Your Royal Highness, Secretary of State, ladies and gentlemen, I could not be more pleased to see so many of you here today (frozen stiff at the back, by the look of it!) to talk about turning waste into wealth. This is a subject that needs to be close to all our hearts if we are to achieve the future we want for our families, our businesses, our society and of course our one and only planet. And I must say, I am enormously grateful to the Secretary of State for his very kind words earlier, and indeed for coming along here at all with his very busy schedule.
Now if I may say so, I thought that W.W.F.-U.K., of which I am a very proud President, summed things up rather well recently when it reported that we are the first generation to know that we are destroying the world, and the last that can do anything about it. We are using resources faster than Nature can replenish them and damaging our own life-support system.
But before I say any more on that subject, I also want to thank Veolia Environmental Services for its considerable generosity in hosting this major event, especially its Chief Executive, Gavin Graveson, and all our speakers, but particularly Klas Gustaffson, Vice-President of Teknisha Verken for joining us from Sweden and of course Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for taking time out of his busy activities to be here as well. And, of course, none of this would have happened without the efforts of Jeremy Darroch and Amanda Mackenzie, and all their marvellous team at Business in the Community.
Now, I do not have any statistics to prove this point, but I rather think we have seen something of a sea change (if you will forgive the pun!) in public attitudes since the B.B.C.’s Blue Planet series was shown. Those extraordinary images, backed up by Sir David Attenborough’s compelling commentary, seem to have tapped into a deep unease amongst a great many people about the way we are treating our planetary home. The concept of ever greater convenience, with much of our waste allowed to accumulate indefinitely, has, of course led to the “throw-away society.” However, seeing so vividly the consequences of the way we have been using plastics, in particular, has clearly opened many eyes that were previously either closed or looking determinedly in other directions.
Every discarded plastic drinking straw, wet wipe, cup, bottle or bag tells a clear and unequivocal story of waste and missed opportunity, both to generate value and to address the over-arching challenge of climate change, recently listed of course by the World Economic Forum as amongst the biggest threats facing the world.
We have been talking about energy efficiency for more than forty years now, in fact since the oil crises of the 1970s, and, of course, using energy much more efficiently is an essential step in limiting climate change. But it really is only part of the solution. It is equally important that we plan and deliver resource efficiency, or, if you prefer, ‘materials efficiency’.
The numbers are pretty alarming. Global steel production grew by forty per cent in the last decade, cement production tripled over the same period and demand for plastics is doubling about every twenty years. These materials are important for developing economies, so it should be no surprise that this growth seems set to continue. All of that production requires energy, which is why industry accounts for around forty per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet much of the required material already exists in our society and utilizing it in circular approaches requires much less energy. Seventy-five per cent of steel can be recycled, as can around fifty per cent of aluminium and plastics.
So it is clear that recycling is part of the answer. We have become very good at making things – now we have to get much better at un-making and re-making them. And to assist that process we have to find ways of giving what we unhelpfully refer to as ‘waste’ a proper value – we have to monetize it.
This is a topic which has interested me for a large part of my ‘three score years and ten’. More than forty years ago, for instance, on a visit to the U.S.A., I saw a landfill site in California that had been capped and was generating methane. On my return to the U.K., I tried to draw this scheme to the attention of local authorities in Wales. In 1991, I invited a group of business and council leaders to visit Berlin to see a range of advanced techniques being used for recycling municipal waste. In the same year and much closer to home – indeed at home – I installed a reed bed sewage treatment system at Highgrove. All the waste from the 40,000 people who visit the estate every year passes through a bark filtration system, and then a reed and willow bed, leaving only clean water to drain away. The bark is composted and used on the garden and farm, while the willow grows six feet a year and is cut to weave into baskets which we sell in the shop. At the time this was considered as very eccentric!
Many forward-thinking businesses are, I know, already putting the principles of the circular economy into practice. Earlier this year I saw novel methods of recycling paper cups, which include plastic in them, at James Cropper in Kendal, assisted by collaboration with industry and local authorities. In the chemicals sector, innovative de-inking processes are allowing 100 per cent re-use of recovered pulp by Kemira, and up to ninety per cent of phosphorescent chemicals are being recycled from waste fluorescent lamps by Solvay.
Yet we have a very long way to go – for instance, £13 billion worth of edible food and £140m worth of clothing goes to landfill every year. More than half the plastic bottles sold in the U.K. every year are now recycled. But that still leaves 5.5 billion plastic bottles that are being littered, incinerated or landfilled – that is fifteen million per day which is why a deposit scheme on plastic bottles and the introduction of reverse vending machines might be quite helpful.
In the last five years, 12.5 million computers have ended up in British landfill sites. Worldwide, almost 150 million tonnes of clothing and shoes are sold every year. The majority ends up in landfills or incinerators, yet the infrastructure to collect, re-use and recycle these garments already exists, as does the technology to recycle old clothes into cotton pulp.
We also need to be clear that resource efficiency is not all about materials recovery and recycling. Better processes that reduce inefficiency also have an important part to play. So, for instance, half of the aluminium produced every year ends up as ‘process scrap’ and does not reach the final product. And around fifteen per cent of building materials are wasted in construction.
Greater resource efficiency brings other benefits too, such as reduced geopolitical risks, local job creation, lower air pollution, and reduced water use, thereby contributing to several of the Sustainable Development Goals.
I am particularly pleased that Klas Gustaffson, who has already spoken, was able to tell us something about his experience of always looking for solutions that will optimize the use of resources while being considerate of the environment and climate. Sweden has long been a pioneer of making producers responsible for ensuring that items they place on the market, such as electrical goods, are collected and recycled in a sustainable way. This approach applies in the community too. From a very young age, Swedish children are taught to recycle, both at home and at school. There is even a national day on which children across the country gather to pick up litter and clean up their surroundings. Incidentally, I'd forgotten that I'd taken my own children litter picking all those years ago , nor did I realise that they paid any attention at all!
There are admirable initiatives in this country too. I would encourage anyone wanting to know more about the opportunities to look at the recent publications from the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, the London Waste & Recycling Board and the Waste & Resources Action Programme. They all take slightly different approaches, but all are highly commendable, providing not just food for thought but recipes for action.
However, ladies and gentlemen, as things stand, the sums do not add up. If we are to have any chance of limiting climate change to well below two degrees, as set out in the Paris Agreement and as highlighted by the I.P.C.C.’s recent report, we are going to have to use much less of the Earth’s resources, and use them more efficiently too. This is going to require changes at both speed and scale. And in my experience the only way to achieve that is to mobilize the skills and ingenuity of the business community, where necessary backed up by regulation. That, after all, is why Business in the Community is such an effective organisation, and why we are all here today; as it boldly says in the commitment declaration, to ‘double resource productivity and eliminate all avoidable waste by 2030’.
The small steps we have taken towards a circular economy will need to become giant strides if we are to achieve the required changes before time runs out. But this is not all about risk. As some of the pioneers have shown, there are opportunities too, which is why today’s event is entitled ‘waste to wealth’. Finding solutions to the challenges of using resources more effectively can deliver lower cost, higher value ways of working – beneficial to businesses, to the communities they operate in and to the environment. In essence, therefore, one man’s – or business’s – waste can be another’s raw material… But to what extent do we join up the dots effectively?
So, it seems to me that there is likely to be a substantial advantage to those who move quickly and decisively in the right direction, in collaboration with all elements of their supply chains from product designers, producers and retailers, through to local authorities and waste management companies, re-processors and customers.
One of the challenges is how best to put sellers in touch with buyers. How does one company know what another might be able to offer? A centralized location would be one solution, but it doesn’t make sense to move materials further than is necessary. So I was intrigued to hear about the innovative approach being developed in the Netherlands by a company called Excess Materials Exchange. They have developed a digital marketplace where companies can exchange materials and products, and which seeks to identify the highest value uses. This is still at the pilot stage, but does look promising as an example of a new approach that might help unlock the full potential of the circular economy.
It is certainly encouraging that so many companies have already signed today’s declaration and I particularly want to commend the Waste to Wealth Champions for being the first to step up. They are: Nestle U.K & Ireland, Burger King, J.L.L., Interface, European Metal Recycling, Sodexo and Sainsbury’s. I can only congratulate them all on having the foresight to make this commitment and I know they will be working hard with Business in the Community, the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and the other Waste to Wealth Partners, to devise practical steps to achieve their goals. And, of course, we must all hope that a great many more companies will want to follow them as the word spreads.
If I can just leave you with a final thought, it is that W.W.F.-U.K. is absolutely right. We are the first generation to understand, in full and terrifying scientific detail, that we are testing our world to destruction. And we are the last to be able to do something about it. If we do not act, our children and grandchildren will not be able to sort out the mess; that is the problem. So, with a new grandchild on the way – and some of you may possibly be in the same situation – I do not want to miss that opportunity, and I am sure you do not either.