Environmental technology sector gets export boost

The new Government has given an early signal that it will beef up official support for the environmental technology industry by awarding £272,500 under its Sector Challenge programme for a new export support service for the sector. Other industries given grants for environmental projects include castings, electronics, textiles and construction.

Sector Challenge was launched by the previous Government to help UK business improve its competitiveness. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) announced on 29 May that 186 out of 600 bidders have been offered grants worth £35 million, generally covering 40-50% of project costs.

The £0.27 million award to help establish an export services company for the environmental technology sector is a major coup for the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC). Since its launch two years ago, the EIC, which has 175 manufacturers and consultancies in membership, has been competing with other organisations for DTI recognition as the sector's lead body.

The waste industry's Environmental Services Association, British Water and Gambica, representing instrumentation businesses, submitted an unsuccessful joint application for a grant for the same purpose.

The export services company will be run at arm's length by the EIC in collaboration with the Co-operative Bank's Ecology Unit and consultants Aspinwall & Co and March Consulting. It will provide market intelligence on export opportunities to UK businesses, assistance with trade missions and bids, and help in finding local partners in overseas markets.

EIC Director Adrian Wilkes welcomed the grant as "a vital boost" to UK businesses in the global market for environmental technologies, which is projected to expand from the current US$400 billion to $600 billion by the turn of the century. He also expects the award to improve the EIC's access to other official funds, such as support for participation in overseas trade fairs.

However, Mr Wilkes cautioned that the grant, which is spread over three years, is only a first step in improving the industry's competitiveness. A recent EIC survey of 138 companies in the sector found that 68% increased their sales by more than 10% last year, while 60% increased their overseas sales. Nevertheless, 51% earned 10% or less of their sales from exports - no change on 1995 - and only 29% earned more than 20% from exports.

The survey also showed that 81% of the companies felt that Government support is inadequate. Just 9% had benefitted from the Environmental Technology Best Practice Programme and, on the export front, only 14% had been helped by the Joint Environmental Markets Unit. Even fewer had benefitted from official schemes to promote technology transfer and assist research.

These are "very worrying" findings, according to the EIC. They point to the need for "urgent reform if public money is actually going to help the British environmental technology and services industry win in the rapidly expanding world market."

Other beneficiaries from Sector Challenge include:

  • The Castings Development Centre has been offered £0.29 million to develop ways of reusing foundry wastes such as spent sand, refractories and slag. A recent official study found that many UK foundries do not use proven sand reclamation techniques, adding some £18 million per year to their sand purchase and waste disposal costs (ENDS Report 246, p 10 ).

    The CDC expects its project to achieve a 20-40% reduction in the amount of foundry waste sent to landfill, cutting more than 40% off the sector's annual £20 million waste disposal bill. It hopes to find outlets for the wastes in construction, asphalt, horticulture and backfill applications.

  • The Building Employers Confederation has received almost £40,000 to cover the costs of producing a waste minimisation guide for building contractors.

    Official statistics suggest that 26 million tonnes per year of demolition and construction waste are sent to landfill. Much of this material consists of cut-offs from bricks, plasterboard and timber, along with plastics. A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Building found that 24m3 of such wastes are typically produced for every £10,000 spent on housing projects. The BEC hopes that its guide will help builders cut waste through better specification and use of products.

  • The Printed Circuit Interconnection Federation, which represents circuit board and contract electrical manufacturers and their suppliers, has received £157,000 for a project to identify the implications of current and impending environmental legislation across Europe for the sector. The work will form the basis of an environmental strategy currently being developed by four Federation working groups.

  • Manchester Metropolitan University has received £250,000 over two years to develop "concurrent" alternatives to the normal linear product development strategies employed in the textiles and clothing industries. Case studies in design for the environment will be used to demonstrate how the involvement of all business functions in product design from an early stage can help to cut lead-times and costs as well as minimise environmental impacts in the supply and manufacturing chain.

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