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Finding a new language for waste

William Tracey Group managing director Michael Tracey speaks in a soft, traditional Scottish accent. But in the context of the waste management industry, the language he uses is forward-thinking with his business described more in terms of a logistics operation than a waste company.

“William Tracey is a resource management and commodity company,” he says. “We are recycling all different types of material from aggregates to timber, plastic, paper and metals - anything, really. Our job is to take whatever our customers are throwing away, process it to an extent, and then find a home for it. We have an element of waste that currently goes to landfill and we think, in the future, that will change and it will all go to energy technologies.

“We employ 550 people across the group and operate mainly in Scotland, but we are now in the north east of England and we are also operating from Nottingham. We handle, as a group, in excess of one million tonnes of different materials and we will recycle somewhere in the region of 80% of those.”

The company has a wide range of customers in the construction industry, manufacturers, trade waste and even abattoirs and tanneries. But he believes that Scotland is proving better than England at dealing with diverse waste streams. “In Scotland we are a little ahead of England in trying to get our customers to segregate different types of materials on-site, and then we’ll transport it to different processing facilities. This waste can then be processed, put into containers and shipped abroad. In some instances, there will be local solutions for the recyclates we make.”

Scotland, of course, has plans to become a zero-waste nation, which Tracey describes as “very ambitious”.

“I am a member of the Zero Waste Scotland Programme Board. Scotland has a very different view [from England]. It is a very pragmatic government,” he says. We have the most ambitious CO2 targets in the world, [which means that] we have to reduce our emissions by 42% by 2020.

“What is waste? I don’t know what waste is any more”

“I am also involved in another group, the 2020 group, which aims to come up with solutions to achieve these goals and they [the Scottish government] are taking it very seriously. I am very excited about it. The government is understanding of the changes that need to be made, both in terms of planning and a host of educational issues that people need to understand.”

I ask Tracey whether he thinks zero waste is achievable and if he is confident that it is.

“What is waste? I don’t know what waste is any more. In my view, waste is a word that will be redundant in another four or five years’ time when technologies go up,” he says. “The only thing going to landfill in 10 years’ time will be ash coming from different types of facilities and, hopefully, most of that will find its way into other markets. So I do believe that zero waste is achievable. Absolutely.”

For his business, this means there is a transition taking place from being a waste business to becoming a resource and energy business, and it appears that William Tracey Group is already a long way along with that plan.

“It is all going to be about technology,” says Tracey. “It is all going to be about energy, and we will be a fuel supplier to those technologies and we’ll also be a commodity dealer. We have recently started, along with Scottish and Southern Electricity, construction of an anaerobic digestion plant. We are generating electricity at an old landfill site of ours. We recently got permission for a biomass plant. We are in discussion with a very large energy-from-waste company about a supply contract.

“So we have got these different types of technology. We will need them for the future, and they will essentially be modern-day landfill facilities. So we are trying to associate ourselves as much as we can with the strongest people in those types of areas and that’s the future. It is going to be about trying to keep as much as possible out of landfill.”

But this future will bring challenges for businesses such as William Tracey as it adapts. I ask what these challenges will be.

“Intelligence. We are very fortunate that we have got a lot of very intelligent people working for us,” he says. “But what I mean is that our whole industry is going to have to change. I wonder how many waste companies have ever had any loads rejected from a landfill site? But if you are going to be supplying technologies that are worth in some instances hundreds of millions of pounds, then you are going to have to supply material to a specification.

“Energy technology suppliers are going to want to have suppliers that are respectful of processes and quality systems, so I think we are going to have to change in lots of ways. We’ll be much more scientific about what we do and we are going to be much more process-driven.

“So there are lots of challenges there, and we need to get more intelligence into the company so that we can take advantage of these opportunities, which will undoubtedly come in the next few years.”

In terms of how William Tracey will grow as a business, he sees plenty of ways it can happen.

“With the current recession, organic growth is going to be in short supply. We’ve probably suffered in certain areas, but we are lucky that we have got such a diverse range of services,” says Tracey. “But I think probably the biggest opportunities for us are going to be through acquisition. We are looking to spread our wings throughout the UK, so we are looking at a variety of opportunities and that [acquisition] will be the way we look to take our business model throughout the UK.”


Michael Tracey left school at 16. He was one of six children and was the only one that did not go into further education, but instead worked for his father in the family business. He has been in the same company ever since.

The best thing to happen in my career was…
“Buying a 25-acre site close to Glasgow airport. Now it is the largest waste disposal site in Scotland.”

The worst thing to happen in my career was…
“Setting up a groundworks company. We lost a few quid in that.”


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