We put our rubbish in the bin; one day a week we put the bin out on the pavement; we may on occasion take big items to the ‘tip’ (now known as the recycling unit). Some of us campaign against the over use of plastics; ban plastic straws; worry about the ocean…. But in the main we have a confused relationship with our waste. Heather Beach takes up the story…
We get very upset when our bin isn’t taken but we hate sitting behind the waste truck when it stops us getting to our destination in the morning; whilst mostly these days we see the benefit of recycling, we are not sure how much we like such a small bin and curse how confusing it is when you move from borough to borough and there are different rules. The tip? Well you can’t just throw anything in anywhere any more can you! Recycling centres are like mini villages.
The waste industry is the second biggest killer in health and safety terms after agriculture yet has a far lower profile in health and safety terms than construction. The UK’s waste management industry has a total annual turnover of £9 billion. There are 120,000 people employed in the sector across 3,000 companies. The diversity of the work involved is what surprised me – from office staff, to educators, to bin men, sweepers, to the MRF (Materials recycling facility) which is actually a manufacturing facility with a site manager, state of the art machinery and a varied mix of staff, many of whom do not speak English as a first language.
I was lucky enough to be invited by Paul Wright, Biffa Group Health and Safety Director to review its MRF at Edmonton and the collection facilities in Manchester. Paul has a long career in construction having worked for CLM Delivery Partner (London 2012 Olympic Park and Venues) followed by Costains and like many of the managers I met there, has found a fascination and passion for the industry and believes it should have a higher profile.
Biffa collected 4.124kTns of waste in 2017, 3.693 kTns of which it also processed. At the Edmonton processing plant (or MRF) I was given a guided tour by site manager Mick Andrews who is also ex-construction and his enthusiasm for the work they do was self-evident. The design of the facility is such that a lot of processes can be contained within a relatively small space – with waste being separated, first by pickers manually removing what does not belong (like textiles) and then Charlie and the Chocolate Factory style, disappearing down different conveyor belts and into machinery which includes the ability to separate plastic colours – so that white plastic can be sent to remake milk bottles. In the past the 18% of the recycling which was made up of glass was a cost to Biffa to recycle until they invested £3million into designing and building a machine which would separate the glass by colour so that it can be used again.
The key safety issues here are machinery related. Biffa has robust systems in place for plant switch off which happens immediately there is any type of hazard spotted and the whole plant takes the same breaks twice in a ten hour period in order for machinery to be switched off and cleaned. Pickers generally do not speak English as a first language so Biffa employs people proficient in Polish and increasingly Romanian. Picking is hard work, which demands a great deal of stoicism so turnover of staff is high – generally a first job on migration and then, once better English is spoken, the employee moves on.
It was at the MRF that I first encountered the issue with public education which makes recycling so complicated. Because of the diversity of collection and recycling methods used, as well as the demand for different materials, there is no national recycling strategy – it differs from local authority to local authority. So textiles for example may be collected in some and not in others – with textiles easily becoming contaminated with other materials such as glass. The lack of need for any plastic outside white is causing that material to be useless for recycling. In the past it went to China, but now the Chinese don’t want to take this waste any more, so it is being sent back to landfill or to be burnt. Which means almost all the supermarket packaging which makes up our weekly shop, which we diligently recycle ends up in landfill anyway. Your pizza or “chicken parm” boxes with cheesy tomato residue on them cannot be recycled, neither can bottle tops. Biffa tries to mitigate this by sending teams out with the local authorities to talk to schools or literally to knock on doors in certain areas where there are big issues, to explain to people what can and cannot be included in their recycling boxes.
‘On the bins’
Paul sent me to Manchester to “go out on the bins” specifically to witness a phenomenon of dealing with the number of alleys in certain quarters. In these alleys, in spite of the fact that large bins are provided at each end, residents find it easier to simply drop bags over the back wall where most burst, which results in some alleys literally completely hidden by litter.
On the day I went, there was very little of this to be seen. Some alleys were very overgrown (Biffa is also responsible for clearing this annually), and on returning, the operations manager explained that the lack of mess was because they were visited and cleaned no less than three times a week!
Biffa in Manchester is not only responsible for the bin collection, but also for street cleaning. This increases the diversity and hazards encountered. Starting with bin collection, the major risk to the public is reverse parking of these enormous vehicles. It is therefore a key part of all driver training that two operatives need to go out together and one operates as the reversing assistant at the rear in spite of the reversing beepers. Each driver receives a day’s induction and this is now done after it can be demonstrated that they can actually drive one of these great beasts. In the past a great deal of time was lost with people having done the training and then finding the vehicle too big to drive. With agency staff as well, there is a huge ongoing demand for training.
The second major risk is probably what is known at Biffa as D.R.O.P.S (Driving Recklessly on Pavements). This is a fantastic story of health and safety in positive action. The Health and Safety Professional who talked to the waste drivers, Steve Fargeon (more later) was hearing more and more about collection officers being clipped by cars who could not wait for the truck to pass and simply drove at speed on the pavement. It became expected, the norm, with around 2,500 people hit each year. Health and Safety worked together with the police and produced this video which has been shown on national television as well as garnering a great deal of commendation at the IOSH conference. Drivers really felt their concerns had been heard.
DROPS video created by the Health and Safety team for Biffa following a campaign by Biffa and the police
In spite of being trained to hold bags in a certain way, never just to pick certain material up in the street without equipment, sharps are a hazard with several of the collection officers I spoke to having been pricked. “You know the right way, but you get tired at the end of the day and you forget” said Anita (one of only two female collection officers in the area) “I was lucky, it was just a diabetic needle”. Biffa work with the police to clean up after homeless have been sleeping in the area. Manchester is known to have a particular issue with homelessness which the council has plans to address with extra housing, but currently there are 284 rough sleepers in the town. This has led to areas being gated off – such as the Pagoda in Chinatown – and leads to Biffa having to engage with police and the homeless themselves which can obviously lead to some abuse. Biffa staff are trained not to engage.
Street cleaners and refuse collectors also need to be aware that when people have had a drink they may try to play chicken with the road sweeper, or throw their mate inside the waste collection vehicle – which can very quickly be fatal. Quick reactions are needed.