Resources Conference Cymru: 4 Things I Took Away

CIWM’s Resources Conference Cymru yesterday (13 March) welcomed delegates to Cardiff’s iconic Millennium Centre to discuss the opportunities and challenges of a circular economy in Wales. CIWM’s Darrel Moore highlights what he took away from the event.

There was, as there always is, much for delegates to take away from this year’s CIWM’s Resources Conference Cymru. The topics were wide-ranging, and the speakers were on form. Panels touched on deposit return, extended producer responsibility, challenges and barriers to a circular economy and, of course, plastic.

This event is a personal favourite of mine because there’s always a sense of optimism coming from Wales regarding its sustainability agenda which, less than 24 hours [on writing this] after the PM’s latest Brexit proposal failed to get Parliamentary backing, is not to be quashed. I’ll take some optimism wherever I can find it. 

But, a sense of optimism aside, here’s what else I took away from the event: 

  1. Collaboration is crucial

“Collaboration” was the buzz word for the conference, with the Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government Hannah Blythyn attributing much of Wales’ success in recycling to collaboration. Wales is “ahead of the game” in terms of recycling, the minister said, which has gone from 5% to 63% in two decades, making it a global leader.  

The minister announced the Welsh government would be consulting with stakeholders this year to feed into the revised waste strategy; that the government will also be consulting on whether businesses should be required to separate their waste in the same way householders are; and also that a £6.5m circular economy fund will be launched within the next few months to help manufacturers use recycled content in both products and packaging.  

The theme of collaboration ran into the following panel session, with Suez’s Stuart Hayward-Higham stating brands have much more sway over consumer behaviour than the resources sector, so it will mean working together to increase awareness and engagement.  

  1. We’re not sexy 

The reason brands have more sway over consumers than the resources sector is because “we’re not sexy”, says Stuart Hayward-Higham. This lack of sex-appeal might be the reason why much of the general public doesn’t know what the circular economy is. It might also be because, according to Wales’ National Infrastructure Commission’s Emma Thomas, there are 114 definitions of the term “circular economy”.  

So, how do we improve the level of engagement among the public on this issue? And does it even matter that they don’t know what the circular economy is? Perhaps not, according to Andy Griffiths, head of value chain sustainability at Nestle UK & Ireland, who says it’s about the “stories” we tell and how these relate to consumers personally that can help deliver behaviour change and engagement. “Terminology isn’t going to get us to where we need to be,” he says.  

Speaking of terminology, Stuart Hayward-Higham says that using the word “harvesting” instead of “collecting” is a more accurate description of how the system as a whole should be approaching resources. 

  1. Plastiphobia” 

The term “plastiphobia” was used by an audience member to describe a “knee-jerk” reaction to plastics following the airing of BBC’s Blue Planet 2.  

The panel agreed plastic “is not evil”. It highlighted food packaging as an example of how plastic can be helpful, in that it helps avoid food waste, and that a knee jerk reaction towards simply switching to compostable or biodegradable plastic products is likely to cause further problems – Wales, and the UK generally, doesn’t have the infrastructure to deal with this waste stream. 

Instead of “demonising” all plastics, it was suggested looking at “single-use anything” might be a better way of approaching the issue. The panel agreed we need to get away from making single-use disposal convenient, making it harder to “do the wrong thing” and incentivising reuse. To get this message out to the public, the panel said we need to use evidence-based research to combat “emotive” messaging.  

  1. Wales is not an island 

Wales is not an island. Going back to the major theme of the day – collaboration – discussion in the room suggested that it’s important the Welsh government know a circular economy can’t be “contained” within the country and that Wales doesn’t “sit by itself”.  

Wales can’t have its own circular economy, it was suggested; rather it can be a “test bed” to show other countries how things might be done. The Welsh government should look at all “players” so that materials can be used in the wider, global circular economy if these can’t be used within the country itself.  

This collaborative approach should also apply to the private sector, suggested Andy Griffiths, who said there’s a temptation by companies to grab a few green headlines for competitive advantage that ultimately won’t reach the “scale and pace” to achieve what’s needed.  

Short term commercial messaging detracts from reaching a united end game, according to WRAP Cymru’s Carl Nicolls. He said there are collaborative partnerships out there, citing Cardiff’s IKEA as the first in the chain to establish a textile take-back that collects all textiles, not just those from IKEA.  

It’s important for business to achieve alignment on this united end game, he said, which includes understanding one another’s differences and working together to get around those.  

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