Steve Lee: Setting the right course

After 13 years at the helm, Steve Lee has stepped down as chief executive of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, but his commitment to the waste industry is as strong as ever, so he is not going far, he tells Conor McGlone

Steve Lee: Waste a business I know and it is a business I believe inDespite stepping down as chief executive of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM) Steve Lee insists he is going nowhere. With 35 years of waste-sector experience under his belt, Lee will remain in post as director general of umbrella trade association Resources & Waste UK – a joint enterprise between CIWM and the Environmental Services Association.

“I cannot drop my interest in the businesses. It is a business I know and it is a business I believe in,” he says.

Lee began his career as a hydrogeologist in the late 1970s for a mining company. His deep environmental interests almost enticed him to the water authorities of the time “to make sure that groundwater was properly protected and utilised”.

However, Lee says this group was too small and he was drawn to “a parallel industry which was fighting very hard to prevent their activities from damaging ground and surface water quality in the first place”. This of course was waste.

So when an opportunity came up in the West Midlands County Council, Lee jumped at the opportunity to “cut his teeth” in a region that had been at the heart of the industrial revolution and had experienced 250 years of industrial and municipal development and disposal. So began Lee’s illustrious career in waste.

According to Lee, “it was all about landfill in the 1980s”. “The whole purpose behind the industry was ruthless efficiency – get it into a truck, get it into a location remote from where people live and work, get it into a landfill and manage it effectively at least cost. But it soon became more important to ensure landfill “could be operated in an environmentally secure way”, says Lee.

“The job we were doing had become bigger and more complex as affluence over the 1960s and 70s presented us with quite a new generation of waste,” he says.

While waste had been relatively simple before the 1960s, as people fell in love with central heating and packaging, and became affluent and started throwing food away, waste grew quickly in terms of volume and complexity, so there was no way the old practices would suit the future, Lee summarises.

Another big change is that environmental issues have become far more prominent. “The industry became truly global because of an interest in carbon management, climate change and now resource conservation,” says Lee.

He argues there are only two ways to ensure future generations can use finite resources: “by using less and keeping what we are already using in the industrial cycle”. As a result, the waste industry has witnessed far more collaboration with other sectors, such as the design and packaging

Four years after Lee’s first job in waste, he moved to Leicestershire County Council, where he worked for 11 years as a forward planner for waste disposal. Lee’s task was to forecast the types, quantities and geographic distribution of waste to establish where waste management facilities were needed.

“That was our waste management strategy: how many landfill sites do you want, where are they going to be, how big are they going to be and who is going to operate them? A simple world.”

But in that period, more volume and more complexity of the waste meant it became more important that waste was managed responsibly, he says.

This led to the council running one of the first waste minimisation programmes, working with volunteer companies.

“When we asked them what was the real cost of material flow through their organisation that ended up in the skip, they were out by a factor of 26.”

This was “wake up and take notice time”, says Lee. “Companies realised that if they were more responsible about the flow of materials throughout their organisations, they could make an immediate hit on the bottom line.

“The amazing thing about waste prevention is that the first action you take usually costs nothing.”

The birth of the EA

While still working at the council, Lee also became involved in the planning stages for a new regulatory body – the Environment Agency (EA). This would broaden his horizons. 

“It was a brilliant opportunity. Suddenly you would find yourself rubbing shoulders with somebody who worked at a national level in a powerful government department or... talking about little things like how are communications going to work in this single national body?”

By the time the EA was eventually formed in 1996, Lee stepped into the role of waste regulation manager for the Midlands. Just two years later he was promoted to head of waste, where he remained until 2003.

As his time at the EA drew to an end, Lee decided it would not be wise to become a regulator “who jumped out into the industry he had been regulating”. So when the position of chief executive at CIWM came up, he saw it as “exactly the sort of pan-industry opportunity” that would interest him.

Lee says he has been “lucky to be a generalist” throughout his career. He describes himself as one of the very few people in the waste sector who has a thin coverage of knowledge right across the breadth of the industry.

“It means I can get burnt off in a complex discussion by some expert that really knows what they are talking about, but I have also learned the language of lots of different specialisms. One of the great things about that is that it keeps you in contact with all of your neighbours, such as the construction, engineering, food and drink and farming sectors.

Lee’s advice for his successor, Dr Colin Church – a former DEFRA man – is to “enjoy and grab hold of the rail”. “It is a white-knuckle ride at times, but my goodness it takes you places.”

Lee describes the job as the “Willy Wonka ticket to the factory... I am one of the very few people in the industry that has the golden ticket that will take you anywhere in the industry. It is a job that puts you in contact with the whole picture.”

Lee finds it hard to choose between his greatest achievements.“It is like pointing to individual ships bobbing by on the tide. I am proud of them all, they have all been special in their own sense, but the most important thing to me has been that general movement – the tide itself. If I am proud of anything, it is in helping CIWM to help everybody move in the right direction. Because it is a mass movement like that that really ends up making the difference in our resource responsibility.”

However, Lee accepts that there is a lot more work to be done, because while the general tide is moving in the right direction, it is not moving at the right speed.

“There will be nine billion mouths on the planet in 2050, three billion of them new middle-class consumers. Where are the resources going to come from to sustain them? We are going to look right down the gun barrels of a resource-constrained future and our industry is going to be an incredibly important feedstock for all other sectors.”

Lee says the waste industry should be encouraged to work harder to create a competitive domestic market for secondary materials. However, in the short term at least, low oil prices seem to be scuppering this.

In order to get over “the short-term noise” and plan for a long-term future, Lee says political support and intervention is needed. This is something the UK – especially England – has been sorely lacking in recent years.

But with Brexit looming, this may become more crucial than ever before. “We are an industry that has got used to having the direction and pace set at a European level, from the Landfill and Waste Framework Directives through to extended producer responsibility, says Lee.”

“The development of the circular economy package looked pretty vital to us – it was setting the agenda for the future. [Brexit] leaves a big question mark over the future of the UK’s position in Europe.” Despite this, Lee is confident that industry will feel obliged to comply with “an awful lot of European policy” because companies will continue to want to do business with the rest of Europe.

Waste careers

Lee also wants plans in place for “the type of people we need to be ready to live in that type of resource-constrained world”.

“I have a vested interest in making sure the next cohort of graduates from business services degrees, urban-planning degrees, civil engineers and chemists have had that message about resource efficiency and conservation built into the early stage of their skills. I want a resource-aware customer out there in the world, ready and willing and able to work with our sector.”

To do this, Lee says the industry must work with universities. “This will make sure we are building as much understanding into our customers of the future as we do into the people that become members of our industry.”

For those that want to get into the sector, Lee’s advice is that it is “truly multidisciplinary”. “The industry is not only going to be looking for engineers and chemists. Communications is just as important. People with English degrees, people that are into design, urban planners, business studies – they are all going to be important to us.”

“If I am ever looking for anything in an employee, it is the ability to pull in information, to assimilate that information into a discussion and a conclusion and then to have the skills to communicate that in such a way that it means something to the recipient and they might change their behaviour.”