It’s time to think global

17 September, 2019

David Lerpiniere, Head of Waste, Resources and Development at Resource Futures, says it’s no surprise there are growing numbers of sufferers from “environmental despair”. He says it’s time we look beyond UK shores.

The Amazon is burning. Our rivers are polluted. The oceans littered with our plastics. It’s no surprise that there are growing numbers of sufferers from ‘environmental despair’. Meanwhile plastics campaigning is increasingly pervasive, set against media reports of illegally dumped UK waste exports overseas and marine pollution.

Dump site, Liberia. Dave Lerpiniere 2019

As an industry, we have a tendency to focus on domestic priorities, but we cannot ignore the growing visibility of an international perspective. In my opinion, there has never been a more important time to look beyond UK shores. Whether it’s ethically, environmentally or economically motivated, the time has come to think global.

A yawning gap 

With kerbside recycling, household recycling centres the norm, we take for granted our waste infrastructure and yet it’s not so long ago that we had open dumpsites. The landfill tax in the 90s was a powerful factor in transitioning the UK from a landfill society to a recycling society and the resources and waste strategy may be a step change again.

Meanwhile across the world, estimates suggest more than two billion people are without effective waste collection and three billion lack effective disposal.

Estimates suggest more than two billion people are without effective waste collection and three billion lack effective disposal

The impacts are wide reaching. Poor waste management has many social as well as environmental implications; the spread of disease, harmful air emissions caused by the open burning of waste, leachate pollution from dumpsites and the well documented release of plastic pollutants into waterways and oceans.

Effective solid waste management is not only essential for the environment, but to protect public health, conserve resources and support a global transition to a circular economy, and vital to kerbing our carbon emissions too. And yet – only 0.3% of development finance is currently focused on waste and resource management issues.

Defining the UK’s role

The UK’s transition in the last 40 years or so and governmental direction has shaped the industry we have today. Our expertise is different from our European colleagues. The Germans focus heavily on organic waste treatment. The Danes have majored on energy from waste. France has two of the largest waste management companies responsible for service delivery, Suez and Veolia, albeit international organisations.

While the UK can’t boast the lead on selling technologies (although there are some exceptions), we have many softer skills: technical and financial consultancy, capacity building, the ability to shape good governance structures and policy.

Our collective skillsets help governments to devise policy and implement it; to develop new business models and services; to evaluate technological solutions; to build local governance structures, addressing corruption and improving service provision.

The UK’s role should not be to steam in with what we believe are the answers based on our experience. Our role should be to share knowledge and work in close partnership with local partners…

But while UK companies can offer their expertise based on a solid foundation of experience, we must evidently consider the local forces and dynamics at play. The plastic bag tax offers a good case in point. In the UK, the tax has been an acknowledged success with a 90% drop in single-use plastic bag sales since its introduction in 2015.

A similar tax in Kenya led to the creation of ‘bag cartels’ that smuggled in illegal plastic bags from neighbouring countries.

If there’s no alternative solution or if it’s a poorly regulated sector, people won’t observe a ban or simply won’t pay the tax. There is a clear lesson to be learned that some policies simply won’t translate.

In short – the UK’s role should not be to steam in with what we believe are the answers based on our experience. Our role should be to share knowledge and work in close partnership with local partners to create the enabling conditions for a viable and effective waste industry.

Laying the foundations

Resource Futures has been increasingly working in an international capacity, latterly with the World Bank, the UN’s Basel Secretariat, ISWA and TearFund. Our most recent report for Tearfund identified five core tenets that support a successful and sustainable waste management system, that must be addressed holistically. These include:

  • Governance and institutions – establishing a clear chain of responsibility for waste services and building in effective regulation to prevent poor waste management activity such as dumping and burning.
  • Skills and capacity – addressing a lack of dedicated resource to manage and deliver waste management services and backing this with formal training.
  • Finance – identifying a sustainable revenue structure (e.g. direct user fees, local taxation, material sales revenues, etc.) to ensure that services can be delivered in the long-term.
  • Technology – finding technical solutions that are appropriate to the context. Complex, capital intensive technologies require advanced technical expertise that is not available in many contexts. Building this technical capacity and creating the enabling environment for technically advanced waste reprocessing technologies is a long-term process.
  • Stakeholders – ensuring the participation of all key stakeholders, including the general public, local and central government, and the private and informal sectors. In particular, the informal sector plays a key role in the sector and must be proactively and positively engaged.

The UK has the expertise to support all of these enabling factors. We have not only a diverse set of SME organisations with the flexibility and expertise to deliver, but larger consultancies too. We have not only a role to play internationally, but a duty to lend our expertise to what is clearly an economic, environmental and ethical necessity.

This article first appeared on Circular Online in August 2019.