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The fly on the wall that shines a spotlight on the industry

This is probably old hat now but I’ve been off on holiday so forgive me but it’s something I felt like sharing. 

Iain Gulland - Chief Executive, Zero Waste Scotland | 16 Aug 13

Ian Wakelin, Biffa CEO’s participation in Channel 4’s Undercover Boss the other week made interesting viewing for us waste and resource types. Although the objective of the show wasn’t to provide a commentary on what’s right or wrong with the UK waste management industry, I couldn’t help reflect on a few things which the programme highlighted unintentionally to us industry watchers.

The first was when viewers saw Ian on the picking belt line of a MRF facility being tasked with recovering ‘clean recyclables’ for which Biffa could earn ‘big bucks’. I’m not familiar with the London MRF in question, but it was clear that once you had got past the unsavoury conditions of rats and flies and the drudgery of the work, there was a clear business approach to getting the most value out of the materials speeding past on the belts. 

Ian was given instruction from the usual crew hand to only sort clean cardboard and paper to ensure that Biffa could get the best price from the market. Ian was also advised that he needed to pick at least 40 clean pieces of recyclate every minute to ensure that he was earning his keep. Indeed the supervisor on duty was checking on the performance of the whole crew. Viewers were told that employees who didn’t keep up the rate would not be working a shift again. 

This ‘call centre’ approach to productivity might not sit comfortably with some of us but what was clear was the incentive of the bottom line. This is a business. It’s easy for some of us to get caught up in the need to hit recycling rates and create more circular systems and entertain new visions of the future, but at the coal face there is a need to make money and each action needs to be carefully thought through by business to maximise the returns. 

The resource loops which we are all now talking about and demonstrating in presentations at every opportunity are made up of individual business activities all trying to maximise a return. To make the circle work effectively though, will need everyone working together and sharing the returns around the supply chain rather than one of two key activities trying to corner the greatest share. Our Circular Economy vision requires a different type of symbiosis than we have had previously. The various elements have to be working within the same business dynamic and driven by the same purpose or at least recognise how different purposes can co-habit within the same circle. 

This leads me onto the absence of the rest of the story. The programme only showed one part of the operation. Like all the best programmes, I was left wanting the next episode. In this case, not how did the salesman get on in the new role Ian appointed him to, but how does Biffa’s operation fit into the whole loop. 

I am keen to understand how local authorities with their distinct purposes and pressures driving their collections see themselves in the loop. Their motivation is not profit, but for those they need to work with such as Biffa, it is. There is then the bit about what happens to the materials after Biffa’s role: the reprocessing, the new opportunities for a second life for these materials and the workforces of those operations and markets. Like any good series – drama or documentary – the full story needs to be complete in order to achieve success, in financial terms and in satisfying its audience. 

The story of the ‘circular economy’ is surely about seeing the resource and supply chains as inter-linked, aligning the motivations of the key protagonists, weaving together the  narrative and producing something that meets a demand. But it has to be a shared story, one that we all feel part of; a series rather than one-off documentaries. That’s a programme I want to be part of.

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