During the past 30 years, the UK waste sector has evolved from an array of relatively inefficient public sector operations to a highly streamlined set of services delivered largely by private sector specialists on behalf of municipal authorities, residential and business customers.
Daniel Long 900
While it probably would not top too many public polls for dynamism, it is an industry that has moved with the times.
Great progress has been made on recycling following the introduction of the landfill tax in 1996. The amount of UK waste sent to landfill has fallen from 100 million tonnes in 1997 to 39 million tonnes by 2013. Having been successfully persuaded to filter their waste streams, householders and businesses are now, on the whole, part of the solution.
But an area that has not kept pace with wider innovation in the waste industry is the traditional working hours that most companies in our sector are wedded to. Collections still take place during daylight, when the roads are at their busiest, while relatively few waste transfer stations and recycling centres will accept waste outside of ‘traditional’ opening hours.
Most of the waste transfer stations Clearabee comes across are open for deliveries between 7am and 4pm Monday to Friday, and then for half a day on Saturday. This is a huge constraint on waste removal operators like ourselves.
We know there is business demand to operate 24/7; evening and weekend collections have proven popular with residential customers since we started offering them, and we are seeing increasing demand from business customers for waste collections to take place overnight.
Beyond simply responding to demand, there are plenty of logistical benefits for meeting these requests. But given that we cannot empty vehicles after 4pm across most of the country, we are forced to take our trucks off the road once they are full. In an era in which we are all being asked to do more with less, this does not make sense.
While we are not suggesting that individuals work longer hours, we believe that greater flexibility in the hours that waste transfer stations are able to open would provide substantial benefits to everyone.
As the volume of recycling continues to grow, the waste industry will experience increasing capacity challenges. There seems little logic in buying more trucks and investing in new MRFs if existing facilities are not being fully utilised.
There are obvious challenges associated with 24/7 opening hours, including the need to manage and mitigate a range of people, planning and safety issues. Clearabee has found that the people part is a relatively straightforward problem to fix: premium pay, greater autonomy and schedule advantages mean that many people actually prefer to work what others consider to be irregular hours.
As for planning, we have seen from other sectors, including retail, that significant changes can be made if there are big advantages to doing so. Consumers cried out for longer opening hours and the law was changed to allow Sunday trading. It is impossible to think of restricted shopping hours today.
Experiences in London provide a good indication of the progress that can be made by taking a more flexible approach to waste collection and disposal. The density of buildings in many parts of the capital is such that waste must be left on the streets for collection, and it is far better for this to be done when the streets are less busy.
Where rubbish removal and street cleansing takes place during the night, operatives can do their jobs faster, more efficiently and with far less disruption to other road users.
The success of 24/7 waste collection in London is only made possible because of the flexibility of its waste transfer stations. We are aware of about half a dozen recycling centres in London that operate on a 24/7 basis – hours that work better for customers and the public at large.
Daniel Long is managing director of Clearabee