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“The recycling industry has a major role to play in the advancement of a circular economy”

Arnaud Brunet, BIR Director General, sat down with Swaliha Shanavas to discuss the latest developments in the recycling industry, BIR’s vital role in bringing about positive change in this constantly evolving industry and why he’s glad to be a part of this dynamic business sector.

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Business Leader
April 25 2018 Arnaud Brunet
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In your role as BIR director general for about a year, how has your experience been so far?

It’s new to me but I’m learning with each passing day. I’m a lawyer by education and have worked as a lawyer for large corporations for many years, having started with the oil industry and later moving on to the IT sector with IBM. For the last 18 years I was with Sony, also heading Sony Europe’s Brussels office in the last six years where I was in charge of interfacing with the European Commission, trade associations, etc. I joined BIR as I thought it was a personal challenge and there was also a great project with BIR at a time when recycling is at the centre of the secular economy discussions and so on. I’m very passionate about the subject and what I like most is that it is a positive business. In other words, the industry earns money but it is for the good of the planet and that is very rewarding.

What triggered your interest in this sector?

There are many things. In my previous roles, I was always involved in environmental issues for the companies that I worked with, and was also involved in recycling schemes. So, I had some knowledge about recycling, but from the producer’s angle talking about eco-design, recycling schemes, compliance, etc. After many years in those companies, I wanted to do something different. BIR is special in many respects; it is a global organisation and the only genuine global recycling federation. What makes it unique is that we are an independent body; we represent directly or indirectly more than 30,000 companies around the world present in 70 countries. We have 34 members associations, and it was a challenge.

What kind of ambition and ideas do you have for BIR?

I had an ambition for BIR; when I started to investigate what made BIR interesting or unique, I had the feeling that we could do much more in terms of services to the members, in terms of visibility for the public, in terms of influence; so I started to elaborate in my mind a certain roadmap that I submitted to the people who were looking for the role of director general. And the roadmap I had in mind matched the one they wanted for the organisation. The vision I had from the outside had to be confirmed by being within the organisation. So I had to adjust a little bit, but the basis was there. I want the organisation to be the undisputed global recycling federation, being able to be a counterpart of the UN, OECD, World Bank, etc. because those bodies and the governments of the different countries need somebody to talk to when we get to serious discussions. And this is what BIR is for – we are the voice of the global recycling industry; we do not represent any local interests; so we have to be strong together with our members, which is why I very much rely on the network of national associations in addition to corporate members.

What do you love most about your job and what is the most challenging?

What I like is that it is challenging. Let me give you a simple example. I joined on 1st June 2017; mid-July China announced the new regulations, import restrictions, the new standards and it became a crisis for the industry. There was really a necessity to immediately liaise with the members, national federations, be it ISRI or BMR or other associations. We had to liaise and make sure that we would deliver the important message to the WTO and hence to the Chinese government. That’s exciting, because it is a global subject that really impacts our businesses. Of course it is a crisis. But if you think it over, you realise it’s probably an opportunity for this industry. The pressure that China is putting on the industry by requesting better quality will in the longer term be beneficial to this industry.

The problem is transition and short term. In the short term, small and medium companies are more likely to be in trouble. They are under pressure and BIR must provide them guidance and do everything we can to make things as smooth as possible. But in the longer term we also have to convey to our members there’s no way back; this is the future of your business – quality, quality, quality. So you have to invest in technology, know-how and you will be better off in the longer term, because you will create more value, which means it’s good for your business and good for the planet. So in the long term it is good, the problem is the short term. That is why we have been pleading for transition, which we don’t really have.

The China development is a challenge, but doesn’t it open up opportunities for new markets too?

That’s right. Basically, when you look at the situation for our members and for the industry in general, there are different options. The short term option is, of course, to overstock and if they can’t find customers in China, sell either for incineration or landfill, which is not good and this is not what we want. We do everything we can to avoid this. The other option is to find new markets. For instance, companies are investing in countries in South East Asia such as Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, etc. But the situation will not change overnight. Investing does not mean that overnight you have the capacity, and to be realistic, nobody has the capacity to match what China was offering in terms of market. Of course, you can find new markets; some countries may consider it as an opportunity, but it will take some time. So the best choice in the long term is to be ready to match China's standards; it would also mean that you will be able to match any further standards that may appear in other regions of the world. So that’s the future and everything in between is transition period.

What are your views on the future developments and growth potential?

We all know that China needs those recyclables and the customers are still there. Some of them may suffer, some may disappear. So what’s probably going to happen (and I understood that from a short trip to China in November) is that the government is somewhat aware that some companies will shut down, and it is in one way or other concentrating the business and at the same time investing in bigger companies so that those companies can address the Chinese domestic market growth and then become global players. So it’s a long roadmap for China. Apparently, the government is investing directly taking equity in a certain number of companies to support them financially to ensure they can invest in new equipment and technology, so that when the infrastructure and the organisation of the Chinese domestic market is ready, they can phase it and begin to be self-sufficient.

And once this is achieved, they may turn to the global market. But again, this will take some time. In the meantime, it’s a very disruptive situation for everyone. There is a lot of potential for expansion and this industry has a major role to play in the advancement of a circular economy, sustainable development, etc. But what I would like to express is that the existing companies in the industry are often family businesses, which have been doing things over and over again as they always used to; suddenly they might be disrupted, challenged by newcomers who may see an opportunity to enter this business. I don’t know if this will happen, but you have to be ready for change, which might happen quickly.

Your comments on Global Recycling Day.

The first edition coincides with BIR’s 70th anniversary. It’s an important awareness campaign. BIR President Ranjit Baxi says ‘Recycling is an untold story’. My analysis is that recycling has a deficit of image; very often recycling is associated with garbage and pollution. One of the purposes of the Recycling Day is not only to spread the message and introduce the importance of the seventh resource, etc., but also to communicate to the general public that what we’re doing is very positive. Nobody knows that recycling offsets the carbon emission of the entire civil aviation in a year; it’s huge. These messages have to flow to the public, so Ranjit Baxi decided to have the Global Recycling Day. It’s starting small, but beyond our expectations; we’re extremely successful on social media. Many cities around the world are participating and we believe in the snowball effect. We have support from UNIDO and many association members; it’s taking off very well and we’re excited about it.

What are your key objectives in the short term?

My priorities are to deliver more services to the members, to be more responsive, to provide more useful information for the business, that’s the basis. We also have some advocacy objectives in terms of being more influential; and the Chinese situation that I found when I arrived in BIR is a perfect example of the role that BIR can have in uniting interests and voices to the Chinese government. Apart from Global Recycling Day, I aim to deliver two exceptional conventions for my members this year – Barcelona in May and London in October; Improve my communication media - we have done a lot in terms of communication to our members with our Mirrors, the Global Recycling Day website, and some membership pages have been redesigned.

The next step is to redesign our communication tools including the website – we’re rethinking the website to make it more interactive, fit for all mobile devices, etc. I have strong objectives in terms of increasing the membership and the geographic footprint. We are very strong in Europe and the US, and also well developed in Asia and the Middle East. The last two conventions were in Hong Kong and Delhi, which is a strong sign that we care about Asia. We need to think about the future, which is probably for us Latin America and Africa, and for this we will spend some time to try and understand how we can develop our presence and support the industry in those two regions. These are a few hints of some of my projects–more service, more visibility, more communication, more influence and extension to regions where we’re not present.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I’m interested in all kinds of art ranging from architecture to painting, sculpture, photography and so on. I took the opportunity of being in Dubai to drive together with friends to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and it’s absolutely breath-taking. I’m based in Brussels and my family lives in Paris, so I travel frequently to Paris to meet them. I love aeronautics and was a private pilot for years. I’m pretty sure I will fly again after my professional life. I also do scuba diving when I have time.

What is the message you would like to convey to the younger generation?

I think the younger generation is more sensitive to the environment in general. But being environmentally conscious and doing something about it are two different things. So, be the actors of change and do not rely on others to do things for you. If we don’t care about the planet, we’re going to be in trouble