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Tom Bird: ‘Devastating impact on supply, logistics and sales’

The coronavirus crisis is affecting the lives and businesses of many in the global recycling scene. ‘Who, when sitting around the table with their families at Christmas, would have thought that within 10 weeks the world would be in chaos,’ says Tom Bird, president of the BIR world recycling organisation.

How are you Tom?

‘Health-wise everything is well at the moment. Having returned from Hong Kong at the end of 2019 I am now based in the UK finding my bearings in a different professional environment. During my time back in the UK I have been able to focus on my important mandate as BIR President and I have continued to work closely with BIR and am in daily regular contact with BIR’s director general Arnaud Brunet.

As you can imagine, this global pandemic was not something that was expected so we have certainly had our work cut out at BIR keeping on top of developments, supporting our members and making sure they are kept informed of this ever-changing environment. We are on lockdown in the UK so work is being conducted from home.’

Give us some insight on what happens at BIR right now.

‘At a time like this it is vital that BIR is open for business as usual. Everybody from the Brussels secretariat is working from home. Each day the scenario changes and it is so important that members know they can rely upon BIR for up-to-date accurate information and the necessary direct support where needed.

With the onset of the pandemic and the speed of its development, the first challenge for BIR was the May convention in Istanbul. We had to prioritise the wellbeing and safety of our members. At the same time we had to make sure that we protected the financial stability of the organisation. We decided to postpone the convention until October but negotiated to keep the same venue in Istanbul.

BIR is currently working hard to support its members in all areas. We are in regular contact with various national associations making sure that all the information is updated from around the world on how the industry is coping with the virus in the regions and the subsequent government directives on the issue. BIR is then taking the lead in lobbying the various bodies in support of those associations and its members. Just today we had a conference call on the situation in Indian ports.

The outcome is that BIR will now be lobbying the various bodies to support the industry in terms of waiving the numerous expenses that our members are incurring with the backlog of shipments at these ports.’

How would you describe the main impacts of the coronavirus crisis on the scrap recycling industry?

‘Firstly, the supply chain. Many companies have had to close yards and those yards that are open are not taking from third party suppliers. This will of course have a huge impact on volumes and the subsequent challenge that brings. In addition, many industrial suppliers have closed plants which form an important supply route. 

Again, this will have a massive impact on businesses. Secondly, logistics. Shipping material is extremely difficult, if not impossible, in certain regions. Ports are closed, shipping lines have containers stranded in various locations and everywhere there is a great deal of confusion. Moving material at this current moment is nigh on impossible.

Thirdly, the market. The devastating impact of the virus has seen commodity prices tumble and consumers of material from the recycling industry close. For example, steel mills in many regions of the world are idling their plants. So, in summary, the pandemic has had a huge negative impact on supply, logistics and sales. This of course is the entire business – and then you have to deal with the cost structure.’

What would your advise for recyclers be to get them through these rough times?

‘I have always said we in the recycling industry are extremely resilient although, admittedly, what we are experiencing at the moment is unprecedented. What we must remember, however, is that this crisis is not as a result of the recycling industry or, for that matter, the world economy being “broken”. This crisis has come about from something completely unforeseen.

Who, when sitting around the table with their families at Christmas or celebrating New Year with their friends, would have thought that within 10 weeks the world will be in chaos and that most countries would be on lockdown with citizens ordered not to leave home? The impact while this is happening is devastating, with real human tragedy as thousands are losing their lives each day and an economic impact as industries close down.’

It may be too early for optimism but are you seeing some kind of light at the end of the tunnel?

‘I am an optimist and when this awful experience finally subsides I believe that the recovery will be swift as relief, positive sentiment and confidence finds its way back into our daily lives. I do believe that the recycling industry will make a speedy recovery. Let’s not forget recycling is an essential contributor to a healthy, vibrant, clean and sustainable environment. That was the case before this pandemic and it will most certainly be the case after it.’


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