Last reviewed 24 September 2013

Why are most small businesses still sending all their waste to landfill? The waste industry is getting the message that better-targeted services are needed to help busy managers reuse and recycle their waste materials, as Caroline Hand reports.

In the early part of summer 2013, waste management company Businesswaste conducted a survey of business waste disposal. It found that around 80% of the businesses questioned, sent all their waste to landfill, and did not even segregate out the paper, food and glass that staff would normally put out for recycling at home. For electronic waste, the statistics were even worse, with 95% of companies questioned disposing of unwanted computers to landfill.

The report by Businesswaste does not give any detail on the size of the companies, but it can be presumed that most were smaller businesses. Large companies such as Marks and Spencer or B&Q can afford dedicated sustainability managers, and have the time and money to address their environmental impact, whereas for small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with a stretched budget and limited manpower, the environment generally has to take a back seat to more pressing business concerns.

Paying over the odds

Small businesses generate around 35% of England’s commercial and industrial waste. By failing to recycle, these businesses are wasting valuable resources, paying an unnecessarily high price for waste management, and possibly even losing a useful income stream. Landfill is no longer the cheapest option for waste management; the landfill tax currently stands at £72 per tonne, all of which is passed on to the customer. Contractors, on average, charge less for recovery options such as composting and anaerobic digestion; energy from waste may also be cheaper if the waste is not hazardous. If materials are sent for recycling, the costs are even lower and the waste producer might well be paid for clean, segregated materials such as paper, glass or cans. By segregating out the more valuable waste streams such as aluminium, it is possible to negotiate a good price with a collector.

The true cost of waste

Research by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has demonstrated that the fees charged by waste contractors are a small proportion of the real cost of generating and disposing of waste. Businesses pay twice for materials that end up as waste: once to purchase them from suppliers, and a second time to have them disposed of in landfill. On top of this are the costs of staff time in storing, collecting and moving waste, and administrative work in dealing with contractors, and so on. WRAP has estimated that the savings that the UK food and drink sector could make from waste prevention are as follows.

  • £500 per tonne in manufacturing.

  • £1088 per tonne in distribution.

  • £1676 per tonne in the retail sector.

These figures are compared with a mere £70 per tonne from landfill diversion.

WRAP estimates that around 3–4% of the average business’s turnover is spent on waste, and that about a quarter of this can be saved through waste prevention, reuse and recycling.

The best way of managing waste is to avoid producing it in the first place, and much helpful information is available from WRAP on waste prevention. Waste prevention generates far greater savings than recycling, but often requires changes to product design, manufacturing or business models that require time and money to implement. Recycling is generally an easier option, with services and facilities readily available and a smaller element of risk for SMEs.

The infrastructure is already available: Materials Recycling Facilities (MRFs), anaerobic digestion and gasification facilities mainly deal with municipal waste, but have spare merchant capacity to treat good quality commercial waste. In the rest of this article, we examine how the waste industry can work more effectively with small businesses to increase the amount of commercial and industrial waste that is recycled and recovered.

Could contractors do better?

The Chartered Institution of Waste Management (CIWM) recently published a consultant’s report detailing her experience of speaking with businesses about their waste. Many of these companies are committed to maximising recycling and avoiding landfill, but are struggling to find a contractor who will provide the services they need. Small businesses often say that they would recycle more if it was easier and the infrastructure was available. Contractors all too often offer a standardised waste collection package that does not take the needs of individual businesses into account.

Space constraints

Small businesses have only limited space available for waste storage. If they are to segregate waste for recycling, contractors need to take account of this constraint by offering more frequent collections. Contractors also need to acknowledge the 24/7 business climate and offer a more flexible service. Some smaller recycling companies who have responded to this demand are already reaping the rewards of offering a higher level of service. In London, First Mile collects from 10,000 businesses, 24 hours a day, all year. It has been particularly successful in maximising recycling from small businesses that had hitherto been “hard to reach”.

Other stakeholders must play their part

The blame for inflexible collection services cannot all be laid at the door of the waste carriers. Transfer station operators may contribute to the problem by operating their facilities for only five and a half days a week. In addition, the regulators also limit flexibility by imposing time-banded collections or restricting the times when vehicles can deliver waste to recycling sites.

Planners, too, can be unwittingly responsible for limiting the waste management options of businesses. Building plans do not always include sufficient space for recycling containers, or allow access for a range of collection vehicles. Facilities managers and landlords also have their part to play ― they need to co-operate with their tenants in making space for waste storage and allowing recycling to take place.

The need for collaboration

The key to success is for all these stakeholders to work together with the common aim of maximising business waste recycling. Organisations that have not previously worked together need to communicate and develop joint solutions ― perhaps with the aid of a consultant. Twenty two local authorities have already signed up to WRAP’s Business Recycling and Waste Services Commitment. They are committed to 12 principles of better service, including “collection services tailored to meet the needs of customers” and “providing access to household waste and recycling centres for business”. This initiative also encourages the provision of better information to businesses about the recycling services available in their area. Local authorities can work through the planning process to ensure that new developments allocate sufficient space for waste management and storage.

The role of businesses

Businesses themselves can take simple steps to ensure that more of their waste is recycled. Their main role is to ensure that waste streams are segregated, and that the recyclable materials are not damaged or contaminated. If items such as computer equipment or refrigerators are stored carefully, it may be possible to sell them for direct reuse or refurbishment. Managers can encourage staff to segregate their waste by providing recycling bins close to workstations — or by removing individual waste bins and replacing them with central bins for different materials.

By communicating with contractors, facilities managers and local authorities about their individual requirements, businesses can influence these other stakeholders and help to establish the right conditions for a much higher level of business waste recycling.