Innovation and Change in the Circular Economy

Semantics and the Circular Economy

I was delighted to be asked by RWM to present at their show in Birmingham last week and share with visitors my knowledge and experience in developing commercial opportunities in the circular economy.  In particular I was asked to focus on the exceptional developments in reuse achieved by Premier Sustain, both in office furniture and now IT reuse services.

I have been a long-term attendee of this show, in its various guises and geographical locations, but I hadn’t been for some time, so I was also looking forward to seeing what was new. Given that my panel session was on the circular economy, I was intrigued to see how the industry was embracing new ways of working.

The night before, I read my latest copy of the CIWM magazine to brush up, as it were, (I have to admit I don’t read every copy). My eyes were drawn to an advert for a container fabrication company and their strapline of “enabling the circular economy” … with a picture of some roll-on, roll-off containers at a HWRC site. I was somewhat taken aback, although I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps I just always hope for more than simply namedropping the latest ‘on trend’ phrase for marketing reasons. I am not naming that particular company as I don’t wish to single them out; they are part of an industry that has sometimes innovated more in language than in action.   I can imagine a similar advert from 20 years ago using the tagline ‘enabling recycling’ and perhaps 10 years ago: ‘enabling resource management’… Or am I too harsh?

I hoped the visit to the show would demonstrate more innovation and mindset change than this.  Now I will caveat my comments carefully – I was only at the show for 1 day, I only attended about 3 sessions and I only saw about 75% of the stands… But did I see or hear real innovation?  I am sorry to say I didn’t – just better ways of containing, collecting, processing and measuring waste.  Progression…. Well maybe, if doing the same things slightly better than before counts, but not what I would class as innovation, and certainly not the level of disruption required to move from a linear to a circular economy.

Outside of the circular economy theatre there was no focus on the upper echelons of the waste hierarchy – I am sorry if I missed the stands on waste prevention, or skipped by the services enabling reuse, my feet were too sore to manage the complete circuit.  There were pockets, to be fair, of good practice – it was great to see bio-bean in place and I was pleased to see Craig from MD Recovery present, but I am not sure what else I was missing… Or maybe I just expect too much?


Circular Economy Panel Session

On a more positive note it was great to be part of such a positive panel, chaired by the FRN CEO Craig Anderson and alongside Nick Davis (Founder of Neighbourly) and Katie Thomas, Circular Project Officer from Opportunity Peterborough.  Craig commented in the opening address that it said a lot about how the waste hierarchy was prioritised that a panel session on “Commercial Opportunities from Reuse, Remanufacture and the Sharing Economy” was held as the last session at the end of the last day.  That said, the session was fairly well attended and we had some lively and engaging discussions.

During my address, I made the point that I did not see today’s custodians of waste as being the circular solution providers of tomorrow.  This was the view I had before the show and which was reinforced on the day.

Is it too much to expect such an old trade as the waste management industry to deliver such a radical mind shift change to a primary focus of waste prevention rather than ‘management’ – Is that asking turkeys to vote for Christmas?

From my work with Premier Workplace Services, (traditionally a commercial relocation company) and the significant role they have developed in commercial reuse I can demonstrate that the answers that are needed can come from all sorts of service suppliers. Alongside this I have seen fantastic innovation from circular start-ups, involved with organisations such as Advance London, and read excitedly about charity innovators such as Hubbub, all actively tackling and reducing waste at source.

The panel session felt positive, the reaction from the audience and the follow-up conversations buoyed me for the journey back to London. So, I remain positive that change is coming, from all directions – I dare say I will venture to RWM in a few years, and hopefully there will be more than simply a change in words to witness.

Photo Credit: Ross Findon Unsplash