Why isn’t Waste Management living up to its potential yet?

As of March 2020, the UK’s recycling from households was at 45.5%. Which is not far off the recycling target of 50% set by the EU. As much as the waste management sector is growing and the potential is there for it to make a real impact in the economy and for the environment, the statistics reflect that there is still a great deal of work to be done to achieve a truly circular economy.

Currently only 13% of waste is diverted from landfill globally. Comparatively, the UK may feel that it’s doing well. However, the majority of recycled materials comprise paper and cardboard, glass and metals. Plastic, which account for a major portion of the pollution problem only has a recycling rate of 9% in the UK. What are some of the challenges hindering growth in the waste management sector?

Circling around the blame game

There’s no doubt that achieving a circular economy is complex, made more so because it involves so many role players. Consumers are often blamed for throwing packaging away that could be recycled. Equally, manufacturers are blamed for excessive packaging and using materials that are hard if not impossible to recycle. With recycling and pollution at the forefront of everyone’s mind, manufacturers are under pressure to make an effort to reduce impacts on the environment. Unfortunately these efforts are often half-hearted, focused more on achieving goodwill with naïve customers than gaining ground environmentally.

Take, for example, a recent promotion where a cosmetics firm made a big splash about their new ‘paper’ packaging for shampoo. However, closer analysis revealed that this supposedly greener packaging was practically impossible to recycle. It wasn’t just made of paper, it was made from paper and several plastic composites moulded together. It can’t be recycled as paper or plastic so will be sent to landfill. At best it’s a poor attempt at greenwashing which lulls consumers in a false sense of security that they’re doing their bit for the environment by buying those products. Realistically though it’s a major fail. All that was invested in generating the new packaging and PR campaign is as much of a waste as the packaging itself. Had the company had people with the right competencies and understanding of circular economy principles it could have had very different outcomes.

How competency generates opportunity for waste management

It is going to take a significant amount of time and effort to turn the tide on waste and generate circular economies. Designing recycling facilities only for today’s recycling challenges is not enough. We know that recycling rates need to increase and also that materials being recycled will vary depending on location and industry. An innovative entrepreneurial mindset is needed for waste management to really achieve its potential.

Anyone who has started a business knows that it’s not as simple as having an idea and getting it to work. There needs to be a market willing to pay a price point that can sustain profitable operations. There needs to be a pipeline of new business and a supply chain of resources. But most significantly it takes a team of professionals with expertise in specific fields, working together to create a successful enterprise. 

One example of how this has been achieved is the Sherbourne Resource Park, a Coventry City Council business. This is a state of the art MRF that uses the latest in technologies including artificial intelligence (AI). The recycling kit is programmable which means that the processes can be changed according to the type and volume of material that is being recycled. It can sort and recycle different types of plastic very efficiently and the whole recycling process can be tweaked and adapted, according to the recycling requirements. The project is designed with the future of the industry in mind, thinking innovatively to get ahead of industry challenges and be able to operate more efficiently.

It is this type of efficiency (and profitability) that will attract more investors, which is what the industry needs if it is to grow. Too many EfW projects in the UK have failed making investors nervous, and making it harder for new innovative waste management projects to get the financial backing needed to get off the ground. Being able to demonstrate the company has the right level of expertise in place to make it work can make a big difference. This includes the ability to leverage the advantages of technology, understand the current and potential future challenges in waste management and innovate to find solutions. Competency is the key to growing the waste management sector. Make sure you’re hiring right.