EfW Net spotlight on... Dr Adam Read MBE

As part of our series shining a spotlight on thought leaders from the EfW sector, SUEZ’s Chief Sustainability and External Affairs Officer, Dr Adam Read MBE spoke to Izzy Felton about working at the forefront of the waste industry and looking towards its future.
EfW Net spotlight on... Dr Adam Read MBE
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SUEZ’s Chief Sustainability and External Affairs Officer, Dr Adam Read MBE, has always wanted to be at the heart of the action; working at the forefront of the waste industry and looking towards its future. Whether that was during his time as a PhD student exploring policy failure in solid waste management, as a consultant helping clients internationally, or advocating for the waste industry to the next potential government. 

People say they fall into the waste industry and then can't ever claw themselves out but there’s a few of us that actually decided it was a good space to be.

Where it all began:

A passion for geography at school turned into a degree, then a master's in environmental studies, and then into a research PhD. During his summer holidays, Dr Read worked in multiple areas of waste within the local authority of Kensington and Chelsea, where he realised his fascination with the amount of rubbish that people generate. This fascination was only ignited more during his first job as a junior recycling officer. “I got to spend days on end going out with collection crews wondering why there was so much [waste] everywhere or why people couldn't segregate it into recycling, is it really that hard?”

For places like Kensington and Chelsea during the 90s, it was that hard. “I was meeting recycling officers that had been in the industry for four or five years. They were all saying the same thing: ‘We're not going anywhere. There's no progress. It's all too difficult. The public won't listen.’”

Cue Dr Read’s endeavour into academia. His research focused on policy failure, why policy didn’t make sense locally and public behaviour regarding recycling. The three-year scholarship turned into seven years, four of which were spent teaching students geography, environment science, waste management, environmental economics and tourism. His time there awoke a passion for inspiring the future workforce.

“God knows how they let me teach, but I absolutely adored it. And I guess that's stuck with me ever since,” Dr Read explained. “Anybody who has seen me on stage since knows that I love an audience. I still go into universities, probably more often than I should for somebody that sits on the board of one of the UK's largest waste management companies. But I get a lot out of it and I think [SUEZ] gets a lot of it. We get people coming into the sector as grads looking for a career. My job is to motivate them, inspire them and maybe attract them to us rather than somewhere else.”

But eventually, it wasn’t enough to be an academic. “Don't get me wrong, academics have got to do their tenure,” he said. 

But it felt that the industry was moving faster than my research.

Consultancy and SUEZ

The PHD was quickly finished on mountain tops in Costa Rica or during late nights in Russia, while Dr Read began working as a consultant. Writing waste strategies, helping procure advanced technologies and working on behavioural change work – including several projects on the rollout of food waste collections – were just some of the projects he got stuck into. Fast forward to 2017, around 17 years later, when he received a call from the then SUEZ CEO, David Palmer-Jones, about joining the team, who wanted Read's support in becoming “government’s critical friend, not their critique.”

Since taking the job on as Chief Sustainability and External Affairs Officer, Dr Read spends many of his days giving Government a “nudge” and then “tells the world” about it. For someone who likes to be in the centre of the action, it seems this role at SUEZ is the perfect fit. “As a kid that grew up in sports changing rooms, there's nothing better than being in the mix. Watching it from the stands is OK, but if you've played, watching it in the stands is never as good. Being at SUEZ, I'm not collecting the rubbish on a daily basis but I'm interacting with people that do and I'm on those sites all the time. And I think that's a far more exciting place to be. I don't talk a good game, now I'm part of a good game.”

But Dr Read didn’t always think working within a huge waste management company was for him. The changing client types and the flexibility of consultancy had always had its pull: so what changed? The simple answer, Dr Read tells me, is clout.

“As a consultant, I [could write] the best possible strategy that then doesn't get implemented. Or I give [clients] a massive cost-saving opportunity but then politics gets in the way. Then I thought, “Do you know what, consultancy is a bit like academia.” And I didn't [realise] that at the time, but now I'm on the other side, [I’ve realised] we're getting stuff done [at SUEZ]. We’re moving thousands of bins, we're driving hundreds of lorries, we're dealing with millions of tonnes of waste. It's real and it's every day.”

A meeting with a cabinet member, a civil servant, or an interview with the BBC may not have been a regular reality for Dr Read as a consultant, but with a name like SUEZ behind you, it’s pretty much part of the day job. He was one of 20 people inside Michael Gove’s office during the launch of Resources and Waste Strategy back in 2018/19 and has recently been in talks with the new Labour government pre-election about their waste strategy. “The effort that goes in is more than likely to have a return that you'll see,” he added.

“SUEZ and that brand was there long before me, and I protect that brand as part of my day job," he said. "But I can also utilise that brand too, to help get the message across and stir some pots and make stuff happen."

I never really thought of it like that but, even in waste management, having a big name behind you can get you through the door, making actual big changes rather than sitting on the sidelines.

And that ambition to be at the forefront of waste management was what led to his recent accolade of being included in this year’s King's Birthday Honours List. “[My wife] nearly fell off her chair [when she saw the letter]. She's in the industry, so she knows, and was like, “Oh my God, this is massive”.”

Dr Read received an MBE for his services to advancing the waste and resources agenda, in particular his work with the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM). Since his year presidency in 2021, Dr Read has continued to volunteer as Chair of the CIWM Skills for the Future Working Group, and as chair of the Waste and Resource Management Task and Finish Group. Dr Read said: “I hope it inspires a few others that you can be in waste management." 

Policy and 'green skills'

We touched briefly on the recent General Election (which you can read here). Dr Read’s message to the new government is clear:

The policy reforms that the last five years of Conservative rule have brought to bear. Can you just get them over the line, please?”

Dr Read believes certainty in all its forms is what is needed for the sector, not just in policy now but also to protect waste management’s future, with more emphasis on green skills.

Many sectors, from transport to forestry and of course waste management, share a common definition of what green skills are. “Those skills that will be necessary to decarbonise our sectors,” Dr Read explained. But he tends to take it further than that definition:

“Anybody working in the circular economy, in resource management, is working in a green skill as far as I'm concerned.” He said. “And that includes the accountants, the IT maintenance team… Because without them, my business falls over and therefore we're not doing green.”

The big challenge is pulling the future workforce into those green skills jobs, which Dr Read thinks can be achieved through two strategies. First, changing the narrative:

“The more I talk to 16/17/18-year-olds - that A Level crowd - and university crowds, I'm not sure ‘green’ is the right word,” he explained. “I think it might be misleading or even disengaging some because a lot of people associate ‘green’ with Greta. Don't get me wrong, a fantastic campaigner, but not everybody's going “Oh, I want a bit of that.” And that's not what we mean when we say ‘green jobs’. Working in an energy-from-waste plant with carbon capture is a green job. Nobody's ever going to say that's a ‘Greta’ kind of job, are they?”

He went on to say that green skills and competencies are part of the new economy. One that focuses on resource efficiency, social value, more circular and more inclusive. And it’s not all talk, Dr Read is making sure he puts it into practice too through his frequent visits to universities.

“Every time I go to a university, and they say, “Adam Read is here to talk about the future of waste management”. I'm like, “stop there”. If you're going advertise this to your students as the ‘future of waste management’, it’s going to be me, three engineers and somebody that thought it was a free lunch. [Instead] tell them that I'm going to be talking about the future of the economy. Tell them that I'm talking about the next superheroes and that this is the future of the planet. And I'm going to tell them how they can make a load of money doing it. Now fill up my auditorium. I think we’ve undersold the value of our sector for far too long.”

It's time to make [the sector] not only interesting and sexy but [show] it’s well paid, a career path that my 12-year-old can aspire to, a space that's exciting and creative.

Creating a whole new narrative for the sector may feel like a big task, but that’s why Dr Read’ second strategy is important too - a green skills roadmap from the new government, that gives employers and universities/colleges confidence that investing in green skills is best for their future. He said: “Give me as a sector, as an employer, but also universities and colleges the confidence that this is happening in all of these sectors.”

Dr Read's unwavering commitment to advancing the waste management sector is clear. From his early days as a PhD student to his current role at SUEZ, Dr Read has consistently sought to be at the heart of change – whether that’s through policy or inspiring the next generation. And now, with a new government to nudge, Dr Read’s role as a visionary in the industry is more important than ever.

By Izzy Felton

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