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Michael Topham

CEO, Biffa plc

A ‘Resourceful and Responsible’ strategy offers businesses a practical solution for their waste management in order to move towards a greener future.

Sustainable waste management is key to helping the UK to reach it’s targets on recycling and reducing CO2 and businesses need to lead the way.

“The waste industry offers huge opportunities for enabling sustainability, tackling climate change and job creation,” says Michael Topham, Chief Executive of Biffa, the leading UK integrated waste management company.

“For instance, we no longer need to bury, burn or export plastic waste – we are already turning plastic into products in three plants in the Northeast, creating UK jobs.”

The three ages of waste management

“The first age of the waste industry saw the introduction of collections in the second half of the 20th century,” he says. “Rubbish was taken away, buried, and forgotten. In the 1990s we realised that this was unsustainable.”

The second age saw the introduction of the ‘waste hierarchy’. This meant first trying to reduce waste, then recycling by reusing more of it, or recovering resources by generating energy from it. Only the remainder was buried in landfill, which was reduced by 80%-90%.

However, this ‘collect, sort and ship elsewhere’ model was based mainly on economics. Waste was shipped to countries such as China, the Netherlands and Malaysia. Now countries are rightly refusing it.

“We are now in the third age, where we must deal with our own waste in the UK. It’s a model based on sustainability – and it’s a huge opportunity, as we have seen with our plastic processing plants,” says Topham.

Building a circular economy in the community

Biffa was prepared for the third age, having released its sustainability strategy, called ‘Resourceful, Responsible’ in early 2020. The strategy focuses on building a circular economy, tackling climate change and caring for its 9,000 staff while supporting communities.

Topham says: “Big brands want to be seen using recycled goods and regulators, the Government and wider society want this.”

We must be involved, by investing in infrastructure, educating the population, providing data, offering advice to sustainability committees and offering corporates waste traceability.

The strategy commits to the following:

  • Unlocking £1.25 billion of green economy investment by expanding Biffa’s low-carbon collection business, quadrupling its plastic recycling and investing in low-carbon energy from waste. In February 2021, Biffa acquired Company Shop Group, the UK’s largest redistributor of surplus food and household products, as part of a plan to offer a circular economy proposition to the food manufacturing and FMCG sectors. It unlocks sustainable value from the 141,000 tonnes of surplus food and beverage produced in the UK annually.

  • On caring for its people and supporting communities, Biffa has committed to be a top quartile business for employee engagement while leading on safety and becoming a living wage employer.

This is aligned with the Government’s Resources and Waste Strategy for England, which includes a plastics tax, better recyclability labelling and more standardised, consistent collections, backed by minimum standards. Funding will be partly raised by brands paying towards the recycling of their products.

“We agree with all of this, but to achieve it the Government must listen to the waste management industry carefully,” says Topham.

Primed for a green recovery

During the first lockdown, demand from Biffa’s business customers plummeted by 50%. But while protecting around 1,800 of its staff by furloughing them, the business was able to keep serving businesses which remained open. “Our crews were key workers and celebrated as ‘high-viz heroes’,” says Topham. “Customers left thank you messages out with the bins. Our priority now is supporting UK businesses to get back to normal and to helping the sustainable growth of the UK economy.”

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