Truckin’ waste: on the road to smarter delivery

Waste needs to be seen as a 60m tonne logistics challenge. But with big corporates now encroaching into this space, the days of skips and refuse vehicles may be numbered, warns Peter Jones

The shift in perceptions that transforms waste into resources is accelerating, driven by the great rise in the value of stuff previously considered worthless. This revolution of thought will be accompanied and enabled by many smaller changes, some of which are already beginning to take shape.

Some will be subtle alterations of mindset, but others will be very visible – including, I think, a transformation in the processes and equipment involved in waste collection. As these switches take shape, we will start to see what the real resource economy of the future is going to look like, and what sort of waste industry it will need.

I became a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics & Transport (CILT) in the late 1960s, long before the word ‘logistics’ first appeared in its name. Since then I have spent a good deal of my career since working to develop aspects of the system that maintains the flow of materials that feeds our economic engine.

What was once just transport – getting goods from A to B – has been transformed into the sophisticated logistical operation we see in the supply chain today. But I now see these supply chain developments as a prelude to tackling, and potentially integrating with, the one logistics sector the modern CILT has hitherto consistently ignored – that of waste.

What goes in must come out, and the 30m tonnes of food and drink consumed in the UK each year results in an extraordinary 15m tonnes of waste, taking account all stages of the supply chain after the food has left the farm. Then there is the immense diversity of non-food goods passing through retail sites, which amounts to a further 30m tonnes each year.

The purchase of these items yields packaging waste and often results in the displacement of old, worn out or simply redundant items the purchaser already owns. All this waste is managed by a sector that employs only around 40,000 people and uses perhaps 8,000 trucks for household waste and a similar number for the commercial and industrial streams.

Compared with the inbound stream, the waste industry manages to transport material far more compactly than the supply chain. There is no need to package waste so as to protect it – the more you can squeeze into a big rolonof skip or compact into a refuse truck the better. There hasn’t been the sort of delivery time pressure that modern logistics places on the inbound side.

Waste isn’t about to go off, and (incineration aside) there was no burning desire for it to be at a certain place at a certain time. About the only limitations on the efficiency of waste transportation have been the legal constraints on where bulking and dumping can happen.

All that is now changing. A triple whammy of high landfill taxes, rising energy costs and booming commodity prices has suddenly started to make waste interesting. By 2020 the waste sector will need the same levels of sophistication related to tracking, quality control and management which have flowered in the food industry.

Waste is becoming valuable, and recyclates are becoming a critical part of the supply of raw materials. But will it be the traditional waste sector that responds to the demand for this new type of service, or will innovation come from elsewhere?

The early signs of interest in waste amongst logistics companies are there, making additional use of some of their existing infrastructure. Supermarket waste now goes back to regional distribution centres in the empty inbound logistics trucks, rather than being collected in waste sector compactors. Eddie Stobart now shifts sizeable tonnages of chipped clean wood for energy.

It was the idea of the distribution centre that led to the rationalisation of supply logistics – and I would suggest that integrated resource recovery centres will be part of the future for waste management, playing the same role in driving efficiency and timeliness in the waste sector.

Parcels companies and Ocado-type online ordering systems are potentially a pipeline to the valuable packaging and other wastes thrown in the bin at home. Harnessing their delivery network to also carry out collection of clean, dry high quality card and plastic could radically alter the domestic waste market.

Waste needs to be seen as a 60m tonne logistics challenge with the aim being to get the right material to the right location at the right time. Diversion from landfill will in future not only be about separating waste and getting material to where it can be reprocessed. The concept of waste itself is being reinvented, so that material may increasingly avoid the traditional waste sector altogether.

If this trend becomes established, in the future waste will reach its end destinations by an entirely different transportation mode – the days of the skip may be numbered. And if the waste sector isn’t sharp in responding to change, the business of resource recovery logistics may well be run by an entirely different set of corporate entities.

Peter Jones is an independent waste consultant

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