A Q&A with … Otto de Bont
14 September 2021
We asked Otto de Bont to share his thoughts on tackling the climate emergency and the role that Renewi, as a company that is at the heart of the circular economy, can play.
Q: Last year, you sounded the alarm that the time to act on climate change is now. Do you feel optimistic for the future?
A: Climate challenges remain a critical priority. It is widely acknowledged that if we don’t take action, the earth could warm by a minimum of 4°C by 2050. The US now refers to a ‘climate emergency’ – a phrase that highlights the problem (climate) and the need (emergency = time to act) in two words.
During 2020, more than 100 billion tonnes of raw materials were extracted from the earth. According to statistics published in The Circularity Gap Report 2021, the cost to the planet of product development of this magnitude – from extraction to end of use – is 59.1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which accounts for 70% of all GHGs emitted.
In addition to increased environmental pressures, there has also been greater environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, threat of resource depletion, climate change and other forms of environmental pressure.
Our demand for products is a major contributor to the destruction of the planet. As the world population grows, we can expect enhanced levels of consumption that will result in at an even higher level of production. It has been estimated we can expect to see double the number of raw materials used by 2060 compared with 2017.
But despite the risks we face I am optimistic because we have clarity on actions that can be taken particularly in the world in which Renewi operates. By embracing and boosting the circular economy, by replacing incineration and landfill with recycling, we can slow down global warming and tackle the threat of climate change. The eyes of future generations are upon us. We must prove that we are good ancestors – that we are serious about creating a better and greener future for our children and grandchildren.
Q: Is a circular economy the only solution?
A: There are multiple parallel ways in which the climate emergency can be addressed. One way to limit global warming to under 2°C by 2050 is through the circular economy. Global plans in place through the Paris Climate Agreement are expected to contribute up to 15% of target reduction, so the circular economy must deliver the remaining 85%. The current global economy is only 8.6% circular; if international governments, industry and other key actors can double that figure, to 17%, by 2032, it is expected that we can close the gap and limit global warming to under 2°C.
Recycling therefore has a crucial role to play, not only in creating secondary raw materials, but also in producing high-quality alternatives to what is currently used – virgin materials.
Many companies operating in the waste industry are conflicted in progressing towards fully circular solutions because they have incinerators and landfill voids to fill. These are cheaper and easier solutions for the disposal of waste, but deliver poorer outcomes (in terms of GHG emissions) than recycling. As a pure-play waste-toproduct company, Renewi minimises incineration and landfill and therefore drives down the proportion of inbound waste being sent for energy recovery, and we work tirelessly to give new use to waste materials, including producing secondary raw materials.
Prince William discussing the Earthshot Prize with Sir David Attenborough in October 2020
Q: Do you feel global business is taking sustainability more seriously now?
A: No doubt about it. As the expectations on corporate responsibility increase, and as transparency becomes more prevalent, companies are recognising the need to act on sustainability. Professional communications and good intentions are no longer enough. Management needs to ensure that the strategy of the company and its sustainability efforts are aligned. Often we see divergence, which of course makes the sustainability efforts fragile, lacking real commitment and prioritisation. Businesses must put sustainability at the heart of what they do.
To boost the circular economy, business and industry must collaborate. As Prince William said when launching the Earthshot Prize competition: “We’ve got to harness our ingenuity and our ability to invent. The next 10 years are a critical decade for change.” The Earthshot Prize recognises ideas and technologies that can safeguard the planet and aims to bring together the best minds to tackle some of the world’s greatest environmental challenges. I really believe that circularity is a joint effort and innovation is its engine.
Q: What are the most urgent challenges facing the waste industry?
A: Recycling has become more difficult as product manufacturing has evolved, with the use of complex composites and compositions of refined virgin materials. Incorporating recyclability into how products are designed is vital if the world is to successfully recover a greater percentage of materials and create circularity. It is technically possible to recycle almost every product to create reusable materials. However, when the ‘economic’ cost of virgin materials is low and does not fully value the carbon cost or the materials’ degradation, it is not always economically viable to recycle.
Loading virgin raw materials for their full environmental cost would therefore allow the implicit value of secondary raw materials to be realised. It would also boost use and contribute to the targeted doubling of circularity.
Secondary materials typically struggle to achieve the same purity as virgin production due to the non-homogeneous inputs. This is a challenge when incorporated into production lines that have set precise and narrow definitions of inputs. Recycled raw materials, therefore, must be further refined to improve quality; in parallel, product designers and manufacturers need to be encouraged to broaden their design specifications to overcome the challenges of using circular materials in their production process. Producer responsibility has never been more important.
At Renewi, we are working closely with innovative partners to raise the quality of recycled and secondary materials. We are also working with manufacturers to help them incorporate secondary materials into their design and production processes. We are encouraged by the supportive dialogue with leading sustainabilityconscious manufacturers, and hopeful that this design thinking and collaboration will permeate into the general manufacturing economy over time.
Renewi also wants to save more waste from ending up in incineration. Today, it is cheaper for waste streams that are difficult to recycle to be incinerated. If governments want a circular world by 2050, more incentives are needed. Incentivise manufacturers to replace hard-torecycle materials with easily recyclable ones. Incentivise the waste sector to find new and innovative ways to do so. Make primary raw materials more expensive than secondary materials. Require that a percentage of recycled raw materials are used in every product.
And, finally, make incineration more expensive. As a pure-play recycler, Renewi has no waste incineration facilities and therefore does not follow the two tracks that many other companies in the sector do: wanting to recycle on the one hand, and to keep their waste incinerators fully occupied on the other.
Q: What do you hope will come from the UN’s Climate Change Conference, COP26?
A: Expectations are high, especially after the somewhat disappointing COP25 in Madrid in November 2019. The final declaration emphasised the “urgency” of tackling the climate problem, but it did not contain a strong and clear call to do so.
I am hopeful that COP26 will put the world on the path it needs to be on and new decisions will be made on how to cut carbon emissions. COP26 is already being viewed as the successor to COP21, where the Paris Agreement was signed.
This year’s theme is ‘The climate has no borders’, which stresses that countries need to work together to fight climate change. Or, as Sir David Attenborough put it in February this year: “Recognise climate change as a worldwide security threat, and act proportionately.” Climate emergency is a global threat. But, as with Covid-19 , it shouldn’t divide but unite us. Collectively, we need to build back better. Together, governments need to introduce the legislative and regulatory changes required to deliver. Now is the time to seize the moment.
Our subsidiary Coolrec uses innovative separation techniques