Footballers hauling dustbins… Now there’s an Idea!

07 Dec 2015 | Desmond Astley-Cooper

My eye was recently caught by an interview given by David Palmer-Jones, chief executive of Suez UK, to Andrew Cave of The Sunday Telegraph in which he fondly remembers some of the Grimsby Town FC squad emptying old-fashioned metal dustbins in order to get themselves fit and earn some extra cash during the 1970’s. How times have changed and not just in relation to professional footballers’ remuneration!

It seems that the French are now big on waste, especially in this country. Two of the biggest waste groups operating in the UK are French-owned, Veolia and Suez UK which is part of the water & recycling group, Suez Environment. The latter handles 9.7m tonnes of waste a year from which it extracts 6.1m tonnes of materials and generates 930k megawatt hours of electricity.

According to Mr Palmer-Jones, this sea change in the way waste management firms look at waste (i.e. rubbish) occurred in 2008 when the government at the time introduced an escalator system for the landfill tax. This levy has risen from £8 per tonne then to the current rate of £82.60 with the result that firms which had formerly enjoyed a steady stream of income from a high margin business (operating landfill sites) began to invest heavily in the infrastructure of recycling.

This must be one of the rare cases where government intervention in a marketplace has produced a beneficial and immediate change. Of course, the higher cost of landfill due to taxes has undoubtedly resulted in increased costs to councils and companies but it has also forced a change in practice and attitudes for a whole industry which has been wholly beneficial for the environment.

Britain still sends 45% of its waste (17m tonnes) to landfill each year. Back in 2008 before the escalator was introduced, Suez had thirty sites which produced 80% of its profits. Now it has twenty and plans to close all but three or four. By contrast, it now runs 33 materials recycling plants, 102 household “dumps,” 57 transfer stations and five refuse-derived fuel factories amongst other facilities.

Encouraged by the above, I then checked the latest online edition of Waste Management World (www.waste-management-world.com), the official magazine of international solid waste management only to discover that the front page was full of inspiring initiatives. At one end of the scale is a new $500m scheme to cut greenhouse gas emissions by better waste management in Germany, Norway, Sweden & Switzerland.

At the other, there are prisoners recycling worn Ocado uniforms into aprons in HMP Northumberland to drones which monitor methane emissions from UK landfill sites to an Israeli start-up which manufactures domestic biogas kits for cooking. It hit its crowd funding target of $100k in 24 hours!

In my last blog, I looked at the problem of waste from the top down and concluded that among the most exciting developments were self-selecting networks of individuals and organizations coming up with solutions of their own accord. But the change of policy by Suez UK (and, I imagine, some of its competitors) following the introduction of escalating levies on landfill sites has gone some way to changing my mind about the effectiveness of state bureaucracies in bringing about meaningful change.

Desmond Astley-Cooper

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