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Business recycling? Let the landfill tax escalator do the work

Bill Swan

Bill Swan on getting businesses to recycle more

Businesses aren’t very good at recycling, but what can we do about it? This is one of the big debates at the moment. And in situations like this the cry is always for the Government to step in and SORT IT OUT.

Let’s look first at the assumption that businesses aren’t very good at recycling. I saw last week results from a survey of 130 businesses on one busy London high street. They included a good mix of retail, offices and food-based businesses.

I was a little shocked to see that a whopping 30% of them did no recycling at all and a further 20% only recycled something very simple like cooking oil or toner cartridges. That’s 50% of businesses doing virtually nothing to recycle their waste. But BPR Group’s own market research in our core market of Greater London offices suggests that 80% of offices have some kind of recycling scheme in place.

The reality is that we do not really know how good businesses are at recycling, so it is great news that Defra has commissioned research which will be available later this year. Only with accurate data can we begin to make proper decisions. I suspect the picture is not as bad as people might think, with most large producers of waste having been prodded into action by landfill tax rises.

But we can all agree that many firms could do a lot better at recycling. Can the Government sort it out - in fact, should the Government try to sort it out?

The first reaction many people have had to poor business waste figures is to cry “market failure”. The assumption is that any right-thinking business should recycle so, if it is not, it is because it somehow cannot access recycling services. The private sector must be failing to provide services to businesses, so councils must step in.

But remember that survey I mentioned? That busy London high street was Camden High Street. BPR Group has been offering recycling services in Camden for 20 years, and we are now joined by a whole host of other waste management companies. Camden Council has a long and successful track record of offering cheap, commercial recycling services. The 50% of businesses failing to recycle in the survey have not been let down by either the market or their council: they do not consider it to be important and are simply not that interested.

So can the Government sort it out? Offering cheap, subsidised recycling services to businesses will destroy the private sector companies currently providing the service successfully. Businesses that are already recycling will gladly switch and pocket the savings. The firms that do not recycle now will probably just remain disinterested.

BPR Group’s Carbon Smart subsidiary has measured more than 500 carbon footprints for businesses of all types. Of a typical business carbon footprint, what might you guess is made up by waste and recycling: 20%? 10%? 5%? The correct answer is 1%.

Whisper it quietly but, in the scheme of things, business waste recycling is a drop in the ocean. Government policy should be focusing on the big issues. Leave the landfill tax escalator to do its work and businesses will become interested as their waste costs rise. The private sector will be ready and able to step in as that happens.

Bill Swan is managing director of BPR Group

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