SUEZ’s Adam Read on the future of green policies

Adam Read

Chief Sustainability & External Affairs Officer at SUEZ UK and past president of CIWM Adam Read speaks to Circular Online about the future of green policies ahead of the 2024 election.

  1. If you could only pick one policy, what would you like to see the next government implement?

We’d like to see the government push ahead with implementing Simpler Recycling reforms in tandem with extended producer responsibility (EPR) reforms to not only drive forward the recycling of all packaging but to set the scene for other material streams that will come under EPR in the future – mattresses, WEEE, batteries, etc.

It’s crucial that any new government doesn’t undermine the important work that’s been done to date. The sector came together to solve the packaging EPR problem, and once implemented it will enable significant investment and support the transition towards decarbonisation of the sector.

EPR is critical to helping close the loop on materials management, providing incentives to prevent waste at source, and driving changes in consumer behaviour.

  1. What policies will help the UK transition to a circular economy?

circular-economy
What policies will help the UK transition to a circular economy?

Consistency and clarity of policy and regulation are critical to creating a climate that will enable investment from the private sector, something that SUEZ and the ESA (Environmental Services Association) have been talking about for the last five years now.

Additionally, and beyond the scope of the waste and resource sector, there is the need for the better design of packaging and products. Both need to be designed with a fuller appreciation of how they are handled after a consumer is finished with them, so they are designed to be refilled, reused, repaired and ultimately recycled.

The UK must embrace the eco-design principles being implemented throughout the EU which will create huge opportunities for end-of-first-life management that isn’t downstream and retains the quality and value of the items.

To move away from a throw-away (linear) society to one that is more circular, we must view the materials we consume as precious resources.

However, to move away from a throw-away (linear) society to one that is more circular, we must view the materials we consume as precious resources and capture, reuse, repair and recycle rather than discard them. Doing this and making it “the norm” will need new taxation approaches that reflect the real impacts of making the products, using them, and managing them when they become waste.

We should go beyond the landfill tax or even the emissions trading scheme (ETS) (a form of carbon tax) which impacts specific waste management approaches, and look at factoring in all the “externalities” in the cost of products. This should send clear price signals to consumers that rental, leasing, and sharing models might be more cost-effective as well as good for the environment.

  1. What green skills, if any, should the next government embed in the education system?

What’s needed is a decisive commitment to direct funding to the roles where it’s most needed, and a reform of the apprenticeship levy so that the monies raised can be better used to support the needs of our business, our customers and the sector at large.

The upcoming Budget in March 2024 could be the pivotal moment, and we hope to see a meaningful commitment from government, which will in turn unlock further business investment in sorely needed green career pathways, perhaps aligned with the expected launch of the Green Jobs Delivery Plan which we have been feeding into on behalf of the waste and resources sector specifically.

Government needs to support all of the sectors that are transitioning to low-carbon solutions in creating a better narrative about the career opportunities of working in these green industries and the pivotal role that sectors like resources and waste management will play in driving economic growth whilst protecting the planet.

Transition planning is a key element of this plan. We need to know the number of different skilled roles we will need and when they’re needed, and each sector needs to be responsible for mapping this out as well as ensuring that the skills are transferable between sectors (engineering, communications, AI, etc. are not sector-specific, albeit some of their applications will be).

Not all skills will be green, but we still need them to drive the green economy, so by default they are green.

Technical (managing plants, designing new sites, inventing new technologies, etc.) skills will be important, but no more important than the behavioural and transition skills that have been identified as being critical to enabling and delivering sector transformation. For example, the communicators who raise awareness and bring people together on the journey, and the leaders of the future who have the vision and entrepreneurial mindset to inspire change.

Not all skills will be green, but we still need them to drive the green economy, so by default they are green. It’s about nurturing those people early on in their education and professional development so they aren’t lost from our sector.

Beyond Waste - Essential Skills for a Greener Tomorrow
The Beyond Waste: Essential Skills for a Greener Tomorrow lays out predictions for our sector.

The green occupations that will be the most important for our sector in driving the net zero transition will be reuse and repair specialists, given the huge upturn in circular business models being predicted and the need to handle materials before they become waste and the policymakers and regulators who will set the legal framework that will either inspire change or hinder it if done badly.

We also see the role of our front-line staff changing significantly over the coming years as we see developments in the way we collect and sort materials (more materials and more segregation).

Our collection crews will become experts in how to identify and separate materials and will be essential in providing the public with information on how to recycle properly – an evolution of what happens now, but on a more material by material basis and with greater insight and effort.

  1. Does the next government need to fund infrastructure projects to transition to a circular economy?

No. We need government to set the policy and regulatory landscape clearly which will ultimately create a climate that’s investible. Our sector has calculated we need to invest £10bn in new assets to reduce the carbon impact of managing the UK’s waste and achieve net zero.

This investment is being held up by delays to much-needed policy reforms and the necessary secondary legislation that will bring the required level of clarity and confidence that will trigger investment.

If the government wants circular solutions to work and new business models to come to the fore, circular solutions need to become the norm. To do this, we need to make circularity more accessible and normalise the behaviours key to shifting to a circular economy, such as reuse and repair.

This will need government support, but not in terms of infrastructure, more likely through communications campaigns and changes to taxation rules that will favour reusable and repairable packaging and products, etc.

  1. How can over-consumption, resources and waste get higher up the political agenda?

The CIWM has repeatedly called for global leaders to recognise the crucial role that the waste and resources industry will play in supporting economy-wide decarbonisation, indeed SUEZ and CIWM focused on this at a series of fringe events we hosted at COP26 in Glasgow.

Resource efficiency makes environmental and economic sense, as a resource-efficient economy is a thriving one. The perception of the industry needs to change so that the wider public recognises that there is a direct causal link between waste and resource consumption and climate change.

We need to stop talking about waste, dumps and disposal and start talking resources, net zero, circular and expansion!

We need to improve the narrative around the impact of the waste and resources sector as it’s at the heart of delivering net zero in the UK. If we get the narrative right and change the perception of the industry, this will, in turn, create a lot of opportunities for new jobs and growth, but we need school leavers, careers advisors, children and politicians to see the sector as critical, interesting, growing and modern.

We need to stop talking about waste, dumps and disposal and start talking resources, net zero, circular and expansion!

  1. How can the next government better support local authorities to increase recycling rates?

Simple: implement the suite of EPR and simpler recycling policies that are ready to go and give the sector time to adjust to new targets, funding and reporting requirements. There will be more money to pay for efficient and effective services and this will drive quality materials back into productive use.

What is needed is implementation and then no more tinkering for a while. We can’t suffer the uncertainty of DRS (will it, won’t it) or changing targets and rules. If we expect local authorities to think step-change and longer-term quality materials-based contracts and services, they need certainty and clarity of the game before they will play.

  1. Whichever party wins, is it likely the resource and waste strategy will continue in its current iteration? Would you implement it in its current form?

Most of the aspirations in the resources and waste strategy still apply, albeit that time has moved on these past five years and some issues are perhaps more to the fore than they were back in 2018 – the cost of living, flexible plastics, global exports, etc.

It probably is time to fully revisit the strategy and assess progress, and to shift emphasis more towards waste reduction and how we would measure this, EPR for a wider set of materials, and a greater focus on driving resource efficiency and the metrics required to help showcase improvements rather than focusing on recycling and tonnage data.

  1. Does the UK need to accelerate the transition away from Energy from Waste?

We first need the UK to finish its transition away from landfill. SUEZ views Energy from Waste (EfW) as a “transition technology” over the coming decade or two, serving to reduce materials being sent to landfill and maintaining electricity supply during this period.

It will take time for the full impact of new legislation (EPR, simpler recycling and even ETS, etc.) to show up in recycling rates and EfW is a key tool in dealing with residual (non-recyclable) waste in the interim.

We need a safe and reliable end disposal point and that has to be EfW. At least for the next 20 years or so as we continue to upgrade and revolutionise the technologies (with Carbon Capture and Storage), as we adapt to altering feedstocks (less municipal mixed rubbish, lower calorific values as plastics are segregated, etc.) and as we move to suit the demands of society as it goes circular and greener (some older plants will become advanced conversion sites or even chemical plants to meet the needs of segregated flexible plastics, etc.).

EfW has a role to play in a modern sustainable resource management system, but it is a changing role.

EfW has a role to play in a modern sustainable resource management system, but it is a changing role. From underpinning technology operating at large scale as part of municipal disposal contracts to sites that are delivering additional values and outputs (heat, carbon capture, new products, etc.).

EfW currently provides value, jobs, community benefits and hygienic disposal for materials that are failing to be recycled and will continue to do so until all packaging is designed to be recycled (or better still refilled and repaired), is segregated correctly by people and businesses, and isn’t contaminated or littered.

We can see this coming as part of the 2040 net zero transition and are excited by the opportunities and challenges that this will bring to the sector.

  1. What are the barriers to transitioning to a circular economy? Is it purely down to policy or are there other challenges?

parliament
Throughout April, Circular Online is exploring green policies ahead of the 2024 election.

There are several barriers when it comes to transitioning from a linear to a circular economy. One of the main barriers is the lack of clarity around policy. In addition to this, a lack of knowledge, investment (upfront costs and human capital), the extent of change needed (a shift in business models and consumer behaviour), and the level of collaboration required are also big barriers.

Is the UK general public (or government) ready for leasing models to be the norm, or for clothing to be designed to be repaired rather than discarded (because the value is evident), or to look on eBay before Amazon for example? Probably not yet, but the tide is turning and we can all help improve the ease and speed of transition.

It’s imperative that we challenge the behaviours that are embedded in our society and what is considered the norm, such as the desire to buy. SUEZ is aiming to make reuse and repair more accessible and generate economic, environmental, and social value as part of the circular economy.

SUEZ is aiming to make reuse and repair more accessible and generate economic, environmental, and social value as part of the circular economy.

To achieve a truly circular economy, reuse and repair need to become the norm rather than the exception, and this will take time, and a lot of effort from lots of organisations and government to help raise awareness, showcase best practices and build engagement.

SUEZ is actively involved in reuse activities up and down the country. The Renew Hub, run by SUEZ and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), is a large-scale reuse project which sees hundreds of tonnes of pre-loved items given a new lease of life every year in Greater Manchester.

The project aims to reclaim the value of household items through repair and upcycling, moving items up the waste hierarchy from disposal to reuse. This is a great model for showcasing the possibilities when we embed reuse and repair practices in our everyday lives. Showcasing this to government, to other local authorities and the general public is part of the journey, but we need many more sites and many more authorities involved if we are to speed up this much-needed transition.

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