ship of state’ can travel slowly yet steadily; but she will arrive at her destination, more often than not, sooner than expected. The point is that there is usually a window of opportunity for business in the space between the time it takes to formulate and then implement policy. There is a gap in which businesses can prepare for the inevitable rather react to it. Such a gap currently exists in UK waste policy. You may not have come across it, but Government is getting interested in a phrase which has been common parlance in waste circles for some time: the ‘Primark Effect’. In January the Westminster Committee for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs issued a critical report of waste strategy in England. Its implications are worth noting because they suggest which way Government policy towards commercial waste is headed. The Committee was particularly upset about the level of cheap textile and clothing which is ending up in landfill rather than being recycled; hence the ‘Primark’ reference. Beneath the headlines though, the MPs also called on Government waste strategies to focus more on commercial rather than domestic waste (householders contribute less than 10% of the entire waste stream). In particular, they highlighted shortcomings among the retail and wholesale sector, which produced 12.7 million tonnes of waste in 2002-03, nearly half of which was landfilled. It was also estimated that nearly half of household waste sent to landfill originated as purchases from supermarkets and convenience stories. The tone of the report – and a good indicator of the future direction of waste strategy - was summed up by the Committee Chairman who argued that Government “must encourage companies to take a completely new view of waste and see it as a valuable source of raw material which must not be squandered...” There’s nothing in that statement which arc21 could disagree with, nor, I imagine the vast majority of local businesses. The trick, however, is for businesses to stop viewing waste management as an inconvenience and as something which can enhance the bottom line whilst contributing to environmental improvement. Waste costs money; it’s a simple equation. Raw materials which end up unused on the shop floor represent a wasted cost. The more resources a firm spends on over elaborate packaging, the higher its costs will be. The more waste your business produces during manufacturing, the more you’ll have to spend to get it collected. These are not inconsiderable sums. Last year Envirowise NI ran a programme for local suppliers operating in the construction sector with the promise that minimising waste production could add an extra 1% to turnover. In these difficult economic times how many extra sales would a company have to win to generate similar revenue? Benefits, however, don’t just accrue to individual companies. Just as we’re likely to hear more about the ‘Primark Effect’, expect to hear much more about the Green Economy which the Prime Minister announced last year; President Obama has also put much store in this area. Some in Government believe that investing in environmentally friendly infrastructure and new technology could create up to 400,000 jobs over the next decade. Delivering those jobs will take time and no doubt there will be ups and downs in the out-workings of Government policy, but that is the direction the economy is headed; surely it makes sense to start preparing for those opportunities now? For its part, arc21 is delivering a waste management plan which focuses on the ‘3Rs’ of reduce, reuse and recycle. In January we announced that recycling rates in our 11 member councils had jumped by 7% to a record level of 33.9% - that’s a 400% increase in the last decade. More, of course, needs to be done, and for that waste which it isn’t possible to recycle our aim is to convert it into green, renewable energy – enough to provide the equivalent energy requirements of 40,000 homes; energy which could be used to cheaply supply power intensive industries. Waste, we can’t live with it, but we can’t live without it. It, doesn’t, however, have to be a burden. If we can change our attitudes and view waste as a resource – even a potential source of competitive advantage - then we turn expectations of what a Green Economy is into something which can be tangibly measured in jobs and GDP.


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