First Mile now collects from 13,000 businesses in the heart of London, allowing them to recycle more than 19 streams of material.
Our customer base is mostly SMEs, the lifeblood of the city. While the market and the technology has changed enormously in the past 10 years, the requirements of London remains the same. It is a 24/7 city that needs 24/7 services delivered at speed and without hassle. Understanding and meeting this requirement has been vital to our growth.
When the company launched in 2004, there were limited recycling services available – most city centre businesses used only waste sacks and there was little customer service support. We knew that, with rising landfill costs and growing environmental awareness, this would change and that businesses would need more support from their supplier.
The variety of questions a customer might have now is huge: reporting, data, services, contamination, regulations and waste destinations. Many of our customers are businesses that operate at evenings and weekends, so we knew we had to be available 24/7 to answer those questions. We wanted to be customer- focused from the outset and to set our standards in line with the top B2C brands.
Clients have placed increasing demand on suppliers because they can now make a real difference to where waste ends up. Historically, switching a provider might mean waste simply going to a different landfill. Now, businesses have a range of options: mixed recycling or source separated, anaerobic digestion or composting, and whether or not to separate and recycle at all.
Being able to influence what happens to their waste is empowering for a business and, as a result, they take a much keener interest in the recycling processes and destinations than they used to.
As a result of this increase in demand for visi bility and knowledge, First Mile’s team has grown to be experts in the field. Every member of staff passes the Waste Smart course and visits all our disposal facilities as part of their induction, so they are well placed to advise and explain our methods of recycling.
The desire among businesses to have strong ethics and corporate social responsibility (CSR) has also played a role in changing the way they engage with our services. Facility managers remain the primary purchasing decision makers, but CSR and environmental roles are also initiating and concluding on waste purchasing decisions, while informal ‘green teams’ are often tasked with finding a suitable recycling service.
In fact, we now see all sorts of roles having an influence on supplier decisions within a business. And people who take green issues to heart at home will not put up with a workplace that does not do enough. Our customers are definitely better recyclers than they used to be, and they are more know ledgeable on and more open to the concept of recycling. But the variety of services does bring new challenges to customer education.
They encounter different types of recycling and rules everywhere they go – at home, at work, in public spaces – and a lack of consistency means people are often unsure of what the rules are. We work hard to deliver clear communications to all our customers: posters and branding are simple and concise, and we send regular communications to help businesses get the best from their services.
And the facts speak for themselves. On average, our customers recycle five times as much waste now than they did 10 years ago – from 17% then to almost 80% now. The landfill tax escalator has played a big part in this, and the press coverage of the tax has been good for ensuring that companies understand the cost implications of not recycling.
This marks a change from when we set up First Mile. For some time, many customers saw recycling as an additional cost and could be forgiven for doing so – 10 years ago, it was more expensive for us to recycle our customers’ waste than send it to landfill. We tried to force the change in clients’ minds by pricing recycling lower than waste even in those early days, aware that the tax escalator would push our disposal costs in the right directions.
It has been 10 years of big change in the market and we anticipate further evolution, in particular the focus on higher quality recycling, and regulation becoming more important to the industry. But our approach will not change; London’s economy is anticipated to grow by 15% during the next five years and we will continue to put our customers first, understanding what they need, and ensure our products and service meet their requirements for the next 10 years and beyond.
Bruce Bratley is chief executive and founder of First Mile