COVID-related restrictions were gradually lifted in 2021, allowing us to meet for the first time in more than two years at our Global Trading Forum in Brussels. Uncertainty regarding the pandemic and limited choice of venues did not allow us to put on a full Convention, but nevertheless it was a huge success with attendance surpassing expectations. It was wonderful to be able to meet everyone in the flesh, particularly from a personal perspective as it was only my second in-person meeting during my tenure as President.
From a business perspective, 2021 certainly proved to be a marked improvement on 2020, with strong trading conditions throughout the year as the world tried to return to some kind of normality. However, despite all of the positive aspects of 2021, I am of the view the recycling industry needs to be more united than ever over the challenges to be faced in the future.
“Recycling is such an important thing for us to do to maintain life on Earth.”
These are not my words or those of any company owner with a vested financial interest in promoting recycling. These words were spoken by Lucy Hawking - daughter of legendary scientist Stephen Hawking - in her Keynote Address to BIR’s webinar programme last May, during which she celebrated her father’s advocacy of “the need to take climate change seriously”.
Only a few months before he died in early 2018, he made the pro-recycling assertion that “our physical resources are being drained, at an alarming rate”. Of his deep environmental convictions, Lucy added: “He spoke about it and wrote about it way before it really entered the public consciousness. He saw the science and he saw the evidence, and he realised where it was going.”
In effect, one of the cleverest people ever known to this world was able to grasp - completely and unequivocally - the fundamental importance of recycling in changing humankind’s relationship with the planet. So with environmental awareness at an unprecedented peak, surely this should be a Golden Age for recycling and for the industry that, for many generations, has taken responsibility for conserving resources and cutting carbon emissions?
As you will read in some of the excellent contributions to this Annual Report, our industry continues to be on the receiving end of poorly-worded or misguided comment and even downright lies that not only skew public perceptions but also, in some instances, further the cause of truly Bigger Business - all to the detriment of the environment.
But the attack on recycling goes even deeper than denigration of its most experienced practitioners; it is increasingly enshrined in the laws and policies directly impacting our industry.
Just imagine for a moment that you’re the leader of a major developing country. At the COP meeting in Glasgow, you come under pressure to decarbonize your economy - with some of that pressure coming from developed countries which have already plundered largely primary resources in achieving their industrial maturity.
Recognizing the value of using scrap rather than primary raw materials as one of the most direct and effective means of reducing industrial carbon emissions, you ask your advisors to draw up a plan aimed at maximizing scrap ratios. Even though money is limited and the demands of the social budget are many, you direct billions of dollars into the replacement of existing technologies with ones that enable a transition from the use of primary resources to, instead, the use of scrap.
As your economy is still growing, per-capita consumption of goods is still way below that of developed countries whose populations have had decades to enjoy all the trappings modern life has to offer. So your scrap generation levels - while growing at a rapid rate - are still relatively low, and certainly too low to satisfy all of your industrial needs. Therefore, you have no option but to import high-quality secondary raw materials in order to continue on your decarbonization mission and towards a more sustainable environment that will benefit the whole planet.
And then a host of developed economies - let’s call it the European Union, for argument’s sake - club together to tell you that this is “waste” and that they are changing their shipping regulations so that they will no longer be sending you any scrap….
I have turned this anomalous situation over in my head many, many times and can make no sense of it. Above all, it strikes me as a monumental failure to view the Circular Economy as it should truly be seen, as a global undertaking.
In 2021, European recycling associations affiliated to BIR wrote to the European Commission and the European Parliament to highlight the potentially disastrous effects of a blanket restriction on EU exports of recycling materials. They also called for a clear distinction in the legal regime between “problematic waste streams” and raw materials tailored to consumer needs using high-tech recycling processes.
This legal conflation of “waste” and “secondary raw materials” has been at the core of many of our industry’s greatest ills for more than 30 years. Just as some of the world’s most brilliant minds have appreciated the importance of recycling, surely it is not beyond the capabilities of our highly intelligent rule-makers to engineer such an important distinction between garbage and the specification raw materials produced by our industry.
I would urge you all to become involved in this debate, to promote the truth about our industry’s exceptional skills and to challenge misconceptions about what we do. Our unity of purpose and of voice remain crucial if we are to win through.
BIR will continue to be on the front line, working with our National Associations in the fight to preserve the interests of our members and the recycling industry as a whole. Global free trade in recycled raw materials is essential for a truly global Circular Economy.
I look forward to welcoming everyone to Barcelona in May at what will be our first full Convention since Budapest in 2019.