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Don’t waste the opportunity

12 November 2018

Dr Michael Groves, CEO at Topolytics, explains how businesses can turn the waste they generate from a burden into a benefit

The first questions I ask waste or facilities managers are: "Do you know how much waste you generate and what happens to this material?" The answers are usually in the positive, to which I ask, "how do you know the numbers are correct and how do you know what happens to the waste?" To which the response is: "We get a report from our waste management contractor." These reports have seemingly comprehensive data on waste streams, collections and movements and are used for reporting and management information. Job done!

However, when looking at these bills, one needs to remember that the quantities are based around container loads and how often these are removed from your sites (the lifts). It’s also worth remembering that your waste will be mixed with other wastes and separated at a materials recovery facility, then possibly sold onto other companies for onwards movement, processing or further sale. It is a complex and opaque system of waste movements, comprising a network of producers, movers, traders and processors, connected by a flow of materials and associated transactions.

Global pressures

This system is both local and international. Up until recently, the UK was exporting 200,000 tonnes of plastic and 500,000 tonnes of paper and cardboard per year to China. However, on 1st January 2018, Europe and the USA were given six months to stop sending China their low grade plastics and paper. The domestic recycling sector is now faced with significant capacity constraints and investment challenges. This sits alongside the well publicised public concerns about ocean plastics, micro-plastic contamination and the rise of the so-called circular economy.   

Where does all this pressure leave the industrial and commercial waste management and recycling sector? It’s a £200 billion industry globally with some big players, lots of smaller operators, traders, processors and a significant informal sector in developing countries. While recycling rates vary widely across the world, the majority of waste is still sent to landfills or waste dumps and the World Bank estimates that ‘urban’ waste will increase to 2.2 billion tonnes by 2025.  

Time for a rethink

While there are compliance schemes and systems for classifying industrial and commercial wastes, due to its complexity and volume, there is significant variation in the way this material is measured. At the same time, companies that generate such waste are realising that it is time to rethink their approach. This is partly driven by the need to convert raw materials more efficiently, increasing pressure to take responsibility for the waste and the recognition that it has a market value that they are not realising. This, in turn, is impacting the waste management and recycling industry, which is developing new capacity, new business models and trying to add more value to customer relationships in order to compete. 

As a waste producer you can choose to leave it to your waste contractor to fill in the blanks, or you can co-opt your facilities managers, cleaners and others to try and capture some basic information on waste streams and amounts – even just measuring numbers of bags. You could also separate certain waste streams and find customers for this material – whether it be metals or higher value plastics. It requires a little bit of work and time, but could certainly be cost neutral or positive, compared to mixing it all together and paying to have it removed. 

Help is at hand from a variety of sources such as the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS) or local enterprise bodies and Chambers of Commerce. If you want to see how much this material is worth compared to how much you pay for waste management, we provide a free diagnostic tool at www.wasteasresource.com, beyond which we can generate a map of your waste and help you use the data for commercial and environmental benefit.

The old adage ‘where there’s muck, there’s brass’ is as true today as it has ever been. We now produce more of it and a wider range of muck. While some of this material may be worth very little, there is undoubtedly an opportunity for companies and organisations to take a different approach to the way they reduce waste and maximise the value of that waste they do produce.