Sustainability and Circular Economy Thought Leadership Q&A with Dr. Adam Read, Suez UK.
Welcome to the first of our Inspire series of interviews with global thought leaders in the area of Sustainability and the Circular Economy. Today our interview is with Dr. Adam Read who is director of external affairs at SUEZ UK and also president of the Chartered Institute of Wastes Management.
To what extent is the circular economy an opportunity for SUEZ?
A. We view it as a necessity. It is a transition that has to happen if we are serious about net-zero, decarbonization, and one-planet living.
Any transition is an opportunity. When we transitioned from landfill, it was an opportunity for recycling and recovery. Transitioning to more circularity means we are re-evaluating, and have been for several years, what is our relationship to our customers and to our material service provision.
What steps are you taking to position SUEZ UK for this opportunity?
A. In my day job, I am closely aligned to the UK Government, so I am inside the machine whispering, cajoling, and encouraging them to make sure they are not thinking just about the theory of circularity, but the ramifications of delivering it.
But a lot of it has been driven by customers. We have customers where we are in a 25-year municipal contact, a 7-year collection contract, or even a 2-year rolling contract with a big business with multiple sites. They are all interested in circularity and decarbonization now.
We are talking to them actively about what we could do together as part of the value chain. Whether that is what they can stop buying, or what they start buying, or how we handle it, or how they segregate it. Alternatively, it could be how they influence their suppliers, which is something we are increasingly doing to make our supply chain go more circular and less carbon-intensive. That has ripple benefits up and down the chain.
Big business is more engaged in this. They can see, as we do, the risk and the reward. Small businesses have not woken up to sustainability overall. There was a survey we did with the British Chamber of Commerce, just before COP26, looking at the ten key decision-making factors that affect business. With small businesses, sustainability is ranked eight or nine, but in a recession, it goes to ten.
Circularity, decarbonization, and sustainability are just not resonating with small businesses. They don’t have time to think about what is coming over the hill. They wouldn’t have a five-year transition plan and are too busy to even think about tomorrow. Some might have an individual that is completely green and wants to engage, but they are unusual.
We see that with our customers. It is medium-to-large companies that want to have the conversation. They are more aware of the risks and opportunities.
What role will digital technology play in your relationship with suppliers and customers?
A. It is already heading in the direction that our relationship with suppliers and customers is heading online. This means we can be more just-in-time with our service provision.
There is a hearts and minds part to this. I still get brought in to speak to customers, to set the context, and provide a narrative, then the system can do what the system is good at. But it won’t change behaviors. It is there to support behaviors.
What are the regulations that are driving this change for SUEZ?
A. In the UK, it is Extended Producer Responsibility, Deposit Return Schemes, and Consistency of Collections that are being legislated for by the Government and governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Businesses are waking up that they are going to have to change. They recognize they are going to need separate bins for recycling and will have to segregate food waste.
That opens a door to a conversation to ask them if they have thought about their carbon footprint and the circular economy.
These policy drivers are entry points. On their own, they aren’t going to deliver circularity. What they might deliver is 10 percentage points on the recycling rate.
We are missing the legislation that drives the circular economy. We don’t have it on eco-modulation (fee reductions for easy-to-recycle products and penalties for hard-to-recycle products), and we don’t have a strong waste prevention strategy. There also isn’t strong regulation on packaging design yet. They are all due to come.
The reason we are responding is that businesses are responding to carbon. It is COP26, decarbonization, and net-zero they want to talk about. That’s the trigger as some businesses are asking how we can support them to meet targets such as achieving net-zero by 2035.
Are there any circular projects undertaken by SUEZ that you would like to highlight?
A. We’ve created sustainability champions. There are over 100 volunteers representing every site in the business. These volunteers coordinate bottom-up best practices.
Suddenly, we have somebody doing really interesting things with local suppliers such as re-purposing food near the end of its life so that it can be used by local homeless charities. If it works in one place, then it can work anywhere.
It is these bottom-up champions who are now making these ideas the norm across the business by spreading it across all of our 350 plus sites across the UK and 5,000 staff. What is particularly impressive is their day job could be anything from working on reception to doing licensing and permits, but they are passionate and want to see things happen.
You see these nuggets of activity, and my team is tasked with supercharging that, setting best practices,s and developing benchmarks.
We are also doing some really good stuff on flexible packaging. This will become more prevalent as a problem as more material streams get hijacked by Extended Producer Responsibility. Working with big brands enabled the value chain to understand how big the problem is, how you might capture it, what quality is needed and what technology is needed to turn it into a valuable end product.
That’s now led to a project working with WRAP, Ecosurety, Hubbub, and others to do trials on flexible packaging from several local authority locations in 2022.
It is something I’m proud of because we started with a problem, we spoke to the brands as they created the problem - consumers don’t know what to do with it and we can’t capture it for recycling - and we’ve created a report on best practice and distilled it to what can be done to recycle these in the UK and secured funding to do a trial.
That, to me, is taking a little step on the circular economy, as every household disposes of flexible packaging, but every local authority can’t recycle it.
Working for a big company means we can do the bottom-up stuff, but also work with other corporates on interesting projects that make a difference like this.
What communication will be required between elements of the supply chain and how will data be shared within the circular economy?
A. Somebody needs to explain the circular economy to my mum. Her decision-making is not being affected by the circular economy at all.
We need a narrative for the public about how they can buy a light service, not a light bulb. They can rent a carpet or rent clothes. We need to talk about renting rather than purchasing.
It means a lot of people need to talk about this, not just people like me or hippies on charity stalls as that isn’t going to reach my mum. It needs to be mainstream advocacy as well.
Businesses need to be engaged. Getting businesses to provide data is almost impossible for case studies. But we need these exemplars. SMEs will move when somebody dangles the monetary opportunities in front of them and shows them that companies like theirs have saved 20% of their operating costs by going circular. Or has shown them 15% carbon savings by going for a rental model rather than a purchasing one. That is the narrative we are a long way from.
Data underpins everything. Historically, we don’t have the data on business waste and have had to put our fingers in the air. We could make estimates, but nobody could ever tell you for sure.
If we try to prove circularity, we need data at every transaction point. We currently need to show we captured it, we sorted it, processed it, and it is now back in the market.
Circularity is no different. We need a data set to prove that something has gone around six, 12, or 15 times whether it is a refillable or a reusable product. If you can’t show this, you can’t assume the missing data would provide a positive outcome. We need to be able to track when something goes back through the system.
With the Loop model from Teracycle, where packaging is reused, you know the data points at each transaction. The more models we can build like that where we know the data in real-time, the more we can provide evidence bases for supermarkets and other brands. By providing them with evidence, we can show the circular economy works for them.
We will still recycle. Communication between the recycling chains is getting better, and I’d argue that is because there are fewer players and fewer opportunities for things to go wrong.
In Extended Producer Responsibility, there will be payment points at certain points in the system. To receive payments for collection, local authorities will have to provide evidence that we provide a certain amount of your target recyclable material at the collection point. The only way they will do that is by working this out at a materials recycling facility (MRF).
The MRF will then provide evidence at the back end of how much actual material is baled and goes to the reprocessor, how much is residue, non-target, and poor quality.
At the other end, taking the example of aluminum, there will be a data point on what they receive, and you will get paid on how much of their target material has reached them. If it is contaminated, you get less payment. Good data underpins the entire system.
Brands will only get their tax back if they prove it has gone through the system. This means we need enough data points for this. We are close to that already, and at SUEZ, we do that already for many of our major customers, although we don’t use the data yet to generate payments. Instead, it is used for an informed conversation between us on how we can improve our processes.
Has SUEZ already changed as a result of the circular economy?
A. It depends on how you define the circular economy. Materials handling and resource management were already the journeys we were going on. It is a journey SUEZ has been going on since around 1990 on capturing materials and finding end markets.
Now we are looking at some weird and wonderful materials as these are the next ones that need to be addressed.
The circular economy has already influenced us, but we were already doing some things. We can’t ignore recycling, but we must accept that recycling is the end of the circular economy. Too many people think we can recycle into a circular economy, but we can’t. Reuse and refill have a valuable role to play.
What will companies like SUEZ look like in 20 or 30 years as a result of circularity?
A. We’ve looked at these scenarios at SUEZ. We know that Energy from Waste (EfW) is a transition technology and we have said that for the last four years.
We will build some more EfW plants, but it will be in the next couple of years and will all come to an end in 25 years.
When they close, what those sites will be used for will be to close the circular loops that are critical at that point. It might be we have plastic chemical recycling facilities on these sites, flexible packaging systems in place, food systems that are beyond current anaerobic digestion technology.
As residual waste volumes begin to drop, older EfW facilities will become less viable and will come offline first.
At most of our MRFs, we have already mapped out what we need to change in terms of material composition ahead of policy reforms due in 2025/2026. That is more of a headache as we need to look at more streams, segregated streams, higher quality demands and that will be the pain the market will face first.
We have started the analysis, working with our customers, on how we control variables, redesigning plants, where will artificial intelligence fits, and should we sort some materials before others in the future.
But policy reforms are uncertain, and quite a lot of our material still comes from local authority-related activities. There is no point going early on this if the material comes into us as it does now.
If we capture all the recyclables from municipal waste and household-like business waste, we should be able to get up to 70% recycling rates in the future. By adding chemical recycling, we might get up to 75%, and if we capture organics better and make residual harder, we might get up to 80%.
With these future levels of residuals approaching 20%, that leaves nappies (diapers) and other bits and pieces. If that is all we are left with, I’d take that as a transition between now and 2045.
In the UK, my best guess is that 70% goes to residual now, so there is still plenty of opportunities to improve recycling. But over time, it will be a circular economy that we need to develop to decarbonize and protect our resources and planet.
About Dr. Adam Read:
Dr. Adam Read is External Affairs Director at SUEZ Recycling and Recovery UK for over 4 years. During this time, he has led SUEZ’s work with the UK Government on the development of the new English Resources & Waste Strategy and associated consultations on extended producer responsibility, deposit return systems, and consistent collections.
Adam is President of the Chartered Institute of Wastes Management. For the last 5 years, he has been actively supporting Circular Economy Networks and Hubs across the UK and continues to support academic research projects around circularity, green design, and behavioral change.
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