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Is it Groundhog Day again for ship recyclers?

Eight seconds. That’s the average attention span of adult consumers these days. For reference, that puts us on par with – yes, really – the goldfish. What does this mean for the recycling industry, which deals with widely differing mindsets, ever-changing legislation and reports full of word salad?

I was in Rotterdam yesterday to hear about the latest ship recycling trends. Whether we’re talking about cars, vessels or e-scrap, it seems to me we are having the same conversation over and over again. ‘We need more collaboration’, ‘a level playing field’, ‘transparency’, ‘eco-design’, ‘clear standards that make sense’.

These buzzwords and catch phrases are overly familiar to me. They’ve steadily resurfaced since I started writing for Recycling International ten years ago. A decade is a significant amount of time, no? So why do we seem to be stuck in place? I raised the issue during the Q&A session.

Top of the food chain

My inquiry was met with a chorus of head nods, chuckles and sighs. See, I’m not the only one who’s noticed we are re-enacting Groundhog Day, the recycling edition. ‘Expectations, meet humanity,’ retorted moderator Slobodan Kecic, recycling specialist at Teekay Offshore Norway.

‘Let’s see a show of hands. Who wants to spend the next hour telling the rest of us all your company’s secrets? Not just the best practices published on your website or the reports cleared by marketing. No, everything. Full transparency, right?’

A nervous hush fell over the room. Delegates shuffling in their seats, looking around. ‘No one? The idea sounds lovely, though. I guess we prefer to keep our cards close to our chest,’ Kecic told me. ‘Protectionism is part of the foundation of all industries, including ours. Sure, we want other companies to do things properly – but they’re still our competitors. We still want to come out on top.’

Slam dunk

The moderator got up, picked up the waste bin near the exit, and put it in the centre of the room. ‘I want you to tear off a piece of paper from the notepad, crumple it into a ball and throw it in the bin – one at a time,’ he instructed me and the other delegates. We did so, with some successful and less successful attempts.

Yours truly missed at 2 metres. Don’t judge me; I’m a writer, not a jock. Anyway, soon the floor was covered in paper. ‘What do you think this represents?’ Kecic asked us. ‘Those closest have the highest chance of scoring,’ my neighbour, who slam-dunked it, said. ‘Usually,’ was the answer. I grinned.

‘Putting into the context of recycling, it means that CEOs, investors and managers have the biggest impact on day-to-day operations. But what about the office workers? Manual sorters? The guys operating heavy machinery? Their distance to the corporate target is much bigger, their opinions and ideas are often overlooked. Aren’t they part of the same company, the same mission?’ Kecic mused.

Unique snowflakes

Next, he picked three delegates at random to close their eyes and fold a piece of paper, tear out a 1cm piece top left, fold it again, tear out a piece middle right, and repeat. They opened the sheet to reveal a snowflake-like pattern. Naturally, the holes were different dimensions, scattered at different places across the page.

‘We could do this experiment all day long. I doubt we’d come up with  100% the same outcome,’ Kecic tells me. ‘Our thoughts, habits and experiences are unique to us. Whether in life or in business, no one has the exact same interpretation, even if people follow the exact same instructions.’ ‘

Boardroom talk

Over lunch, had discussed the power of language. ‘What is the mistake top executives make, you think? I saw this in my own company, too: writing manuals and safety instructions top-down. I’m talking about 200+ page reports full of long sentences, endlessly boring. And we think someone actually reads them start to finish – let alone understand every word?’

Kecic realised this when reading a Turkish client’s report, which included a reference to a ‘lactating woman’. He did a double take. Obviously, it was an error in translation. ‘No one had ever noticed it for over five years. Imagine that. What else slips through the cracks? And what potential impact does this have on our operations?’

This caused Kecic to take a long, hard look at the documents made available to his own workers. ‘I asked every one, individually; do you understand what it says? No? How so? In the end, we reduced the number pages of handbooks by about 75%’

The material point is that the people in the boardroom are not working on the ship. ‘Recycling is practical. Manuals should reflect that,’ Kecic  argues. ‘Also, in countries like India, most workers can’t even read. They sign their name with their fingerprint. This makes real-life safety trainings even more important.’

At the end of the brainstorm session, delegates agreed; the recycling industry mustn’t block its own success by thinking top down.

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