Stop The Recycling Obsession And Refocus…

Dan-BotterillCloud Sustainability’s CEO, Dan Botterill, says that while targeting higher recycling rates is admirable, it shouldn’t be the priority. Prevention and re-use MUST be given greater focus.
CIWM Journal Online Exclusive


The European Union’s recent target review of waste policy and recycling made one thing very clear – if organisations want to curb rising waste disposal costs and the prospect of fines for non-compliance, a radical rethink is needed. Organisations have to stop pinning a waste strategy on recycling and focus instead on the root cause of the problem… and that’s producing waste in the first place.

Attitudes to waste management have changed quite dramatically over the last 10 years.  Many organisations see waste as a key sustainability priority. Unlike other environmental impact areas, waste can be an incredibly visual performance indicator, as it’s material and tangible. How an organisation chooses to manage its waste, not just in terms of waste hierarchy performance (prevent, re-use, recycle, recover, dispose), but in terms of logistics and storage are very powerful indicators of organisation, professionalism and responsibility.

The focus though for many organisations is to dramatically increase recycling rates, a move that borders on obsession. On the face of it, this sounds fantastic, but is it in truth unsustainable and undertaken for the wrong reasons?

Recycling: A Simplistic View

Nine out of 10 organisations I have spoken to over the last few months would equate a successful waste management system as being one that delivers a high recycling rate, which doesn’t cost them too much money. This is an incredibly simplistic view. This obsession to deliver a high recycling rate, generally for PR reasons, whilst driving down spend on contractors is in danger of creating an unsustainable industry.

Most waste producers view waste as being a problem they need to “manage”, and by “manage” they mean hire a waste contractor at the cheapest possible cost. It’s not uncommon for the waste contractor to then be blamed for not managing the organisations waste well enough. This is quite perverse and an unrealistic expectation as the contractor is offering a service which is only created by the inefficient processes of an organisation.  The ultimate responsibility is surely with the waste producer.

That said, not all waste producers blame their contractors. Some more informed producers recognise that waste can have a financial value and they focus efforts on getting the best deals/rebates they can for certain reusable, recyclable or recoverable materials.

Follow A Simple Manta, And Ask “Why”?

While there is some sense in this it still begs the question as to why so much waste is being created in the first place? Organisations should be asking themselves: “Why am I actually producing this waste and what can I do to prevent this waste arising?” It’s a simple mantra we want to encourage, but in reality, it’s often discarded as a concept as it can be too much work, requiring co-ordination with too many different departments or parts of the supply chain. This is particularly true in the public sector.

I always try to re-enforce with our customers that the contractor component of managing your waste should be the final part of your process. Everything before the waste is generated is completely within an organisation’s control. In some instances, even where waste does arise, there are solutions that can be deployed on-site that require minimal financial and operational expenditure. This can in turn reduce costs and generate greater self-sufficiency in waste management terms.

keep calm and reuseMore organisations are starting to get this. The prominence of the evolving “circular economy” agenda will in theory help the waste producer to further understand these issues with greater clarity, but where does this leave the waste contractors? The circular economy is by no means just for the benefit of the waste producer. Contractors have a key position to occupy in this agenda although as yet there is not too much evidence to support this.

I’ve worked with a variety of public sector organisations to procure waste services through competitive tenders and to be frank, the quality of bids are often very poor, especially when it comes to communicating added value measures and waste prevention. This is hardly a surprise given that the industry currently operates on a simple facility feed model.  It is hardly in the interest of the contractor to want to work with the waste producer to prevent waste when they have facilities that are under-utilised in capacity terms.

However, we are seeing a glimpse of transition, as waste management companies try to evolve to fit in with these new sustainability and resource management agendas. The problem is in the ability to communicate this effectively. A sustainable and innovative waste management solution is not one that will simply deliver zero waste (directly) to landfill or a 70% percent recycling rate. It’s one that involves a collaborative approach across the supply chain – firmly lead by the waste producer, or waste preventer I should say.


Dan has been working in ‘sustainability’ since 1998, primarily as a consultant, advising and developing solutions on a range of sustainability and ‘waste’ related initiatives. His current project, Cloud Sustainability, involves taking this expertise, and that of a range of industry experts, to produce software and e-learning tools that help drive a self-sufficient approach to sustainability. He is currently working with CIWM on a range of industry first initiatives via the company’s Waste Expert software platform.


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