The evolving role of the waste contractor

For those of us who’ve worked in or with the waste industry for a while, it certainly feels like times are changing. A public obsession with single use plastics, rallying cries for better food waste segregation and management, and the emergence of the new agenda in town: the circular economy.
Thomas Max Müller,

So what does this mean for the often maligned waste management contractor? How does its role need to adapt and evolve to respond to the progressively more outspoken ethical consumers?

At Ditto Sustainability, we work with commercial and industrial waste producers across the public and private sector, as well as waste contractors and consultants. For the waste industry to be successful, it must evolve with the times and respond to the drivers the waste producers are prioritising.

A shift in waste hierarchy prioritisation
Even though the waste hierarchy is a simple concept, organisations have historically struggled to truly adopt its recommended approach and ethos. Most activity has occurred in the middle or bottom of the hierarchy, for example from recycling and recovery to disposal. Waste producers defined success by having a high recycling rate. Prioritising prevention and reuse was too challenging as it involved too much stakeholder consultation or having to liaise with procurement departments with a dictatorial position to supply chain management, often not in the interests of sustainability.

The myth of recycling being the ultimate success criteria has been further enhanced by lazy government policy and a very willing waste industry. In simple terms, why would a business model reliant on volume of waste be interested in supporting its clients to prevent the very commodity they desire? The emergence of co-mingled or mixed recycling schemes has made it even easier for organisations to fuel their addiction for higher recycling rates, but at what cost? This mixture of materials is often of such poor quality it is exported or ends up being incinerated or landfilled anyway. Because of the perversity of the system, the waste producer is still allowed to claim its been recycled with its head buried firmly in the sand, far away from the reality that the waste has never really been recycled. Ignorance is bliss. Until now.

Thanks to the emergence of the circular economy agenda and the rise of ethical consumerism, today businesses and individuals are asking more questions and realising that if waste can be prevented, that is much better from a sustainability perspective.

So, how can waste contractors align with these changing dynamics? I think it comes down to three core things:

  1. Learning and education
  2. Compliance, transparency and accountability
  3. Value and service over cost

1) Learning & education
Waste management is a technical discipline. Doing it effectively requires detailed technical, operational and regulatory skills. The challenge for these organisations in educating their people is often logistical, covering a variety of business functions, and with staff on the road spread over large geographical areas.

Many waste industry providers are realising the importance of education and employee engagement, including our client DS Smith. DS Smith is a leading British-based international packaging business, with 27,000+ employees in 37 countries across 250+ manufacturing sites. They deal with 3.7 million tonnes of corrugated packaging per year, and are committed to ensuring their people understand the core principles of the industry they work in.

We worked closely with their Recycling Division, providing a uniquely developed and comprehensive learning platform which helps employees understand why zero waste, the waste hierarchy and the circular economy are important to the company and its clients. This resulted in a much more time efficient, cost-effective and sustainable way to train staff, and resulted in a 30% increase in knowledge and understanding.

2) Compliance, transparency & accountability
We are entering an age of increased transparency and accountability. However, it can be very challenging for organisations that use multiple contractors, as the range of activities undertaken can be highly diverse, leading to complex procurement processes and multiple waste streams, creating challenges for data management and compliance.

An example of an organisation confronting this challenge is NHS Scotland, which employs 160,000 staff across 700 sites. It faced significant challenges in interpreting waste data from multiple contractors, making understanding performance against their strategic goals and targets challenging. It needed a waste management reporting system to comply with regulation and meet the requirements specified in the NHS Scotland Waste Management Action Plan.

Using Ditto Sustainability‘s software, NHS Scotland now has the ability to monitor and manage their waste and resource data across all 14 NHS Boards. Each Board has access to their own data whilst Health Facilities Scotland has a holistic view of all the national data. The software allows waste contractors to fulfil their requirements (as specified in the National Non-Healthcare Waste Contract) to upload consistent data per collection point in a timely fashion.

A key feature that NHS Scotland requested was allowing NHS staff to input, update and amend waste data. The dashboards, which monitor historic and current performance at a site and NHS Board level against national targets, finally give NHS Scotland a real-time view with up-to-date information against their Waste Management Action Plan.

3) Value & service over cost
Selecting a waste contractor used to be about who could do the job for the least amount of money. However, the procurement agenda is moving on and to be a winning bid, the contractor must demonstrate it can work with the organisation to meet its strategy and targets, rather than push its own agenda. Some of the simpler things like effective, high-quality account management and customer success are simple concepts, but are too often rare to evidence. The customer wants to see proactivity, not reactivity.

Demonstrating value links into all the items discussed in this piece, from enabling a knowledgeable and engaged workforce, through to being transparent and accountable. This is only going to get more intense, especially as we see the rise of AI to measure and monitor performance.


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