Retail breaks the rules on waste

In the North-west, 15% of retail businesses admit to taking their waste home to dispose of it - which is against the Duty of Care rules. Here we look at the reasons, and what can be done to educate
Dan Clayton

In a recent survey of waste and recycling in the North-west retail sector, 15% of businesses admitted to taking waste home for disposal in the household waste stream. They were therefore breaking the Duty of Care regulations. Often firms were breaking the rules for environmental reasons while others were just trying to avoid waste disposal costs.

Media reports on the environmental impacts of the retail sector tend to focus on the dominance of the major supermarket chains and high-street retailers. In terms of overall impact they are correct to do so. For example, the 2006 CSR Report from Sainsbury’s states that “35-40% of all the domestic household waste collected by local authorities in the UK originates from the four main supermarket chains – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons.”

But there are a large number of small retail businesses, and together they have a huge environmental impact. British Retail Consortium figures indicate that there were 278,400 retail units in the UK in 2005 and of these, 60% had fewer than five employees.

Retail and wholesale generates more waste than any other commercial and industrial (C&I) sector. A recent survey of C&I waste by Urban Mines for the North West Regional Technical Advisory Board found that 18% (1.3M tonnes) of C&I waste in the North-west comes from the retail sector. Just half of this waste is sent for recycling. The Environment Agency C&I surveys in 1998/99 and 2002/03 indicated that retail was the fastest growing C&I sector in terms of waste generation, with waste levels rising from 8M tonnes to almost 12M tonnes nationally. It should be noted that the large number of small businesses in the retail sector makes it difficult to predict an accurate level of waste. For example, in the North-west 60% of retail businesses (19,400 shops) have less than five employees.

In late November 2006, the Urban Mines survey team were in Chester to begin a survey of retail waste in the North-west. The main focus of the survey was to identify recycling opportunities in the retail sector across the region. Surveys were conducted in Chester, Bolton and Oldham. The Chester and Oldham surveys looked at town centre locations, and in Bolton an out-of-town retail park was studied.

On that first morning of surveying, it quickly became apparent that a number of retailers were breaking the Duty of Care regulations by simply taking their business waste home to dispose of it in the household waste stream. This meant they were failing to keep a written record (transfer note) of what waste was taken away.

Additionally, the businesses did not have a trade waste collection agreement with an authorised licensed waste carrier for this waste. The Code of Practice on the Duty of Care states that “if there is any doubt about whether or not a particular waste can go in the normal (household) collection, the producer should ask the local authority”. It was highly unlikely that any of the retailers had asked their local authority for permission to put trade waste in their household bin.

The project was funded by the North West Development Agency and the Resource Efficiency Knowledge Transfer Network, with the following objectives:

  • To identify the types and volumes of retail waste generated
  • To examine the level of recycling by retailers
  • To determine what local factors influence retail recycling levels

A basic questionnaire was designed to assess each of these factors and survey teams visited the three areas to collect data from retailers. The Duty of Care regulations were not really considered at all during the planning of the project or in the design of the questionnaire. But once the survey began it quickly became apparent that many of the businesses were breaking the duty of care rules.

In all three survey areas, there were examples of businesses that were breaking the regulations. From the data collected and discussions with the retail staff, it became apparent that there were several different reasons why the regulations were being broken:

Logistical problems: In Chester city centre, lots of shops are in historical buildings. Many of the shops in the famous Chester Rows have no service space at the back of store. This means that the retailers have limited storage space and do not have room for wheelie bins, so waste must be disposed of in plastic sacks. Additionally, stores in some pedestrian areas are required to have their waste collected before 9am.

Therefore, if a shop owner forgets to put the waste out or does not open early enough, they may have a backlog of waste. In several cases, shop managers said that, if a large amount of waste built up, they would take it home for disposal. In Chester, the storage difficulties meant that 75% of the surveyed stores had their waste collected in plastic sacks. At the Bolton out-of-town site, where shops had ample storage space, only around 10% of shops used plastic sacks for waste collection.

Recycling availability: Many of the small independent shops that were visited for the study generated very low volumes of waste – often just a refuse sack a week. At these low volumes, it is not economic to have multiple collections of segregated recyclable waste streams. In Chester, 50% of the sample generated less than 100kg of waste each week. The survey responses showed that much of the waste tended to be cardboard packaging and shrink-wrap that could potentially be recycled.

A large majority of shop owners and staff said that they would recycle if there were the facilities available and the cost was at a reasonable level. The main disposal routes for the waste that was being taken home were in household kerbside collection rounds or at civic amenity sites. In almost all cases, it was small independent retailers taking waste home. But staff from one household name retailer said that they took some of their recyclable waste to recycling bins at the nearby Tesco.

Some community group recyclers (such as Kerbside Calderdale) have started projects that are in effect business civic amenity sites where businesses can take certain recyclable waste streams. In the Oldham survey, two thirds of shops had their waste collected by the trade waste service of the Oldham Council. The council is looking at the possibility of establishing recycling collections as part of its trade waste service.

Cost avoidance: A small number of the shop owners interviewed openly stated that they were taking waste home to avoid the costs of collection. But businesses in Oldham could buy plastic refuse sacks from the council for less than £1, and this cost included the cost of collecting and disposing of the waste. For a very low charge, shops could dispose of their waste and meet their legal obligations.

The planned increases in the Landfill Tax will push up the cost of waste collection. And it is a possibility that an increasing number of small businesses will try to avoid disposal costs by putting waste in the household waste stream or by fly-tipping.

Lack of awareness

It was clear that there was a lack of awareness of environmental issues and legislation among retail staff – many saw nothing wrong in taking business waste home for disposal.

A number of recent pieces of waste legislation such as the Weee Directive and the Animal By-Product Regulations put responsibilities on retailers for providing information and segregating waste and this can be a complicated process. As a result of the evidence gathered in the survey the RE-KTN has been working with the Retail Centres of Vocational Excellence on an environmental awareness module that can be added to retail training courses.

The idea of a small civic amenity site for businesses operated by a community group would work particularly well in areas such as Chester city centre where the historic built environment limits the available waste storage space. The site does not need to be a large facility even a single compacting skip for cardboard would relieve much of the waste storage problems for small retailers in the area.

Only half of the shops surveyed on the Bolton retail park were recycling any waste. Even some of the shops from national chains did not generate enough cardboard or plastic packaging to make collection economic. On a contained retail park site, it could be possible to have combined collections of recyclable waste in order to generate the required volumes for collection. These arrangements could be managed by the facilities management company that operates the park.

Dan Clayton works for Urban Mines and is the retail and commercial knowledge transfer manager for the Resource Efficiency Knowledge Transfer Network

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie