If you want to picture in your mind’s eye how much waste the UK generates in a year, take a look at the Great Pyramid of Giza outside Cairo. 

For nearly 4000 years this was the tallest building in the world. Piled together in a single heap, the rubbish we throw away annually – about 40 million tons – would be about seven times its size. 

That is a truly jaw-dropping amount of refuse to burn, recycle or send to landfill. With climate change at the front of the environmental agenda, dealing with this problem is becoming an ever greater imperative for us all. However, one of the leading figures in the British waste industry believes Scotland is helping to lead the way in finding solutions.

Michael Topham is Chief Executive of Biffa, the integrated waste management business that employs nearly 8000 people and has more than 2700 disposal vehicles across the country. 

He believes the UK was in the forefront when confronting the challenge but that it has somewhat plateaued when it comes to recycling, with rates having stalled at about 45% for the last decade or so. With the government at Westminster wanting to see the amount of recycled municipal waste rising to at least 65% by 2035, Topham believes radical action is needed.

“Scotland has been more proactive in this and England is catching up,” he says, pointing to the example of the Scottish Government planning deposit return machines to encourage people to recycle plastic bottles.

“It has also introduced an obligation for food waste to be separately collected from households and from business. 

“At Biffa, we are now advocating this approach across the UK and the Environment Secretary Michael Gove has included it as one of the main pillars in his own strategy.” Topham questions whether enforcement and compliance may be an issue with this policy and adds that there needs to be a financial incentive to encourage good practice. 

“Nevertheless, it’s been the right thing to do and I also think it’s an area where having devolution is positive, as you get an opportunity to see what works and to copy one another.”

He also cites Scotland’s proposal to ban biodegradable waste from landfill, though he says there has been some concern that the construction of the required energy-to-waste infrastructure to support this may lag behind the policy, meaning the refuse still has to be exported to England. “It shows that when it comes to the big picture, everything has to be joined up.”

Another area where Scotland is leading the way is with its planned deposit return scheme, which will collect 1.5 billion bottles and cans for recycling every year. 

Consumers will pay a 20p deposit when they buy these, getting the money back when they are returned. This will reduce carbon emissions by about 160,000 tonnes per year.

“I think the intent and vision of the Scottish Government is laudable, though it would make sense to put the return machines in areas of high footfall such as shopping centres where a lot of people consume drinks on the go,” he notes. Topham is something of an evangelist for positive change and for looking at inventive ways of stimulating re-use of materials, saying better organisation of this is of fundamental importance to society.  “We need a system that is environmentally ambitious, easy to use and cost effective.”

He’s also an advocate of a proposed plastic tax on products that use less than 30% of recycled material in their production, announced in last year’s UK budget.

“We’re not talking about this coming in yet – it won’t happen until after about 2023 – but just the very prospect of it is starting to change behaviours. Manufacturers don’t want to have to pay a penny of that tax when it comes, so they want to be ready.”

Biffa is making other recommendations to improve recycling, including clarity on labelling, perhaps in the form of a simple-to-understand traffic light system similar to that used for food nutrition that include simplifying sorting methods and collection frequency for households; not being over-prescriptive for business and recognising there is no one-size-fits-all solution; and keeping food waste separate, using it for recycling and regeneration of energy.

In another move, the company is looking at its own existing fleet of diesel powered vehicles and exploring the potential for using electrically powered ones instead. It is currently conducting a commercial trial of these in Manchester – the first waste company to do so.

“I’d like to bring on the day when these can be used – it would be fabulous, not only for climate change, but also for local pollution, Sadly, we’re just not there yet with the technology,” says Topham.“At the moment, it’s really only feasible for urban, city centre locations where you’re travelling quite short distances. But the feedback we’ve had from our Manchester project has been great and we would like the manufacturers to make more for us.

“The big operators must not be laggards – we have to force the agenda and make things happen. But at the same time, we must remember that our customers, whether they’re local authorities or businesses, still want value for money. It’s got to work financially as well as environmentally.”