“The past year has undoubtedly been overshadowed by the ravages of Covid-19 and the seemingly never-ending roller coaster of Brexit”, writes Jim Malone.
“With this as a background it would perhaps be unsurprising if environmental issues were relegated to a back seat in corporate boardrooms and in the minds and hearts of ordinary consumers. Nothing I feel can be further from the truth. CSR, quite rightly, remains high on the agenda of investors and corporate stakeholders. In addition, the general public’s understanding of the importance of the world around them has, I believe, actually become more focused during lockdown, where the slower pace of life for many has sharpened an appreciation for the environment and the impact of our actions today on the world for future generations.
“As we enter 2021, the battle to shape the circular economy of the future continues to rage. While much has stayed the same, such as the perils of plastic pollution and the shared recognition that over consumption and resource waste reduction should be a key focus for businesses and society, much has also changed. Consumers are more environmentally savvy and are increasingly demanding that the behaviours and impacts of brands and blue-chip organisations are environmentally focused.
“Covid lockdowns have also accelerated the growth trend in e-commerce and on-line shopping, with home delivery clearly disrupting traditional logistics and retail channels, changing the flow of recyclable materials through the production, distribution and consumption system. This has added more fuel to the debate around the balance between “resource recovery” and “resource optimisation”. While many still strongly support “resource recovery” along a one trip energy from waste route, I believe the path to true circularity is still via the “resource optimisation” solution offered by multi-loop recycling and reprocessing. The distraction afforded by changes to the acceptance of contaminated UK recyclables in global export markets has only muddied the waters. It is used by both sides of the debate as an argument that Government should support “proximity” resource solutions, but in my view has more clearly enhanced the justification for source segregated collections and investment in domestic recycling capacity. This is especially true in the case of the increasing levels of paper and corrugated packaging in the domestic waste stream.
“As the global trend away from printed media continues, the sad closure of more printing paper machines seems inevitable. While this is perhaps just one more shock to an historically resilient industry, paper makers will continue to do what they are good at – evolve to survive! From a more optimistic perspective, the ongoing trend of machine conversions will ensure the increased demand for packaging papers is met by newer, more efficient, CCM production capacity and this will create the demand “pull” required to support the increased collection of packaging papers from the changing supply chain. It is as important as ever, in among the many other economic challenges, that UK plc develops and adopts legislation and policies which supports both new and existing collection and reprocessing in domestic markets.
“Delivering environmental targets in a post-Covid, post-Brexit, world will require a strong domestic recycling and waste management industry. While the established integrated paper mill and corrugated packaging groups can, and should, be expected to maintain investment in paper fibre collection and recycling, the more resilient independents will also emerge stronger and ready to do their share. My concerns remain around the anticipated consolidation of the waste management industry. It is possible, that in a more consolidated waste market, a focus on post M&A synergy cost recovery and over promotion of energy from waste solutions, risks diluting the enhanced recycling skills which the major waste companies have enjoyed through the acquisition of traditional, independent waste paper recycling companies over the last 10 years. In this case, source segregation of paper and paper packaging becomes even more important.
“With the impact of Brexit unfolding before our collective eyes in 2021 we all need to work in concert to ensure that momentum in the promotion of a circular economy is not lost. We need to look through the dual veils of Covid-19 and Brexit to an exciting world beyond. Product innovation by paper and packaging industry experts will support the ongoing substitution of plastic. Technological advances in digital printing and RF packaging also open up new and exciting opportunities for the use of real time supply chain data to support product and packaging tracking and should drive supply chain resource efficiency improvements.
“Finally, the ultimate decisions made by Government around changes to Extended Producer Responsibility legislation and the eventual implementation of Deposit Return Schemes should ensure the principle that the “polluter pays” is reinforced and that the embattled recycling industry is recognised as a key underpin of a sustainable circular resource economy.
“2021 is a new year. As the world emerges from the fog of Covid-19 the packaging, recycling and waste management industries can bring new perspective, enthusiasm and energy to the ongoing challenge of balancing global resources, ensuring the green shoots of recovery are truly GREEN.”