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The cold shoulder for the sake of harmony

The world celebrates entrepreneurs who are ahead of their time – big names like Steve Jobs and Google co-founder Larry Page. In our industry, though, it’s not always the case. Innovative and passionate people are often labelled ‘stubborn’ or ‘difficult to work with’. I suppose that asking the right questions at the wrong time or in the wrong team earns you those titles.

Having talked to tons of people in the hallways of conference centres, I know there is more to this story. I’ve heard how people championing recycling as a top priority years ago were put in a dusty office to be forgotten about by the rest of the company (like Scully and Mulder in the X-files). I’ve heard how they didn’t get funding, weren’t taken seriously and weren’t allowed to assemble a team to pursue ‘silly’ sustainability themes such as recycled content or eco-design.

And yet these are becoming common goals in society today. Does this mean our political and commercial leaders have upgraded their vision? If that’s the case, I wonder how our world would have looked if those ‘disruptors’ had received support rather than scepticism all those years ago.

Ultimately, how many steps back did we take because we were too impatient, distracted or perhaps afraid? And what exactly are we afraid of? Change? Is progress really that scary?

I know, I know. Money talks. Companies want to protect their bottom line and lobby to get the ear of those making the rules. In turn, legislators seek harmony, trying to keep everyone happy, even if it’s not in the best interest of the industry as a whole – or worse, the world we live in. It’s a strange dance and the scales are hardly ever balanced.

A Belgian metals recycler I met at the annual car recycling congress (IARC) in Basel complained he was in talks with a big brand wanting to use scrap in the production process. As soon as prices dropped a couple of weeks later, the deal was cancelled. ‘Interest is only skin deep if it’s based on economics,’ he lamented.

It’s encouraging to see more next-generation ceos and investors taking on a different perspective. They describe recycling as the portal to a global urban mine; one of yet untapped potential. I can imagine it must be tempting for the Scullys and Mulders of the industry to say ‘I told you so!’.

As far as I know, most people referred to at the start of my column have long since left their companies. Some took early retirement; some are stuck at home suffering from depression; and others changed departments before switching careers altogether. They saw their light extinguished and eventually gave up trying to fight the system. No one is a one-man army, after all.

Innovation and responsibility is a cart we have to pull together. Willingly. That’s when harmony becomes a meaningful word. Otherwise, it’s just a passive act rooted in not ‘messing’ with the corporate agenda.

I’d like to think we know better by now.

Recycling International’s annual “Top 100 most influential recycling entrepreneurs” includes bright minds some would label ‘disruptors’. Check the 2022 list here >>

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