Bexley reaps benefits of SME recycling commitment

As one of the first councils to sign up to WRAP's business recycling and waste services commitment, Bexley has increased its income. Nick Warburton paid a visit

Steve Didsbury is no stranger to waste and recycling in the small-to-medium-sized enterprise (SME) sector. As head of waste and street services at the London Borough of Bexley, he’s overseen the roll out of an extensive service for SMEs, covering an impressive range of materials.

Having also signed Bexley up to the WRAP-administered business recycling and waste services commitment in January 2012, he’s one of the best placed in the local authority community to discuss the merits of extending household waste and recycling services to SMEs, a traditionally hard to reach group.

“Everyone has to look at either reducing cost or increasing income,” he says on the budgetary constraints facing all local authorities. “By increasing the amount of commercial waste and recycling, you’re making better use of resources you’ve already got.”

It makes a great deal of sense. Local authorities already have the collection systems in place and a market for the materials. By adding extra materials on from the SME sector, councils really only have to factor in the marginal costs of collecting this waste. Most of the other costs are covered.

“It’s a way of increasing your income without dramatically increasing your costs at the same time,” he continues. “That helps to protect your front line services as well because they are becoming more cost effective. You are using the same resources for the extra work.”

But it’s not only about revenue generation for councils. By signing up to the business recycling and waste services commitment and its 12 principles, there is anecdotal evidence that local authorities will also help to reduce the costs incurred from the misuse of household services, crack down on fly-tipping and also reinforce messages in the home to reduce waste and recycle more.

Bexley was one of the first, if not the first, council to offer a recycling service to SMEs back in 1997, collecting just paper and cardboard, before extending the range of materials to plastic bottles, cans and glass in 2004 and food/garden waste in 2007.

As with all of its kerbside waste and recycling collections, the services were initially rolled out to the borough’s householders. In Bexley, 77,000 of its 95,100 properties are served by a weekly joint food/garden waste collection and a dry commingled recycling collection. There is also an alternate weekly residual waste service.

The remaining households, which tend to be blocks of flats or properties where it’s not suitable to leave larger bins, are served by a weekly residual waste and weekly recycling collection service.

Building on these existing household collections, the council has gradually added the SME customers on, either to the household collections or as separate rounds, over the past 16 years.

The Southeast London borough currently services about 1,500 of the borough’s 5,000 commercial businesses and uses the contractor Serco to deliver the service. Teams visit businesses to talk about the type of waste they produce and carry out a rudimentary waste audit.

In 2007, Bexley received funding from WRAP for a year to increase its business food waste, which proved more difficult to implement than for the other materials.

“Whereas with normal commercial waste you go in and you discuss the terms and take a quick look to see if there is a room for containers, with food waste, you’ve got to help them set up a system inside the building to separate it,” he says. “That might take one or two extra visits.”

The fact that Bexley is a unitary authority and is therefore responsible for both collection and disposal has made it easier to deliver the services. To calculate the household/commercial split, the council uses a formula based on the number of SME containers emptied and an analysis of how much an average weight of a container will be.

As Didsbury explains, the council has tried to keep the service as simple as possible. Prices are transparent and reviewed once a year. If they cannot recycle the waste, they direct businesses to a source that can dispose of the waste.

In many ways, Bexley was “ahead of the game” but signing up to the commitment has also helped to build up more commercial clients. “It gave us a reason to publicise the service,” he says. “It helps with the marketing and has helped us focus on our services. We have changed some things.”

So what advice would he give to other councils looking to follow suit? First of all, he says, it’s important to know the market and target the type of businesses that would benefit from the range of services that local authorities can provide.

“The big national chains tend to be signed by the big national companies so concentrate on the firms. They are the locally-based companies or the smaller ones,” he says.

“Then offer them a service that is helpful to them, especially the smaller companies. They are likely to be people who live in or near the borough and their customers and staff are similar so they are already used to recycling at home. You are just taking it one step further so that they can recycle at work.”

Nick Warburton is editor of LAWR

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