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Global Recycling Day 2024 – A Focus on Waste Management & Consumption

Monday 18 March

biffa waste management and consumption

There’s no doubt that waste is a huge problem in today’s society and there is an increasing awareness that we need to reduce, reuse and recycle where possible.

Recycling is identified as a key part of the circular economy, helping to protect our natural resources, and as a business there’s so much you can do that you might not even be aware of. There are many waste management services that can look at your supply chain and help you reduce waste overall or transform it into valuable resources to lessen its impact on the environment.

For Global Recycling Day 2024, we caught up with Alastair Little from Biffa to chat about what we can do, both as individuals and organisations, to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfill.

 

Waste management is becoming more accessible enabling businesses to adapt and change within their organisations for the good of the planet, however do you think that consumer behaviour and consumption patterns are restricting what businesses can do in terms of reducing the amount of waste?

Ultimately, yes.

Consumer behaviour and our consumption patterns directly influence what businesses can do in terms of reducing the amount of waste, especially when it comes to the product choices we make. As consumers we must consider sustainable alternatives. Then there is the carbon footprint associated with the choices we make.

Thinking about carbon footprint and product choice, when consuming goods we very rarely consider the amount of resource that is used to produce each item, either in the food we eat, the products that we buy and their constituent parts or the packaging that it comes in. For example, it takes 2400 litres of water to make a Beef burger and further to this 27% of humanity’s available water is used for animal feed. Interestingly it takes 42 litres to make a cucumber and 2000 litres to make a bar of chocolate – so it’s better for the world to make healthy food choices.

Then we need to think about the amount of products that we consume. By throwing away surplus food for example, we don’t just throw away the item, but all the resource that’s gone into it. We should therefore reduce our consumption to minimise what we waste, in turn helping businesses reduce their waste. The ideal solution would be to find the balance between wanting to improve overall sales, but not at the cost of sustainability by encouraging consumption surplus to requirement – perhaps more companies could look at incentivising refills, repairs and reuse through supporting secondary markets for the goods they sell.

This is a really interesting point Alastair – one that we don’t think that many people within society would consider, or be aware of. With the focus being on combating the outcome of overconsumption, we often forget to look at the root cause of waste management which is to consume less. There’s a bigger picture than just dealing with the excess waste.

 

Thinking outside of the box – Consumption & Waste Management

At Biffa, our vision is to create a world where no surplus products go to waste. Thinking about food waste specifically we have a real motivation to do what is best with surplus food by either selling it (where possible) through our Company and Community Shop stores, or where it is not fit for resale, ensuring it goes to energy production through anaerobic digestion.

We need to remember we are all consumers, so my next point is relevant to us all. There are two things to remember:

There is no such thing as away, in terms of throwing things away. There is a direct result of wasting items, all of them resulting in carbon production and we must therefore choose the process and action that creates the least.

We should stop expecting the next person to handle the items we buy to “do the right thing”. If we are too lazy to buy the right amount of whatever it is we are consuming, or keep it for too short a lifespan, or present the unwanted material to the wrong place (waste bin not recycling bin) or in the wrong format (dirty, mixed with other wastes) then we shouldn’t expect the next person in the supply chain to sort out our bad habits.

The answer is to consider the items we buy as an amalgamation of materials moving through a supply chain and we need to ensure we play our part in making it travel through this end to end supply chain in the most cost/carbon efficient manner possible, to the point where they are fully reused/recycled/recovered. We must inform consumer behaviour and consumption patterns so that they support the circular economy, thereby supporting businesses to reduce the amount of waste they produce.

 

With overconsumption being so accessible, and a convenience culture at large, what can companies implement in order to tackle the problem, change perceptions and influence behaviour? How can Biffa assist with this?

Companies, including Biffa, can help with overconsumption and the convenience culture by highlighting the issues and helping people by all means possible, to follow the points I made earlier. We must reach out to consumers and educate them so that consumer behaviour and consumption patterns see people taking it upon themselves to do the right thing.

The way we do this at Biffa is not by looking at what is in the bin, but starting at the front door. We start our customers sustainable journey by looking at what they are buying, following it through their processes on site, checking who handles it (and what they know about what to do with it) all the way to the point where it gets put in the bins (correctly or not). By doing this we get a really good understanding of the path products and materials take through our customers process and we are then able to map the points where we can change the future potential of each material to become a net positive cost and carbon benefit to the customer. In order to change the path, we need to ensure the decisions made by each person involved in the process are the “right” decisions through education, encouragement and review, supported by tailored data provision and presentation. Ultimately, this end to end understanding allows us to support businesses reduce waste and in doing so tackle issues of overconsumption whilst saving money and leaving a smaller carbon footprint.

In light of overconsumption and the convenience culture, we must constantly develop waste solutions that keep pace with the consumer. For example, in June last year we launched a UK-wide disposal, collection and recycling solution for single-use vapes. More than 1.3 million non-rechargeable vapes are disposed of in the UK every week – but confusion about their ability to be recycled means many wrongly end up in general waste or as litter. In January of this year, we launched a nationwide recycling service for hot and cold takeaway drinks cups. More than 62 million single-use tea, coffee and cold drinks cups are discarded in the UK every week. Although many contain cardboard that can be easily recycled into new products and packaging, millions still end up in general waste. Consumers expect convenient solutions for their overconsumption.

Those are some hefty waste stats, and again information that consumers might not be aware of. Biffa’s end to end approach for waste management is inspiring and the “What Iff?” campaigns are really pushing out that message and increasing awareness not just to businesses, but to the people consuming products that ultimately produce waste.

 

What challenges have you come across trying to manage waste?

The biggest challenge we face is a lack of knowledge around what is needed. Consumers and in many instances businesses, require educating about the impact of their product and consumption choices. In many instances, people are unaware of the impact of their behaviour and the amount of waste they are generating. We must therefore improve consumer awareness and we must educate. Take Wishcycling for example. Even though our intentions can be good, a lack of knowledge means that there is contamination of other materials in the bin, causing yet more resources to be wasted.

Another challenge we face is consumers thinking that someone else will sort it and also thinking that the small changes an individual will make are too small to have any impact on a global issue.

All of these changes are about how people think about waste and this is why at Biffa, our ambition is to change the way people think about waste. We believe that if people think differently about waste, they will act differently. More will be redistributed, re-used, recycled, or recovered – helping to reduce emissions, protect the environment, and save the planet. Changing how we think can have a big impact.

We totally agree – rethinking how we consume is a big issue, and one that isn’t quite shifting fast enough.

 

Can recycling have a cost benefit to organisations? Is it more expensive to manage waste this way? How do you think we can overcome the cost barrier?

Recycling can absolutely have a cost benefit to organisations. Avoiding costly landfill disposal and in some instances attracting recycling rebates allows for a more cost-effective waste solution, not to mention the benefit that comes from being a sustainable organisation. At Biffa, as a result of our recycling and recovery processes, we’re able to create value from waste in the form of recycled products, the financial benefit of which is passed to our customers through competitive recycling costs.

This is great – it’s encouraging to see that recycling can have a positive impact on the bottom line. Biffa certainly appears to be at the forefront of changing how we think about waste and offering some great incentives to customers.

 

This year’s global recycling day theme is “Recycling Heroes” – Would you consider yourself a recycling hero?

I wish I was! All I hope is that through talking to as many people as possible about consumption, making the right (sustainable) choices and taking action, I can make each one of them a recycling hero. Let’s understand the impact of our choices. Lets stop expecting someone else to solve our bad habits or decisions. And as we like to challenge at Biffa, let’s change the way people think about waste and drive change by asking the right questions, like “What iff” …. “What iff” we all took action?

We wholeheartedly recognise the urgent need for a widespread shift in mindset to effectively address the challenges of waste management and overconsumption. Alastair’s observation that individuals often perceive their small actions as insignificant in the face of global issues must be acknowledged and countered. The significance of recycling and empowering individuals to take proactive steps, irrespective of scale, to safeguard the environment is increasingly paramount.

Today highlights the necessity for global recycling and the need to stop mindless over consumption, but we need to be taking action. At Yorkshire Sustainability Festival, we endeavor to unite diverse stakeholders—individuals, public institutions, private enterprises, and third-sector organisations—to champion greener practices and promote the benefits of embracing sustainable change. Get involved and take action today – it’s a small step in the right direction.

Tickets can be purchased HERE.

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