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The future of recycling is bright: Tom Bird

The BIR President speaks to R. Keerthana on the sidelines of the BIR Convention, Dubai, on the impact of Europe’s energy crisis on the recycling industry and the role of the federation in advocacy. 

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November 1 2022 R. Keerthana
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Since the last two years the world has been going through a pandemic. We thought the worst was over, however, now we are faced with war, energy crisis and high inflation. How has your journey been as the BIR President since you took over in 2019? 

The Bureau of International Recycling is the umbrella organisation representing the recycling industry from across the globe. Each region has its own challenges and the extent of the current energy crisis is not the same everywhere. In some places, electricity charges have gone up by eleven times, and in some by two or three. Its impact however, for the moment, is felt within the continent of Europe. 

Factors such as inflation, supply chain issues, shortages of goods and increase in demand and prices have led to a perfect storm. Plus, we have a war on our doorstep. It's been a tough time for all industries and not just the recycling sector.  

And personally, it's been enormously challenging. During the early days of the pandemic, we had to rethink the model of the BIR. The federation is not just about conventions, it's about advocacy and more. The increase in BIR membership (now at around 900) bears testament to the great work done by the federation behind the scenes. The BIR has been working closely with national associations to find out what's happening around the world and to support the industry in various regions. It's been a very challenging period. But the recycling industry is resilient and I am confident that it will come out stronger.  

On the one hand, Europe aspires to become the first climate neutral continent by 2050, but on the other, the EU is restricting waste shipment.  What’s your thoughts on this?

I'm not going to apologise for saying this: It's backdoor protectionism. The approach to end-of-life materials changes according to the narrative. People call these materials ‘waste’ when it suits them and ‘vital raw material’ when it suits them. 

The concept of a circular economy is global, not regional. If Europe wants to buy every last tonne of material and consume the same, then that's fine. However, it generates surplus amounts of ferrous scrap and it has to be exported. And it can’t sort of sit on it.  

For instance, let’s say, due to the energy crisis consumers decide to cut back production. What will we do with the recycling materials that would have been used? Materials will not get collected and recycling rates will drop. This will defeat the very purpose of being a social economy – you're artificially trying to control the price of materials by other means. For me, it's all about free and fair trade. It's the only way we're going to achieve climate targets.

Countries in Southeast Asia are investing in Europe. We can't point fingers at those regions and say they are not doing enough to cut carbon emissions and then deny them the very material that they need to cut emission. We should be helping them, not be an obstacle in their way. 

Due to the energy crisis, many companies are cutting down production and energy-intensive ones are shutting down. Does the BIR offer any kind of support to these companies? 

Not financially. All we can do is offer advocacy. The BIR can certainly support the industry by collating information. The energy tariffs and impacts vary from region to region. And we are still not fully aware of the effects. So what we need to do is to make sure that we have all the information right and support the associations in the various countries and regions to get their message across to their governments. 

(In the wake of its recent World Recycling Convention in Dubai, where most of the over 650 attending companies reported on the huge burden that sky-rocketing energy costs put on their operations, the BIR urged national governments and international legislators to enact immediate financial aid for the recycling industry to prevent significant long-term damage.)

You have been urging the industry to challenge the misconception about recycling. Today there is widespread awareness about climate change and aspiration to achieve a circular economy. Do you think even today recycling is looked at in a stereotypical way? 

It’s changing. We, as an industry, have, over the years, kept our heads down a little bit. I think that the narrative has certainly changed now. We could probably look back and say we should have done more to educate people on exactly what we do. I've always said that we were green long before it was fashionable. We're the original environmentalists – we recycled. Perhaps, our shortcoming was our failure to get  the message across loud and clear and we've allowed terms like ‘waste’  to be used to refer to recyclable materials. But that perspective is certainly changing now.  

To conclude, I would like to say the future of recycling is bright. If the world is serious about zero carbon, then recycling is the single most important thing that we should do and we are proud that we represent that industry.