Welcome to the second of our Inspire series of interviews with global thought leaders in Sustainability and the Circular Economy. Today our interview is with Dr. Simon Ellin who is CEO of the Recycling Association in the UK and its trading company IWWP.
1. To what extent is the circular economy an opportunity?
The circular economy is an opportunity for members of The Recycling Association, but also any company that works in recycling and waste management around the globe.
In some ways, we have been operating a circular economy in some materials for decades. If you take paper and cardboard for example, we have been recycling these back into fibre-based products for many, many years. In some circumstances this will be through domestic mills or returning paper and cardboard packaging to manufacturing centres in Europe and Asia.
The circular economy therefore is about taking these principles and expanding them to all materials. But it is also about considering the waste hierarchy so that we reduce and reuse before we recycle and try to bring down the volumes that go to energy from waste or landfill.
By introducing a circular economy, we create more opportunity for recyclers to handle even more material, but also the opportunity to work even more closely with retailers, manufacturers, local and national governments to create a system that seamlessly considers the circularity of products from the point of manufacture to them being remanufactured or reused.
2. What steps are you taking to position The Recycling Association for this opportunity?
As I mentioned above, our members have been involved in elements of the circular economy for many years.
But in recent years, we have embraced the opportunities it gives.
For example, we launched our Quality First campaign six years ago now, and the idea of that was to get to a point where we regularly provide commodity-grade materials to the markets. The UK has gone from being seen as a provider of low-quality material, to one that is some of the best in the world.
Our ambition now is to move the UK to providing end-of-waste paper status so that secondary fibre is treated as a commodity rather than a waste. Countries such as Italy, France and Spain have already moved towards this, and that is where I want us to get to also.
In the past, I have been critical of the way certain products are designed that have made them very difficult or impossible to recycle. In particular, I picked out Pringles cans and the multi-material packaging that made them hard to sort, separate and recycle.
To be fair to it, Kellogg’s which owns the Pringles brand, has engaged with us to make these cans designed for recycling, and it is making huge progress on getting there.
This is a great example of one of the ways I see The Recycling Association working within the circular economy. We are there to engage and work with major companies and brands to find solutions that suit them, but also make it simple for our members to recycle these products. That way we can have more closed loop solutions that ensure even greater proportions of materials are recycled.
3. What role will digital technology play in your relationship with suppliers and customers?
Digital technology will inevitably play a greater role in the future, whether that is data science services, or the type of platforms provided by AMCS.
We recently launched our Traqa service that uses technology to digitalise the paperwork involved in exports. Open to our members, but also non-members, Traqa provides UK exporters with a digital solution that means stakeholders such as customs authorities, regulators and end destination mills and facilities receive all the essential documentation they require when we export recyclable materials.
4. What are the regulations that are driving this change for The Recycling Association?
Prior to Brexit, the UK was involved in developing the UK Circular Economy Package and this still informs quite a bit of our trajectory when it comes to introducing this area of policy.
We are currently in a timeline that will potentially transform the UK recycling market and turn it into a more circular economy.
From 1 April 2022, the Plastic Packaging Tax will mean that any plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content will need to pay a £200 per tonne tax.
We are also in a process that will lead to Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), Consistency of Collections and a Deposit Return Scheme introduced across the four UK nations probably by 2024.
EPR is likely to mean that more funding is available to support recycling infrastructure. A focus on consistency of collections and a core set of materials for packaging, will make creating high-quality recycling much easier.
While we have concerns over the proposals on business waste collections, and the impact on free trade, the overall thrust of the movement is towards preparing and beginning a circular economy. That must be a positive.
5. Are there any circular projects undertaken by The Recycling Association that you would like to highlight?
As mentioned previously, our Quality First campaign and Traqa technology is making a big difference to the recycling industry.
I also think the information that we provide to members, the lobbying we do with Government, the engagement with other stakeholder sectors, as well as the networking opportunities, shows the benefit of being a member of The Recycling Association.
6. What communication will be required between elements of the supply chain and how will data be shared within the circular economy?
Communication is essential whether that is person-to-person or transfer of data. As an industry, but also as a society, the circular economy will require change.
It is essential that this change, and the positives of that change, are communicated to the public.
But supply chains will also need to provide data to each other so that providing recycled content is no different to the just-in-time manufacturing requirements for raw materials.
7. Has The Recycling Association already changed as a result of the circular economy?
Definitely. For many years we largely talked to ourselves as an industry, while occasionally communicating with government and local government.
These days we talk to all sorts of different entities because major brands understand the need to be part of a circular economy. Companies like Kellogg’s, or Suntory Beverage & Food Great Britain and Ireland and its brands Lucozade and Ribena, have seen that our input helps them improve the designs of their products for recyclability.
We also get a better understanding of their needs and requirements from us.
Working with companies like this isn’t something we would have done much several years ago but being part of the circular economy means it is important now and leads to a better outcome for all.
8. What will The Recycling Association look like in 20 or 30 years because of circularity?
I know I won’t oversee it in 20 to 30 years as I’ll be well into my retirement years by then!
But I imagine whoever is my successor then will be building on the foundations we have created now.
I hope we waste very little but live in a society where materials are valued and not wasted. That means reuse is embedded in our society, recycling almost all of what is left.
When we buy, or maybe even rent a product, the packaging is easily reused or recycled. Then the product has been designed for reuse or easy repair. In the case of food and drink, I hope we don’t waste very much of it, maximising resources on our planet.
I’m optimistic we will get there, because it is a logical to maximise and efficiently use our resources.
About Simon Ellin
After graduating in environmental science and completing a PhD on the effects of various air pollutants on the ecosystem, Simon moved into the recycling arena over 30 years ago.
He has occupied a variety of operational and commercial roles and joined The Recycling Association in 2009. He is now Chief Executive of both the Recycling Association, and its trading company, IWPP Limited.
During his time, the association has further evolved into a high-profile global brand providing support for members in a huge growth industry. Simon is very clear on the strategy for the Association over the next few years and lists the balance of supporting members through the most unpredictable trading period they have ever experienced whilst ensuring quality and compliance along with a coherent regulatory infrastructure that compliments the government’s ambitious Resources and Waste Strategy as his greatest career challenge.
What is EPR?
EPR stands for Extended Producer Responsibility. Essentially, it means that those that produce goods or packaging take responsibility for their recycling. In some circumstances, it means the producers physically recycle the products themselves, but in most cases means that they provide the funding for others to collect, sort and recycle the materials.
In Europe, the Packaging Waste Directive obliges all Member States to have set up an EPR system by 2024. The UK is also seeking to introduce EPR by this date.
While EPR hasn’t yet taken off across the United States, individual states have shown interest. Maine became the first to introduce an EPR law in July 2021, while New York, California, Oregon and Washington have all introduced some elements of EPR or begun a process to.
What is DRS?
DRS stands for Deposit Return Scheme. In 2002, Germany became the first big European nation to adopt DRS. Here, bottles are brought back to collection points and a deposit is paid back on glass and plastic bottles that was charged when the product was purchased.
France has recently introduced DRS, while the UK is proposing to bring it in during 2024 (although 2023 in Scotland).
But the US state of California has had a DRS scheme since 1987 and others have followed.
What is consistency of collections?
In the UK, by 2023 all local councils will be required to standardised collections of core materials including paper/cardboard, plastic bottles, metal cans, glass and food waste. There may be some adjustment in these to include plastic pots and trays, plastic films and cartons eventually, assuming the recycling infrastructure is good enough.
Unlike now, each local authority will collect the same materials making it easier for packaging producers to tell people which bin the packaging can go into.
What is the plastic packaging tax?
From 1 April 2022, the UK Treasury will impose a tax of £200 per tonne on any company that produces or imports packaging with less than 30% recycled plastic content.
This tax is designed to encourage companies to use more recycled plastic content.
Spain and Italy are both introducing plastic packaging taxes this year, and the Netherlands is also looking to develop a similar tax.
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