An elephant (of waste) in the room

Today, I had a pleasure to visit a waste pre-sorting facility in West London, The First Mile Sacktory ( I am not sure if many people can put “pleasure” and “waste” in the same sentence but here we go. This might not be an industry that has an attractive brand just yet, but I am really interested in exploring it, as it is such an important part of our lives, economy, health and society, albeit not well known or discussed. I even dragged my husband along so that we can share the bonding experience of wearing a high visibility neon jacket at a waste facility together. It is not Valentine’s Day anymore, but I do recommend it!

So, what did we see and learn?

The First Mile Sacktory

The visit was brilliantly organised, starting off with a presentation and some overview of the business, industry and how the facilities work, where waste is sorted and cleaned. The First Mile do not send anything to Landfill – what can’t be recycled goes to incineration, although many other recycling facilities still do.

Fun facts (test your own knowledge?)

Government stats tell us that “around 7m tonnes of waste is produced each year from our homes, public buildings and businesses (in London)”. To give you some visualisation: an average African elephant weighs between 2.5 and 7 tons, so it is about a million elephants worth of waste for one city! There are less than half a million elephants in the world, so we do not even have enough elephants to visualise the amount of waste produced every year!

This is an African elephant, not to be confused with an Asian elephant

It takes education, analysis of actual activity vs plans (e.g. demonstrating what is actually being collected rather than what we think we are throwing away) and some level of efforts and desire to improve to improve the recycling rates. The Firm Mile claim to have success stories of bringing it up to 70-90%.

Did you know that…
  • Recycling rate in London is VERY LOW c. 40%. (London Environment Strategy suggests that it was 52% in 2016, so we are not getting much better!). That means that almost half of what we use and resources we consume go into the black hole of landfill/ incineration… Where is that money tree growing?
  • Zero waste does not exist. When we say zero waste what we actually mean is zero waste to landfill, i.e. making sure that the resources are used, reused and not wasted.
  • Waste to energy is a better way to deal with residual waste (than landfill) – if there is no option to recycle, incinerate it – DO NOT LANDFILL it.
  • Hunter wellies partner with The First mile, so you can recycle your wellies with them! They might not become a new pair of boots yet, but just yet.
  • Waste management costs are higher for general waste processing , and is more expensive to the customer. If you are a commercial entity, separating your waste streams can save you money.
  • Food waste composting is the easiest way to make the meaningful steps. Regulation is coming in the UK to support every household and office to have separate food waste collection. Food waste makes waste heavier (more emissions when transported), it contaminates waste, preventing significant amount of recycling (where general waste is sorted). Let’s not even mention the level of methane emissions food produces when it is in the landfill (and methane is about 34-86 times more potent than CO2 in creating greenhouse effect).
  • Waste export to other countries is needed because they may have the infrastructure to manufacture certain products, that the UK does not, and hence require the raw materials at scale. For example, with the increase in online shopping and deliveries, UK imports a significant amount of cardboard and so the recycling cardboard gets exported to whichever country offers the right level of offtake. Same happens to plastic recycling. As the manufacturing capacity and infrastructure improve internally, we won’t need to export the waste.
Key challenges in waste management and recycling industry
  • Collection: waste management is a logistics-heavy business, and the degree of challenge may depend on the city and infrastructure. The fleet is a significant investment to make business a success. Some of the organisations offer recycling but not the collection (e.g. TerraCycle)
  • Contamination: mixed recycling may contain materials that cannot be recycled, or that belong to a different waste stream, so manual intervention is required. Further, rules for recycling vary between boroughs – this is simply because they may have different waste contractors who will have different processing capabilities. This adds to the confusion for the users, as plastic bag can go into a recycling bin in one borough but not in the other. This causes more issues for commercial properties, because people who work in the offices may be used to different rules that they have where they live; and will act on that, not on the guidance in the office.
  • Composite materials: mixed plastics, mix of paper and plastic or mix of different types of fibres in textile. Examples of these are well known: disposable coffee cups, glossy magazines, laminate marketing materials and TetraPaks. As I recently discussed with one of my clients, something as simple as a wrist band that you get given at an event is difficult to recycle – it has a mix of plastic and paper, so kilograms of these end up unrecycled having served a limited purpose.
  • Buyer for the waste stream: in theory everything is recyclable if there is the right technology to process it and a buyer who wants the material. So not many things are unrecyclable - they just haven’t yet got the right market.
  • Adequate volumes to make it financially viable: if the quantity is right and there is a buyer, there will be investment in infrastructure to process it. One of the key challenges is getting materials from the user to the facility. Think of plastic bottles - we know there are millions of them, but collecting every single one of them from individuals is a huge undertaking.
So, what can you do, you ask?

Waste recycling is a complicated issue if you live in a well-serviced city, let alone a remote area or a low/middle income country where infrastructure is lacking. So, the answer might depend on your location, role and position. We can do a lot though. Here are a few ideas:

As an individual or a business

  • Try to learn a little bit more about waste, materials and how you use them in your daily life or business operations. Understanding the impacts of our own actions and decisions can go a long way in changing the way things work.
  • Visit a facility to experience it first-hand. The First mile offers tours in cities where they operate, but so do some of the others – contact those who are in your area.
  • Find out what happens to your waste in your borough, what can and cannot be recycled. When waste management company says it can be recycled it sometimes might mean they will take it away from you in a “Recyclable” bin. You want to know where it will actually end up – ideally, not abroad on someone’s land or ocean, but used for production of something of value.
  • Use this knowledge to make decisions about what you buy and how you dispose of it. Perhaps, look for products that have less packaging, forego single use in favour of reusable options; or favour materials that are not composite.

For your business operations

Review your purchasing decisions to reduce the amount of waste you produce, implement recycling solutions and offer awareness and education help to your employees to help them understand the challenges, impact of their actions and how they can change it. Procurement has the power to make impactful changes using tools and processes you already have.

If you are a manufacturer, designer or producer

Consider whether the design of your products accounts for how it will be disposed of. Do you design for longevity, circularity and ease of disassembly? Could you avoid using virgin materials and utilise any of the waste streams that exist to support or create a market for hard-to-recycle materials?

Review your materials sourcing and procurement procedures to include recycled materials content and circularity considerations in specifications and evaluation criteria.

If an elephant can put his food waste in the right bin, so can we!

Huge thanks for The First Mile team for hosting an excellent tour!

If you would like to suggest some other facilities to visit, run a business that is looking for specific waste streams as raw materials inputs or would like to discuss how your organisation might be able to start taking steps towards reducing the materials and environmental impact, please get in touch -

More Articles

Let’s Talk

If you’re not sure what you’re looking for, get in touch and we’ll help shape the right solution.

Get The Spark in your mailbox

An actionable toolkit for busy change makers to help you avoid pitfalls in sustainability transition. 5-10 minutes read. Delivered monthly.

See our previous newsletters