Welcome to this monthly column within our broader sustainability section which focuses on what retail is doing to address the issues in its industry.
Right now First Mile founder Bruce Bratley is fairly pessimistic about the brave new world of compostables such as the beakers that many retailers now champion as an eco-alternative to the single-use plastic coffee cup. “Probably the worst thing the world can do is to try and develop materials that mimic plastic usage. In the future there is absolutely a role for them but only when everything is compostable. Right now it represents only a tiny fraction” Bratley explains.
The UK is very geared up to plastic recycling and not at all geared up to compostables so most will end up in household compost heaps/landfill where they will simply remain inert as there is insufficient heat to break them down or worse bleed into other waste streams where they are a contaminant while anaerobic digestion plants (where our food waste is sent) are not keen to take them either.
In essence, we are back to waste containment – in the UK right now retailers are probably better off trying to use and recycle plastic than they are promoting new compostables, which require more heat and energy to compost than is needed to recycle the plastic variations.
And at the base of the well-documented issue of China’s recent decision to refuse to take any more contaminated and difficult to recycle waste from the rest of the world was the fact that retailers and manufacturers and business generally wanted cheap compliance. This led to an out of sight, out of mind attitude, whereas according to Bratley a more strategic view was needed, for example focusing on refillables rather than plastic containers.
It’s all fiendishly complicated which is why Bratley decided in 2004 to offer such a comprehensive service to retailers. “We don’t choose what we get, we are the end of pipe solution and whatever is in the bin we will deal with.” The company now has 200-plus staff based in the head office in Highbury and in the award-winning sorting plant in Park Royal ‘the Sacktory’.
It offers special services especially for composables, flexible plastics and even a coat hanger service for fashion retailers alongside the more traditional mixed recycling that most of us are used to. But nothing ends up in landfill as even the few things that cannot be recycled will be incinerated for green electricity.
Ironically, despite the heightened awareness of environmental issues, because of a collapse in commodity prices it has never been cheaper to make virgin plastic and recycled plastic prices cannot compete. “It used to work out much cheaper to use recycled plastics but now it is almost at parity” Bratley claims, noting that a carbon tax could go some way to alleviating the imbalance.
The company will also look at any special requests from retailers and corporates. For example bars and restaurants use around 500,000 plastic KeyKegs every year. First Mile now operates a system whereby these can be collected and recycled either into new kegs or other products while a collaboration with wellie makers Hunter gets consumers to post back their old wellies via a cost-free postal service sponsored by Hunters and provided by First Mile’s Recycle Box who send the wellies onto a processing partner where they are recycled into playground coverings and similar. Bratley also cites Fortnum & Mason as being an organisation that wants to “get the whole story right” instead of just selected parts of it.
Recycle Box is the first foray into dealing with consumers as well as businesses and consists of paying for a one-off box full of anything you want to recycle which First Mile then collect and process. Options include coffee cups, coffee pods, old stationery, coat hangers, small electricals and slightly weirdly – tennis balls and it speaks to the inadequacy of most council recycling that so many households got in touch with the company to ask them if they could help with domestic recycling too.
First Mile also runs popular waste minimisation workshops. “People say to me ‘Are you mad? You’re putting your own business out of business.’ But there will always be a need for re-use logistics. Retailers and businesses don’t want to deal with waste themselves, they don’t want to look in bins.”
That is an opportunity and to grasp it the company has developed smart bins, which weigh themselves to let everyone know when they require emptying. So customers will essentially buy a subscription that could just tell them that their recycling bin is still empty month after month. Looks like Bratley’s First Mile might have the last laugh after all.