The waste management business has always been an essential but unglamorous part of the economy, largely out of sight and out of mind unless something goes wrong.
But there has been a quiet revolution going on in the last few years that has led to a change of outlook and a new approach.
Companies in the wider economy have to cope with concerns about the increasing scarcity and cost of raw materials. There is tighter regulation on waste disposal, with the landfill tax and a range of European directives that demand products, such as cars and consumer electronics equipment, are fully recyclable once they reach the end of their useful life.
There is also a growing concern about the amount of waste that companies – and society at large – are producing.
Every year, “well over one billion tonnes of waste is generated along food and agribusiness supply chains around the world, and almost 2,000 cubic kilometres of water, or more than 500 million Olympic-size swimming pools, are required to produce this wasted food”, according to a report by Rabobank Food & Agribusiness Research.
This combination of pressures is making companies look more closely at the waste they produce. “We have to treat waste as the raw material for tomorrow’s products,” says Alan Knight, sustainability director at Business in the Community.
And the waste industry is having to change as a result.
Waste is one of the economy’s “golden sectors”, says Steve Lee, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Waste Management, because it is one of the industries, like water and energy, which ties all the other parts of the economy together.
There is more gold in a New York landfill site than in a typical gold mine
“This is the most exciting and forward-looking time I have ever seen in the industry,” Mr Lee adds. “The industry is moving away from the role of being a coping industry, where our job was to receive whatever society threw at us and make it go away. Now the industry is about resource management imperatives. We can’t lose sight of the fact that we still keep the streets clean, but we are using more of the waste in a productive way than ever before.”
Materials, such as rare minerals, which are used in products ranging from consumer electronics to wind turbines, are expensive, says Nicola Jenkins, associate director at the consultancy Anthesis. “If you can bring them back into the system, you are cutting the cost of your raw materials,” she says.
As a result, the waste sector’s customers – and competitors – are changing. “Manufacturers who need resources might want to get into this space; mining companies might want to do the same, especially when you think that there is more gold in a New York landfill site than in a typical gold mine,” says Dr Knight.
“Waste management companies can have a very strong role in this new resource-conscious economy,” says Dr Forbes McDougall, corporate solid waste leader, global product stewardship, at Procter & Gamble. “But if they do not find solutions for our waste streams and we do, we will just take it away from them.
“They have to become materials management or resource management companies because, if they don’t, they will lose their competitive advantage. If they come to us and say they can turn our waste costs into recycling revenue, we’re going to listen to them.”
This is what the industry is doing. “We can see that landfill is coming to an end. It never used to matter what came into our facilities. It was all just waste,” says Richard Kirkman, technology director at Veolia. “We’re now focused on what materials we can recover. We have had to put in place a huge change management process. We have had to up-skill our staff. We didn’t have the mentality of manufacturers and that has had to change.”
This shift in mentality has been helped by changes in design that mean many products and packaging are easier than ever before to dismantle in order to recover materials, while advances in technology have made it possible to separate and recycle more difficult products, such as Tetra Pak drinks cartons.
Rather than just being the recipient of other sectors’ waste, the industry is now starting to engage all the way up the value chain to engineer hard-to-dispose materials out of the system.
However, many industry figures say the policy environment in the UK is uneven. “Scotland, Wales and increasingly Northern Ireland are more forward-looking, and see this as important not just from an environmental point of view, but an economic and social point of view as well,” says Mr Lee. “The coalition does not see it that way. The English approach is based more on compliance because the government doesn’t want any burdens on the public purse. I think they are missing a trick.
“This industry is part of the green growth opportunity for jobs, skills and resource security.”
Nonetheless, he adds: “It was not so professionally satisfying to be the industry that coped with what people threw at us. It’s much more fulfilling to be the industry that helps to manage resources more efficiently.”