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MRW Column: milk, mandatory minimums and momentum for a circular economy.

13th November 2015

In the latest of his thought leader column’s for the UK resource sector’s leading journal, MRW, Director of Viridor Resource Management Herman Van Der Meij looks at milk, mandatory minimums and momentum for a circular economy.

There’s a chill in the air on a cold Saturday morning in Amsterdam. In the Van Der Meij household my daughter, Robine, is sat at the kitchen table as I walk through the door, fresh from Schiphol airport. Glancing up from her iPad, I’m blown a kiss and get a cursory “Hi dad. How was your week?” before her head burrows back into the latest ‘something’ story on her tablet. Typical!

I smile as I sit down, greet my wife and, with a coffee in one hand, pour the milk onto my flakes. I’m reminded of the frosty mornings sat with my brother, mother and father growing up. Whilst the news quietly murmurs in the background, I’m reminded of a time when often the only thing my brother and I had in common was our love of MacGyver – the fictional LA TV detective who worked for the shadowy Phoenix Foundation. A front for the Government’s Department for External Services as you recall.

Back then, steeped in four generations of a Dutch recycling business, talk often turned to dad and to his work. Susan asks about the conference I spoke at this week and, bright as a button, my daughter asks if I used her idea? “Milk”. “Milk” – Susan asks? “Yes” says Robine – “milk”.

“Dad and I were watching the news about the farmers” she says referring to an item the previous week about the plight of European milk producers. “Its fair trade for farmers but not their suppliers.” Sometimes I think she’s wiser than her years. There, around and old oak kitchen table, a still half sleepy nine year old girl in her pajamas cut straight to the heart of the debate around Europe’s circular economy.

She’s right. The news the previous week reported a ‘state of emergency’ in the EU dairy market where the value of milk had fallen a quarter in the last twelve months. We watched as UK based ‘Farmers for Action’ organised protests against Asda, Morrisons, Aldi and Lidl, blockading distribution centres and walking two cows around a supermarket in Stafford.

Protests against the four grocers were halted while agreements over the new price for milk were finalised. David Handley, chairman of Farmers For Action, said: “I wouldn’t class it as a big victory. This is the start of a realisation by retailers that something had to be done. It is a pity it needed a bit of protest to get them to the table.”

And, shortly afterwards, Bradford-based supermarket Morrisons launched a new milk brand – ‘Morrisons Milk for Farmers’, costing 10p more per litre than its standard own-brand milk, with the premium paid to dairy farmers. The company also launched a new Milk for Farmers cheddar cheese, costing 34p a pack more than standard cheese. Same idea.

For my daughter it’s simple. If it’s fair to focus on the viability of what’s in the carton, why not the carton itself? I’m drawn to the condition of commodity markets – unprecedented resource price volatility, rising quality demands and the failure of Eco Plastics and others. Indeed, resource price volatility between 2005 and 2015 was three times the 1980-2004 average. But unlike Robine, whilst I ‘get’ fair trade for farmers, I doubt there’s a public mood for a demo on Downing Street to support the European resource sector.

Yet in many ways that’s precisely what’s needed. We need to to reassess the opportunities and economics of moving towards a more circular economy. Put simply we need a new economic realism if we are to progress UK and European recycling and resource efficiency.

Whilst landfill levies and the public and private sector’s innovation have in recent years driven multi-billion pound investment in anaerobic digestion and residual waste technologies, the reality is a UK and European resource sector with rapidly aging, increasingly obsolete recycling technology and systems.

The answer, in part, is just as Handley said, getting people to the table. And here, the European Commission’s circular economy proposals, due shortly, offer an opportunity to re-connect policy in partnership with national governments, realising the prospects of the resource sector in the green economy. A re-connect needs resource leadership in Europe and in nation states : strong, stable, clear and consistent policy from political leaders backed by sustainable business models across our economy.

Viridor supports the Commission’s ambition to develop a more circular economy in Europe where a greater proportion of European resources remain within the continent supported by enhanced reuse, recycling and reprocessing capability.

We recognise the realism of twenty-eight member states with differing collections, reuse, recycling and recovery infrastructure, investment profiles, and recycling performance. We believe the progress and investment of individual member nations should not be undermined by a one-size-fits-all blanket target which would be wrong for the UK and European member nations.

That said, the package presents a unique opportunity for a balanced package of proposals which are ambitious, are evidence based, feasible for all member states and include measures to boost recycled content of goods. The carrot and stick to my daughter’s milk carton.

Mandatory minimums? Maybe. More likely measures to ‘nudge’ best practice to common place. It’s that best practice – like the Scotch Whisky Association’s commitment on content that’s the gateway to new technology, investment and supply chain innovation like our £25m glass hub opened by the Scottish Cabinet Secretary last month.

For me, on the milk carton, sustainable packaging is more than making a product recyclable, it’s a product made of recycled content supporting a circular economy.

A boost from Brussels for recycled content would not only make a major contribution to environmental objectives, it would offer a shot in the arm for businesses, public and third sector partners struggling in many cases to make the sums work for Europe’s sustainability sector.

Back at breakfast the flakes and fruit juice are finished. We’re looking to the day ahead. We’re home, gathered round the table and, unlike with my brother, there’s no crying over spilled milk. Let’s hope Europe takes a similar journey.

To find out more about Viridor, contact Herman here.

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