Fresh Business Thinking

Commercial waste comes under the Big Society miscroscope
Colin Crooks, founder of environmental social enterprise Green-Works, says
new waste regulations could save money and help achieve the ‘Big Society’.
Saving money and helping society is an unlikely combination, but if you take the new
waste regulations seriously you could find yourself doing just that. It’s not often
businesses get the chance comply with regulations whilst reducing costs and
improving CSR, so the policy is definitely worth a look.
To give you an idea of the bigger picture, in less than 15 years the UK’s amount of
recycled municipal waste has increased from four to 36 per cent. That’s 8 million
tonnes of stuff that used to go to landfill now being recycled every year.
This is a tremendous achievement made possible by us all doing our bit at home with
a plethora of recycling bins. However, due to a quirk in the government definition of
‘waste’ this drive away from landfill didn’t touch the world of business. The UK
government has never brought in targets on commercial waste recycling – not yet
anyway. When you realise that for every one tonne of household waste, six tonnes of
commercial waste are produced, you see the madness.
This is all about to change. In December 2009 the government finally agreed to adopt
the same definition of municipal waste as the rest of Europe. From now on any waste
that is like municipal waste will be included in the government’s targets.
What does this mean?
The government is no longer going to pretend that the food we eat at work is different
to the food we consume at home. Once finished with, the paper we use in the office
should be treated in the same way as the newspapers we consume on a Sunday. The
same goes for cans, cartons, tins, bottles, packaging and anything else we use at
work. It will all be targeted as recyclable.
That simple change means businesses are going to have to halve the amount of
waste they send to landfill to hit the new goals. And it doesn’t stop there; targets will
increase year on year.
Additionally there will be new pressures on business to ‘prepare for reuse’ as the EU
has made changes to other rules on waste whilst upping recycling targets. Reusing
saves a great deal more CO2 than recycling and ‘prepare for reuse’ is a common
sense effort to ensure some products are reused as originally designed, rather than
broken up for recycling. This will affect things of substance like furniture and electrical
items and will present a new challenge to businesses unused to looking beyond
Furthermore by 2020 50 per cent of all glass, metals, paper and wood will need to be
separated for either ‘preparing for reuse’ or recycling.
With landfill rubbish costs rising, recycling and re-using makes clear financial sense
and using less energy significantly reduces a business’ carbon footprint. There’s also
a less obvious, but no less important way of improving your CSR effort by engaging
and motivating staff to reduce landfill, boost re-cycling and, best of all, re-use.
What should businesses do?
Together these changes are set to put new pressure on commercial waste. Here are
five things that you can do to meet the new targets, make a difference to your bottom
line and improve your CSR:
Start looking at the business through the ‘waste prism’
I once did a waste audit for a hospital and identified that they were using a huge
amount of very small (100ml) glass bottles every day. When I asked why, we found
that for years the mother and baby unit had been buying expensive small bottles of
distilled water, despite the fact that the hospital bought distilled water in bulk for
pennies. This practice was changed overnight and saved the hospital around £50,000
in the first year alone. Looking at your waste will tell you all sorts of things about the
way your business operates at ground level.
When you look at your waste, think of it as representing a lost asset
Think also of the wasted time it represents. You probably bought the product or
material in the first place, paying people to handle and move it before sweeping it up
and binning it. Whatever your waste bill is, trying multiplying it by 10 and then you
might be getting closer to what it actually costs your business. If the waste is
hazardous try 20 or even 30 times.
Ask yourself, do you even need that process?
Dow Chemicals asked why they were paying to dispose of 6,000 tonnes of caustic
waste that formed in their scrubbers as they made chlorinated organic compounds. By
changing the process they eliminated the lot and saved themselves over $2m in the
first year.
Encourage and motivate staff by getting them involved
In my view Big Society starts at home and in the workplace. To make the biggest
impact on your waste you need to get your staff involved. If they’re not already you’ll
no doubt find a lot of employees who’ll readily take part. People are really worried
about the environment and want to do their bit. They can identify areas you’d never
thought of and will galvanise others too.
Fuse ‘prepare for reuse’ with staff involvement
Immediately you’ll find that the old desk in the corner is going to a staff room in a
school, or the newly replaced printer that still works is off to the local scout group.
Seize the opportunity
We’ve yet to see how it will pan out, but some of the best translations of the coalition
government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda are about people and businesses doing their bit to
help wider society. With scientific proof of climate change tightening, using less energy
is a social imperative for all of us.
Businesses that take action should collect and publish data on the changes made. It’s
a very rewarding process that will encourage others to see new opportunities to re-use
and recycle, as well as impressing customers and shareholders.
For more information about responsible management of unwanted furniture or
office equipment, visit