A sustainable approach to waste management

Since 1912, Biffa Waste Services Limited (Biffa) has been servicing the waste management needs of the UK. Named after its founder – Richard Biffa – it was originally conceived as a haulage company to provide services to London’s coal power stations, specifically the removal and sale of ashes and clinker, before later adding sand and gravel, and waste disposal to its operations. Since those early days of the company’s history, it has developed far beyond waste collection and into recycling, treatment and energy generation services, becoming a leading integrated waste management business.

With its operations occurring across some 195 sites – a network that spans the length and breadth of the country – Biffa today services over 2.3 million households and collects 4.3 million bins per week within its municipal division alone, and boasts more than 72,000 industrial and commercial customers.

When it comes to seeking out an individual who has witnessed first-hand the recent evolution of the business, one would be hard pressed to find a better-informed person that Simon Rutledge, Biffa Waste Services Limited’s Group External Affairs and Sustainability Manager. Having been with the business for over 25 years, in which time he has worked in all conceivable areas of the waste and recycling industry, Simon is today responsible for overseeing the environmental and sustainability performance of Biffa, driving forward various initiatives within the group, and realising efficiency within resource usage internally.

“Over the recent history of the business, we have very much evolved to respond to the increased awareness of environmental issues and of the concerns surrounding the wasting of resources, and the impact this has,” Simon begins. “In doing so, we have become much more than a collection, delivery and landfill-type operation, transforming ourselves into an integrated resource management solution provider. This means that, in 2019, we are collecting more types of material than ever before and sorting them into individual streams at our various facilities, before directing them off to dedicate recycling or recovery operations.”

“Under the leadership of our new CEO, Michael Topham, Biffa is pursuing, on a daily basis, our vision of being universally recognised for being the leader in UK sustainable waste management, with our existence revolving around the purpose of changing the way people think about waste,” adds Biffa’s Group Fleet Director, Adam Cooper. It is Adam who is responsible for the engineering backbone of Biffa, which includes almost 2800 frontline vehicles and upwards of 500,000 containers across the UK.

“As a business, we take great pride in having the infrastructure necessary to give Biffa approximately 95 per cent coverage of all UK postcodes,” Adam states. “Our network of facilities, which can range from two-person workshop bays to bigger sites hosting up to 20 employees, are all manned by well trained, focused individuals, whose technical skill sets we constantly look to develop. Each also benefits from continued investment.”

Alongside its own collection depots and sorting plants which deal with municipal waste, the company also has the largest degree of coverage in the UK when it comes to industrial commercial waste collections. Furthermore, Biffa possesses a network of specialist hazardous waste transfer stations and treatment plants, as well as a collection of dedicated fleet of tankers, vehicles and other equipment to collect and process these materials. The company is also well on its way to commencing with the construction of its first energy-to-waste plant, which is hopes to see begin to take shape in Leicestershire by the end of 2019.

In addition to the above-mentioned facilities, Simon is understandably keen to also point out another exciting facet to the business, namely its plastics recovery recycling facility, based in Redcar. “Here we turn waste high density polyethylene (HDPE) into food grade milk bottles,” he details. “This is an area in which we have been active for some time, working closely with the dairy industry, and it has led to a situation where, today, an estimated 80 per cent of the UK’s milk bottles now have an average of 25-30 per cent of Biffa polymer plastic content within them.

“In order to leverage this experience, we are now in the process of expanding into the recovery of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, by constructing new facilities in Wigan and in Aldridge, in the West Midlands, specifically to sort these materials. It is thought that the UK uses somewhere in the region of 13.5 billion water tight plastic bottles per year, with more than half being diverted to land fill or overseas after use. Naturally, we want to play a major role in addressing this issue, which is why we have invested some £27.5 million into this new facility, which we hope will ultimately process some three million bottles per day.”

Returning to the topic of Biffa’s impressive fleet of vehicles, it quickly becomes clear that this is a company committed to embracing the latest technology, which is a trait that in itself is also contributing to its environmental and sustainability efforts. “One thing that cannot be stressed highly enough is our absolute focus when it comes to safety, be it of our drivers, loaders, operators or members of the public,” Adam enthuses. “Given the nature of our work, we do find our people operating in difficult areas, and to better protect them and the public we invest in all manner of features, such as the latest on-board camera systems. We also make use of telematics technologies, as we look to achieve intelligent procurement and deployment of our fleet.”

Simon goes on to add further comment to this point: “One of the good things about working at the scale that we do, is that we are able to leverage efficiencies we identify in different areas of the company or during the process of acquiring other businesses/technologies. By applying these to our fleet and infrastructure, we are making it so that Biffa becomes the most efficient collector of waste and recycling.”

From an environmental perspective, the rise in clean air zones and other emissions regulations has seen Biffa turn to the manufacturers and developers of some of the cleanest vehicles being brought to market. In terms of light units, for instance, it will shortly be bringing into service a number of Nissan e-NV200 vehicles, while it is also working closely with a consortium called Electra, trialling its electric road side collection vehicles for potential future use in its municipal division.

Discussing the issues that the company expects to face in the months ahead, Simon details the challenges and themes at the top of Biffa’s agenda. “There is certainly a drive throughout the UK for more types of material to be collected and ultimately recycled, and this has fed through into ongoing Government consultations. For our part, we have been working with different authorities to feedback things like how to improve collection consistencies, how to better educate the public as to what is truly recyclable, and how to improve things like labelling. This has made for an exciting time from a policy and regulatory perspective.”

As Adam goes on to conclude, this feeds back into the company’s desire to make a lasting, tangible difference, something which applies to not just the UK market. “We are currently supporting a charity by the name of WasteAid,” he says. “It is our aim to support them as they look to help countries around the world that do not yet have their own waste expertise or infrastructure. By providing educational tools and supporting these countries and their processes around managing waste, together we hope to bring an end to practices like wholesale burning or plastics reaching our oceans. As you can imagine, this is a hugely important field and there is much more positive work to come!”

Biffa Waste Services Limited
Over 100 years of heritage
More than 95 per cent of UK coverage
Approximately 2800 frontline vehicles