Technology has revolutionised the way most companies operate and do business, and the waste and recycling sector is no exception. But how important is IT viewed by companies in the sector? As a major player in waste management and recycling, with more than 12,000 staff and 2009 revenue of £1.2bn, Veolia Environmental Services (VES) is a good place to start asking.
Chief information officer William Payne explains: “IT is critical to doing business in any industry and very much so in ours for a variety of reasons - and it is becoming more so. There is the issue of getting information that is meaningful, manageable, actionable, timely and reliable, as well as in sufficient quality. Getting information in the hands of the right people is the name of the game.”
So who is driving this desire for information? Payne says the demand is not coming from one direction: the thirst for data comes from all stakeholders, be it the Government, suppliers or employees. From the company’s perspective, it sees investing in systems that help to meet its overall strategy and vision - efficiency and growth while reducing carbon footprint - as being money worth spending.
Payne stresses that the key is to have meaningful and manageable information that is relevant to the business, rather than information merely for the sake of having information. For example, he explains that GPS vehicle tracking is a classic case of something that generates information - the tracking of vehicles - but because businesses do not have the time to sit and follow each one, it is not particularly meaningful or manageable. The relevant and meaningful information from such data is where the vehicle is in relation to the supplier, so that action can be taken accordingly.
Can he outline a particularly good example of a piece of software that has helped to drive the business forward?
“We don’t think of a piece of software in isolation; we talk about solutions,” he says. “But perhaps a good example is something we call ‘Driving Efficiently and Safely’, which we are putting in our vehicle fleet to monitor the performance of the driver, in terms of miles per hours, braking and so on. The benefits are that you can plan to reduce your carbon footprint, be more efficient and have better safety.
“Health and safety is a top priority for the business, so being able to manage and understand what is happening on the road is important. It also helps with reducing fuel consumption.”
Payne adds that the system, which VES started introducing last year, has also helped to develop a healthy sense of competition among drivers. This all culminates in the company’s Driver of the Year competition, which rewards driving excellence. Another benefit is that it gets staff directly involved in the company’s bid, through its CSR plan, to reduce its carbon footprint.
Looking ahead, Payne sees that systems are likely to get more sophisticated, and a greater focus on carbon footprint and environmental impact will drive the thirst for information. He also sees the rise in importance of mobility: systems that feed the thirst for timely, instant information.
“Getting information in the hands of the right people is the name of the game”
Another aspect where IT and systems play an important role in the sector is when businesses have been on the acquisition trail. Privately owned Metal and Waste Recycling (MWR), which specialises in the recycling of ferrous and non-ferrous metals and other waste streams, is a good example of this. It has grown rapidly through acquisition and now has depots in the north-east, Midlands and south-east, a turnover in excess of £350m and 400 staff. After several business acquisitions, MWR found that its existing management information system could not properly provide the data needed to run the company on a day-to-day basis.
Group IT manager Liz Moore explains: “We needed to centralise and streamline our IT infrastructure, as well as our data and reporting systems, because each of the acquired companies was using its own system. We have sites across the UK, and we needed a system that could allow head office to gain real-time access and visibility of all site data to ensure we manage and control our operations in the most effective and profitable manner.”
After reviewing the solutions available, MWR chose Qurius’ Enwis solution, which is built on Microsoft Dynamics and delivers a packaged software suite specifically designed for the recycling and waste management industry. Enwis automates process and integrating business functions and manages critical information, data and documents in simple formats, allowing MWR to carry out daily operations efficiently.
After going live at all 10 sites across the UK, MWR began to realise the benefits of an integrated solution.
Moore says: “We can now get up-to-the minute data from all our sites on details such as cash held and tonnage. This, coupled with the reporting facilities of the software, means that we can quickly get answers to any question that may be posed. Another area where Enwis has provided significant benefit is in the preparation of month-end accounts. We now save a lot of time every month in preparing these. The flexibility of the system means we can use it to manage our businesses in all areas of recycling management.
“We recently implemented it at Foremans Recycling, another part of our business that handles waste and other recyclables rather than scrap. We are also in the process of computerising the transport planning in each region.”
But even for the smaller players in the sector, IT is seen as critical to business. Salford-based Boxclever, which has a turnover of around £1m and seven staff, specialises in handling the more difficult industrial waste streams. It acts as a broker, so operates principally as a sales and marketing operation, subcontracting its waste collection and treatment to others.
It uses Microsoft software because the operation is not currently large enough to require dedicated waste management software. Boxclever chief executive Phil Boardman says: “We use IT for supplying a superior front-end service to our customers.”
He adds that because the company deals with complex service requirements that need a lot of information, good software systems are essential. He sees IT as being critical to giving his business an edge and making it smarter and faster than the competition, which in turn will help with growth.
Boardman adds: “Without IT, it would almost be inconceivable because legislation is so burdensome. What we are really seeing is the evolution of the service sector and the added value that IT gives, allowing us to provide a more polished operation that makes our business stand out.”
MRW asks Qurius UK director Jason Fazackerley what five key new technologies will have the most impact on the recycling industry during the coming year.
Virtualisation (also known as cloud computing): This will bring significant benefits to companies that need the flexibility to grow and/or contract their workforce while paying only for the software and services they use. This is suited to the dynamic businesses we see, particularly in the energy-from-waste arena. An additional and significant benefit is that this type of computing infrastructure can reduce the carbon footprint massively compared with traditional in-house environments that have multiple servers and dedicated computer rooms.
E-business: We have seen consumers shift their buying habits from the high street to the internet during the past decade, but many businesses fail to take full advantage of e-business opportunities. More so than in many other industry sectors, recycling and waste management companies perform a substantial amount of their business transactions using contractors and other third parties. This results in a huge number of human interactions (phone, email, post, fax) that could be automated using XML [an electronic instruction or document standard] based around agreed business rules. Removing the unnecessary overhead of repetitive tasks and deploying your information workers to perform value-add activities can increase your company’s performance hugely.
Unified communications: Products such as Microsoft Exchange and Outlook have transformed the way we work. But with the addition of Microsoft Office Communication Server and Live Meeting, you can bring instant messaging, presence information, voice over IP and videoconferencing to your business at very low cost. The ability to instantly respond, act and resolve takes away some of the frustrations of email overload. Live Meeting and the videoconferencing that it supports is highly effective to organisations with staff working across multiple sites or from home. Again, it improves the pace at which an organisation operates, and helps to cut cost and carbon footprint accordingly.
Solid state drive: We have all experienced the benefits of memory sticks, SD cards and so on. The development in solid state memory means that the days of the traditional spinning hard drive are numbered. Solid state drives can be many times quicker than their moving predecessor, resulting in faster running applications and quicker analysis of data. In addition, they are now becoming quite affordable and therefore more prevalent.
Green computing: This is a huge area and a few hardware, software and systems integrators are taking the lead. Looking at the whole-life environmental impact of IT solutions is going to be as big to major IT vendors as the CO2/km measure is to car manufacturers and consumers.