Sitting in the office at Suez’s Packington site near Birmingham, Stuart Hayward- Higham, the company’s technical development director, recalls how his school cross-country route used to take him past the site. Years later he found himself working there.
An engineer, he has worked in the waste sector across a variety of roles, many of them at Suez. He describes his current job as “eclectic, thankfully” with lots of learning. His role is “to help inform and analyse the market, to help the company make a lot of decisions”.
Hayward-Higham cites some recent work into the social factors that affect the ability of councils to recycle.
“Fundamentally, each local authority has a set of properties, or DNAs as we call them, that influence how they recycle, how well they can recycle and what they recycle,” he explains.
“Very simply, take Tower Hamlets and Bromley. Bromley has lots of homes with gardens, so it has green waste. Because it has green waste, its DNA is enhanced, compared with Tower Hamlets, by maybe 6 or 7% because it can collect green waste and recycle it.
“Whereas Tower Hamlets doesn’t have that many gardens, it does not have the opportunity, so it is impaired by 7%.
“Then you look at getting food waste out of dense buildings – it is quite difficult – whereas it is easier when you’ve got a shed or something to put it in, so again Bromley has an advantage.
“If you were to add food and green together, you would say that maybe Bromley has an advantage of 10+% against Tower Hamlets. So its DNA is more able to deliver a waste-based high recycling figure than Tower Hamlets because of things that are nothing to do with the people but to do with the borough and the mix of personalities.
“At the moment, from the work we’ve done, it is unlikely that Tower Hamlets and others with a similar DNA would ever achieve a 50% [recycling rate] at a reasonable cost.
“That’s quite obvious when you think about it because, like for like, if they don’t have gardens and they find food difficult, they are never going to compete with somebody who has easy access to that. So you need a different solution and we haven’t, as an industry, done that finessing yet,” he says.
Westminster Council had come to the same conclusion as Suez that its recycling target was constrained to 35%. For such councils, Hayward-Higham explains that the cost of over-achieving – when more money is spent collecting lighter materials – becomes quite difficult to pay for.
This means that if the Government wants to achieve an overall target of 50% recycling, a number of councils will have to over-achieve and recycle, say, 65% to compensate for those that are limited to realistically achieve only lower rates.
Hayward-Higham says it is impressive that the industry is now at a stage where it is able to do this type of work, understand it and determine services based on social and structural factors.
“When we adopted to live in a society where there is no more waste, if you take it from a bin point of view, it’s a bit of a suicide note,” he explains. “You are a waste company so, if nothing is in the bin, what’s your business?
“I was talking to a school that I’m going to be doing some lecturing for, and they were saying ‘we want a module on recycling’. I said, ‘to be honest, you don’t – you want a module that finishes in recycling because you need to help your pupils understand the consequence of their purchasing’.”
He did some work for the EU on the circular economy with the likes of Unilever and others, considering how to make eco-innovation and a circular economy mainstream: “You realise that you’ve lost half the battle once it’s in the bin. So, if you focus on recycling, you give up on the first half of the battle.
“If you take our DNA approach and apply it to commercial customers, let’s take an office, you have what you class as ‘institutional waste’, which is waste generated by the business: photocopying waste, tea bag waste and so on. Then you have waste that the employee brings to the facility and then disposes of in your bin.
“If you really want to attack the amount of waste and the improvement in recycling for a customer, you have to deal with not only what they can influence in their procurement and their operation, but also whether you can influence their staff.”
This is about influencing people to make the right choices. “A lot of the work we are now doing is around helping customers to minimise, and you have a different commercial arrangement with them. If you minimise, if you save a tonne, we can get paid from the saving they make rather than being paid to deal with the tonne.
“We’re also looking at what that tonne is made up of: some of it is what the procurement people do, some of it is what [the customer] does and some of it is what [its] employees do.”
Suez has done some interesting work in the commercial and industrial (C&I) sector in measuring such influences and is helping customers to learn from each other. Hayward-Higham believes that waste businesses have a role to play in the facilitation of learning from customers that can be shared or applied in a different way.
“We’ve done a lot of learning in moving away from being waste managers to being something that is – it’s a cliché – resource managers, or whatever you want to call it, but it means being a partner in managing waste resources for our customers.
“Our customers ask questions and you become a problem solver for them, which is great because waste, when I first joined, was a new science and we’ve got better at understanding it. Now we are at the next level, which is fascinating for an inquisitive mind.”
The DNA work on councils stemmed from managing various types of waste from the C&I side of the business, identifying the commonalities in waste produced by certain types of businesses and tuning services accordingly. Applying this to councils, Suez ended up with very rural, rural-suburban, urban and very urban classifications that can be mixed and matched.
Hayward-Higham says that using such an approach and applying some standisation to household recycling services could result in perhaps five or six types of system – which would then result in benefits such as common procurement, contracting and access to common facilities.
“It’s the logical move. But if you don’t understand some of the influences, you can’t then try to enforce something on a society that it is naturally not able to do very well,” he says. “That’s where you need to do that learning upfront, start to join it together, and then, ultimately, you’ll start to join local authorities and commercial companies together because they have common DNAs.”
He believes such work will becomes more important as the industry moves away from bulk moving of materials to one with more finesse, where you have to understand what is generated and why it is generated, and why different societies and different companies do things the way they do.
He is currently involved in two projects on recovering and recycling foil laminate pouches, a material stream that weighs very little. Linking the foil laminate pouch research to its DNA work, Hayward-Higham says it raises questions about whether there is a DNA for that type of material, such as the kind of household likely to have a cat and use pouches rather than tinned or dried cat food. That would affect the type of collection service.
“That’s what we have got to try and understand. When you start to chase materials that do not have value on a weight basis but do have value on a carbon or some other basis, you can’t apply the same methods of collection. You can’t apply the same methods of simple understanding that everybody in the locality is the same because they’re not.”
Hayward-Higham’s personal view is that there are perhaps 15 ways of getting materials back from the waste stream: “We should be more open to getting the materials back in, whatever way works for the people, and be more customer focused,” he says. This could be collections in schools, offices, bring banks, post back services, normal recycling bins, civic amenity sites, back-hauling by delivery companies such as Amazon, and so on. “
All of those should not be off the agenda – you have to stand back and be more solution-minded and challenge some of the conventions.”
He believes that, ultimately, the industry will need to provide more flexible, convenient solutions to get more material back and result in less money being spent on collecting materials.
The mantra of ‘living in a world where there is no more waste’ allows people like himself to challenge their own businesses as well as the wider industry. For example, does Suez expect to be collecting all this material itself and is it the right solution?
“We’re educators, we’re facilitators, we professionally have to add knowledge to our customers to allow them to succeed, and we have to help them realise that some of the things they do influence what we can achieve. If they buy non-recyclable cups, we can’t recycle them. Maybe if you bought cups that did not need to be recycled because they can be reused, that might be the best solution for you and so there’s nothing to recycle or put in the bin.”
When we meet, Hayward-Higham is working on the business’s blueprint for the next 15 years.
“If you look at us in 2005/6 and you look at the waste hierarchy, our revenue was the same shape as the waste hierarchy: we made most of our money from landfill. What we’ve done for the past 10 years, and will do for the next 10 or 15 years, is we will [go up the hierarchy and] convert that to a more even balance of making money from minimisation through to reuse and recycling, while disposal is continuing to decline.
“Packington was a big money earner for us 10 years ago. Today, as a landfill, it earns us no money. Obviously we make money from the gas plant, but fundamentally as an operation it doesn’t and we have to work with that transition.”
He adds that, long-term, customers want Suez to minimise waste for them: “There isn’t much future in just collecting the bins – we recognised that and are changing our business internally and changing our relationship with customers to try and achieve that.”
The journey will involve working with customers to provide it with materials that are recyclable and not cross-contaminated. This involves educating and coaching customers – not just in what to put in their bins but how they think about waste: “Ultimately, we will sell knowledge as much as we sell a service.
“If we’ve started on the road to circularity now, in 15 years’ time that should be a significant mainstream component of our business.”
This shift will reveal gaps in the business that will require employing people with different skill sets or retraining staff. But for the company to really deliver on the opportunity it has, he believes the shift to the top half of the waste hierarchy is key.
“That transition is going to be fun and it’s bringing together everything we’ve already been doing and making it mainstream.”
CV: Stuart Hayward-Higham
He is currently technical development director at Suez. This includes responsibility for research, innovation and non-bidding emerging development activities.
He was previously development director, technical director and head of business development. Before that, he was divisional manager for Sita Power, the landfill gas generation arm of Sita UK, and was previously group engineering manager for Sita UK.
Before that he worked with BFI Waste Systems, a North American-based international waste business, prior to its purchase by Sita UK; Week’s Technical Services (now part of Bureau Veritas) as an environmental scientist; Exploration Associates as a senior environment engineer; and MJ Carter Associates (now MCJA) as an environmental consultant.