NEC Group: managing waste in an eventful way

Dealing with 250 events a year, and the fluctuating waste streams that stem from them, is a tough task. But Birmingham's NEC waste team are up for the challenge, as Maxine Perella finds out

When your waste streams are varied, sometimes even outside of your control, and you don't have much time to manage them because of pressing deadlines, it makes for an interesting job. It also makes for a challenging one.

Steve Cartmell and Paul Jenkins head up waste management operations at Birmingham's NEC complex - a site that spans 611 acres in total. Inside the NEC itself there are 20 exhibition halls, hosting around 140 trade and consumer events each year. They are also in charge of the LG Arena, which hosts over 110 shows as well.

The vast number of events, coupled with swift turnaround times, makes dealing with the waste an immense task. "We come across nearly every type of waste stream you could imagine," says Jenkins. "There's the general dry stuff like cardboard, paper, wood and glass, but also car tyres, chemicals, inks, and WEEE items like fridges."

While the majority of it is packaging left over from show build up and dismantling operations, items left on exhibition stands - often because they've broken down like printers or fans - also have to be dealt with. Incidents of fly-tipping also occur in the car parking areas, and keeping a tab on it all is a 24/7 operation.

"There's a lot we can't control - for instance, a car breaks down in the car park, the AA comes and fits a new battery, but leaves the old one. Under duty of care, all of this becomes our responsibility. We end up complying with lots of legislation as a result," explains Jenkins.

While fly-tipping is generally on the decrease throughout the site, the NEC is undergoing a significant security upgrade as part of its Project Mercury programme, which will see the number of CCTV cameras installed increase considerably - this should go some way to helping with enforcement.

With such wide responsibilities falling under their remit, both Jenkins and Cartmell are proactive in seeking ways to get to grips with the challenges they face. Two years ago, all of the waste generated within the NEC complex was sent to landfill - but with landfill tax rising and a desire to become more sustainable, the team decided to set themselves some ambitious goals.

"Historically the exhibition industry has been a very wasteful one - we realised that couldn't continue," explains Cartmell. "We decided to invest £330,000 in building our own waste pre-treatment centre on site, which opened in 2009, and there we can take a range of materials, bulk them up and compact them down or bale them."

Both Cartmell and Jenkins designed the site themselves - which originated from a sketch on a cigarette packet. They then built it and managed its operation for the first six months before handling the reins over to the site's waste management contractor, ISS Facilities Services. Any waste that can't be dealt with by the pre-treatment centre is taken away by sub-contractor Biffa.

The centre handles a variety of materials - the biggest in terms of tonnage is packaging waste like cardboard, paper and wood; also glass, plastics, metals and carpet offcuts. Once compacted and baled, the materials are collected by a variety of different waste management companies for further reprocessing.

As a result of this pre-treatment, the NEC complex's overall recycling rate has shot up from zero to 42%, with a 50% target set by the end of 2013. It has also had a knock-on effect in terms of waste reduction.

"Since the pre-treatment centre opened, we've been able to identify better what waste has been left by the shows and we feed that back to the show organisers - this has had a positive impact on reducing the amount of waste overall," says Cartmell.

Another waste stream where impressive results have been achieved is organics, from the NEC's catering operations. "As part of our 'take the waste out' campaign, we worked with the catering team to segregate at source into five different waste streams. We launched this in Jan 2011 and set a target 40% recycling target," recalls Cartmell.

"By March we had achieved this and the latest recycling figures showing for this at now at 81%. That's through separate collections of glass, cardboard, and food waste, dry mixed recyclables, and residual or contaminated waste."

He adds: "We've now set ourselves an ambitious target of zero waste to landfill by June 2014. We're exploring avenues at the moment for the remainder of the waste that we can't recycle."

The campaign has also been extended to public areas within the NEC and LG Arena - 400 mobile recycling bins were rolled out earlier this year around the halls and complex to capture any dry recyclables left by visitors. Being an events-related business has its pressures and what the team has achieved in such a short space of time is remarkable.

"Although we make as much effort as we can to recycle, sometimes our business needs dictate that we can't do more due to our tight timescales," explains Cartmell. "Our core business centres around having a show that maybe leaves a hall at 6.00pm, at 4.00am the following morning we've got another event moving in."

He adds: "We have to make sure that our recycling processes don't effect the delivery of an exhibition. But saying that, we never stop looking for the opportunities. We're currently looking at what we can do to recycle our inert waste which is generated from site maintenance works."

Maxine Perella is editor of edieWaste

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