BIR Abu Dhabi 2023 - Opening session: After 75 years, the world recycling organisation is told its work has never been more important
Recyclers around the world have been urged to be more proactive about their vital role in ensuring the earth’s limited and valuable natural resources are recovered and used sustainably. The call came during a fascinating glimpse into the years ahead by futurist Matthew Griffin whose keynote address kicked off the Bureau of International Recycling’s World Recycling Convention in Abu Dhabi on October 23.
With BIR looking back on its history over the past 75 years and forward to the opportunities of the future, Mr Griffin painted a picture of changing global supply chains, new materials, evolving technologies and far greater use of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. Mr Griffin is the founder and futurist-in-chief of the 311 Institute, a global advisory firm. His presentation, ‘Recycling the Future’, detailed a range of issues which will affect BIR members in the coming decades and a key part of his message was to challenge recyclers to “adapt to world realities”.
During questions from the floor, it was suggested that recyclers get insufficient credit for their role in global sustainability, partly because of an association with “waste” when in fact they were dealing with valuable commodities. Mr Griffin agreed.
“Waste is a cultural bias,” he said. “Previously, we would use something and it would go to landfill. Landfill is waste, but as an industry you are not dealing with waste; you are dealing with resource. It’s a marketing problem. You’ve got to correct everybody.”
The speaker cautioned that he had looked at recyclers’ websites and found many were still using the word ‘waste’ or ‘waste recyclers’. “No, you are ‘resource recyclers’, you should replace ‘waste’ with ‘resource’. It is doing you a disservice. Re-market yourselves.”
Change and opportunity
He highlighted two contrasting figures: global waste accounts for 2.4 billion tonnes a year while only around 312 million tonnes of “hard waste” is recycled. The former is a well-established total, he said, the latter is only an estimate.
“No-one is asking you how much you recycle. We don’t have standards for reporting. Most organisations under-report or don’t want to report. We should know exactly how much we are wasting.”
The futurist set out his view of a world splitting into two along cultural, economic and political lines, disrupting supply chains and forcing businesses to re-think where and how there operate. Fragile governments brought uncertainty, he told delegates, and resource scarcity was a message “you should hammer home”.
Mr Griffin believed the greatest opportunity for recyclers was “resource weaponisation”, whereby countries either banned exports of rare earth and other essential metals or erected trade tariffs to protect domestic industries. The “Rich Have” countries were also paying top rates, securing resources at premium rates because they are so crucial.
“[Resource scarcity] is concerning governments everywhere,” he said. “That’s kind of a good thing because if they can’t get materials they will give tax and other incentives so that you can recover and recycle [them] locally.”
On top of that, he told his audience, investors were increasingly concerned about sustainability. “Investors pull the strings. They say: ‘If you cannot prove your company is green, we will dump your stock from our portfolio’. They are on your side. That means industry will want to talk to you.”
In her first address as the new President of BIR, Susie Burrage OBE of Recycled Products Ltd, UK, said the recycling industry had once been described as one of the world’s best kept secrets. “Today, however, no international or supranational body concerned with the economic and environmental welfare of the planet can afford to ignore recycling. The secret is finally out.”
Ms Burrage reminded delegates that BIR was celebrating its 75th anniversary. “This is a momentous occasion that bears testament to our predecessors’ dedication and tireless efforts. Together, they laid the groundwork for a world where recycling is not seen as a burden but as an opportunity for innovation and growth, a cornerstone in sustainability and an essential cog in the circular economy.”
While it was BIR and its first members who secured the opening of frontiers to recycling commodities in Europe well before the EU was formed, the president called it “unbelievable” that the achievements of the organisation’s founders and forefathers were under threat from deglobalisation.
“Increasing trade barriers pose a significant challenge to our industry. BIR is actively addressing this in various fora and has consistently campaigned for the free movement of recycled materials to avoid shortages in certain geographical areas and surpluses in others.”
Ms Burrage also spoke of BIR’s strong growth in membership, successful conventions and a robust financial situation which was enabling the leadership to make significant investments, strengthen its secretariat and increase its advocacy efforts.
BIR’s new president was filled with “a sense of wonder" about what recyclers can accomplish collectively. “It is undeniable that with our combined determination and abilities, we have the ability to become an unstoppable voice”.
The event was formally opened by Director General Arnaud Brunet who said it had attracted 1,100 people from 56 countries with the largest delegation coming from the United Arab Emirates.