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Time to switch off the Steptoe & Son stereotype

Picture the scene: a sparky soundtrack starts up and a harmonica wails. The cam­era focuses on a speeding conveyor belt of waste, and takes us through to a rotating drum separator and a baler wrapping a bale. We meet Bob, the manager of a Byker MRF, and the voiceover introduces one of the episode’s themes: helping a customer to locate items that have been thrown away accidentally.

This was broadcast in the BBC’s Wastemen programme in 2015. With the inexorable rise of reality TV, industry after industry has been exposed to the public gaze, from retail to health services. Waste and recycling has also had its time in the sun, but has this helped to shed the pervading Steptoe & Son image and focus instead on what really makes a multi-billion pound and highly technological sector tick?

Not everyone in the industry thinks so.

“There are a vast number of programmes these days about the NHS, police and things like that,” says Phil Conran, director at 360 Environmental and former Biffa employee. “I’m sure it does make some difference in peo­ple’s understanding behind the scenes. With waste, you don’t get that – people do not realise what goes into its management.

“Programmes such as Wastemen and Scrap­pers treat it very much as not a particularly serious subject. The industry is used for enter­tainment rather than to inform. If you ask the person in the street about waste, very few would have any real idea as to what goes where, how landfill sites work and the technical way in which waste is dealt with.

“I don’t think there has been sufficient coverage for people to realise that it is a very serious industry.”

There have been examples where the power of the media has changed public opinion on waste. Coffee cup recycling became a cause célèbre after the Hugh’s War on Waste pro­gramme highlighted the issue – around 2.5 billion cups disposed of each year - and the Daily Mail took it up as a campaign. This led to questions in Parliament and former resource minster Rory Stewart appearing to suggest a tax on cups, although he was quickly slapped down by his superiors.

But Conran remains unimpressed: “I think it was unfortunate, in a way, because it created a focus on something that actually, in relative terms, is a very small part of the waste problem.

“We are collecting less than half of plastic packaging, for instance. That’s about a million tonnes. The impact from coffee cups is almost negligible by comparison, but it is highly visible so it becomes a political and media subject.” During his time at Biffa, Conran says he thought that one of its depots would have been good for a fly-on-the-wall series. But he is aware of the pitfalls of being put under the microscope, and points out that many compa­nies would be worried about having the cam­eras in and examining everything they did.

The Scrappers programme, a surprising ratings hit, was controversial within the sector because some highly dubious practices were caught on camera. The docu-soap followed the characters working at a Bolton scrap yard and, while audiences liked the human interactions, professionals baulked at an employee working underneath a car held up by a forklift. This dangerous practice was men­tioned in a Sun article when the company was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive last year for a separate offence.

Robert Fell, chief executive of the British Metals Recycling Association (BMRA), shares Conran’s pessimism over TV’s handling of his sector. Scrap yards, he says, are too easily por­trayed as being dodgy businesses.

“In our industry, the book is very much judged by the cover and historical stereotypes, rather than what it contributes to society, the economy and the environment.

“I think that is a great shame because if peo­ple understood just how important metal recy­cling was, and the enormous benefit it provides in terms of energy saving and reduction in CO2 emissions, they would view it very differently. We are now a highly professional, highly regu­lated industry.”

So do media firms such as the BBC, ITV and Channel Four get in touch with the BMRA for advice on how to portray the metal recycling sector? “No. Generally you get contacted only when something goes wrong, like when there is a fire. Finding a villain is far more entertain­ing and newsworthy than telling a good news story about how fabulous recycling is.”

For Fell, the BMRA and the entire recycling industry needs to face up to the challenge of presenting itself more favourably. This view is backed up by Chartered Institution of Wastes Management president Margaret Bates. “As recycling become part of our everyday behav­iour, market research suggested that people were interested in what happened to their recy­cling – the ‘transformational’ element,” she says.

“Programmes such as Wastemen and Scrappers treat it very much as not a particularly serious subject. The industry is used for entertainment rather than to inform.”

To illustrate this, she claims the WRAP ‘Recycle Now’ campaign successfully used transformation imagery, including cans being turned into parts of cars or planes: “Getting this message across is just as relevant today. But making what are effectively industrial pro­cesses sexy is challenging – perhaps we need more iconic ‘big brand’ stories like Apple’s recy­cling robot Liam, which got a lot of coverage.”

One media outlet that Bates, Fell and Con­ran are all wary of is adverse newspaper cover­age. For instance, while the Daily Mail does take on environmental campaigns – notably coffee cups and ocean plastic waste – it has also a long track record of slating local authority waste and recycling services. Eunomia senior consultant Peter Jones has fought a series of battles against the paper over inaccurate reports, but with mixed results.

“When faced with headlines such as ‘Waste chiefs deny bin microchips are spies’, ‘Fort­nightly bin collections spark rat plague’ and ‘Nine bins for every home as EU moves to con­trol council rubbish collections’, it is difficult sometimes to know whether to laugh or cry,” says Bates. “The frustration comes from the fact that, so often, the headlines are both hysterical and misleading, if not downright inaccurate, and there is very little recourse to get these stories corrected or retracted.

“For every good recycling story, there are always other stories such as the 2013 Daily Mail’s ‘Recycling con: millions of tons end up in landfill as officials admit success is exagger­ated’. This was on the back of MRF contamina­tion rates, and raises an important issue about quality of recycling and the role of technology versus the role of the householder.

“However, the overall suggestion that the UK public has been lied to by the establishment, and the recycling process stops once waste has been collected from the doorstep, does not encourage a mature discussion about why qual­ity recycling is important and how we can ‘collectively’ achieve it.”

“The frustration comes from the fact that, so often, the headlines are both hysterical and misleading, if not downright inaccurate, and there is very little recourse to get these stories corrected.”

TV companies are in the entertainment busi­ness, so it is not surprising that recycling pro­fessionals are not seeing the educational programmes they would like. But, just as food programming focuses on the delicious end of things rather than rats in kitchens, perhaps eventually the media will get to grips with the true value of the waste business.

“The public’s imagination can definitely go way beyond Steptoe & Son, but we have to feed it with real information and we have to fire it up,” says Bates. “I think many companies still shy away from engaging with the media because of the risk of negative headlines and messages.

“As a sector, we need to stand up to and answer negative stories, and be even more pro­active and creative in pushing good news sto­ries and using social media much more effectively. Younger generations are trawling the ether for images and videos for both educa­tional and leisure purposes, and as a sector we could make more of this.”

Former WRAP communications and campaigns director Nick Gammage on why the industry should focus on the ‘art of the possible’


Waste and Recycling on TV

Dispatches: Britain’s Rubbish, Channel 4, 2011

The programme focused on recycling, but some industry commentators said that it failed to portray a fully balanced picture of waste management in the UK.

Getting Rich in the Recession: Scrappers, Channel 4, 2013

An episode featuring Sydenham Scrap Metals. The promo ran with “it’s a world that attracts some of the country’s most surprising characters, from ex-criminals to former music moguls…”

scrappers bbc 2014 16

scrappers bbc 2014 16

Scrappers, BBC, 2014-16

A fly-on-the-wall docu-soap at Metro Salvage scrap yard in Bolton. It featured the “straight-talking scrap yard owner Terry Walker and glamorous wife Lyndsay”. The company changed its name to Scrappers following the attention.


Hugh’s War on Waste, BBC, 2015-16

Celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall introduced a number of programmes as part of his mission to “find out why we waste so much”. In addition to highlighting the 2.5 billion coffee cups thrown away in the UK each year, he took a group of recycling sceptics to a high-tech Manchester MRF in an attempt to change their minds.

“If the whole of Manchester could be persuaded to put stuff in the right bin, it could save £25m a year,” said Hugh.

wastemen bbc 2015

wastemen bbc 2015

Wastemen, BBC, 2015

A documentary series following waste management in Newcastle. As well as showing the council bin crews, it also featured hand-sorting carried out at an O’Brien Waste Recycling Solutions’ MRF and refuse-derived fuel being shipped abroad. After it was shown, some Newcastle City Council employees were recognised when out on their collection rounds.

undercover boss channel 4 2013

undercover boss channel 4 2013

Undercover Boss, Channel 4, 2013

The programme followed Biffa chief executive Ian Wakelin as he worked incognito as a collection driver, MRF picker and other jobs.

After the programme aired, Wakelin told MRW: “It is quite daunting because you give complete editorial control to the programme, so you don’t know where you are going to go from one day to the next or what you are going to see.”

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