Navigating the future of waste: In Conversation with EMERGE Recycling

We catch up with Lucy Danger, chief executive of pioneering social enterprise EMERGE Recycling, about how the business is adapting to COVID-19 and the pandemic’s impact on waste.

Founded in 1996, EMERGE Recycling is an award-winning social enterprise that provides a wide range of commercial recycling services from its base in Openshaw. The enterprise has a sister charity, EMERGE 3Rs, which runs a reclaimed timber enterprise, Touch Wood, and the Greater Manchester branch of FareShare, in partnership with the national food waste charity FareShare.

EMERGE Recycling has been working with green technologies and services advisor, Vicky Wilding, to adapt its business plan for the future in the face of COVID-19.

How do you differ from the average waste management provider?

EMERGE Recycling was set up to promote the concept and practice of the real ‘3 Rs’ – reduce, reuse, recycle. Our commercial focus has tended to be on recycling, initially through household collections but then moving into collections from businesses and offices. I think it’s fair to say we’ve been one of the pioneers in providing source-segregated recycling services in Manchester for a number of materials – paper, card, toner cartridges, metals, and more recently wood and IT equipment.

One of the things that makes us different is that, as a social enterprise, our activities are not just defined by what’s most profitable. Some of the waste streams we deal with earn very little profit, but we do what we do because our ethos is ultimately all about contributing to saving the planet and saving resources.

How has COVID-19 affected you?

Most of our business by revenue is in paper and confidential shredding – this makes up around 60 per cent of our business in normal times. As soon as we entered lockdown, paper collections collapsed overnight as offices closed. Between April and June we collected 18 tonnes of confidential paper waste for shredding, compared to 86 tonnes during the same period last year.

This understandably put us in a really tough situation. We had to pretty much furlough our entire staff, save for a skeleton crew to service the few customers that were still in operation. Roughly we’re looking at a drop of a third in forecasted turnover this year.

I can’t say enough in thanks and admiration for our team, many of whom have responded amazingly by supporting us wherever they can and showing real commitment and leadership when we needed it most. We try to empower our teams and make sure they have a real say in making this enterprise a success – this ethos continues to be more crucial than ever before. 

What are you doing to respond to these impacts?

From a business management, financial and safety point of view, we had to become very inward-looking for a short time to work out how to move forward as a business.

The question is how we build that expected loss in turnover back, and I don’t think it’s realistic to think that’s going to be entirely possible through our existing customers and services. Some waste streams are starting to return – such as wood as the construction industry begins to get back on its feet – but it’s very possible that commercial paper may never fully recover. Will we go back to office working at the same scale as before? I’m not so sure. And in terms of waste reduction, obviously less paper is a very good thing!

We’re looking at a number of possible avenues for new services, which is something our advisor Vicky has been helping us with, through market research and future trends we should be aware of. Luckily, we’ve secured a Bounce Back loan through our bank and we’ve also managed to secure other monies to invest in efficiencies and become as lean and green as we possibly can – another area where the Business Growth Hub have been providing advice and support.

Are there any waste streams you plan to focus on?

One of several areas we’re exploring is expanding our waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) services. WEEE is the world’s fastest growing waste stream and a real time-bomb in terms of scarce materials just being thrown away.

In the UK, around 300,000 tonnes of reusable or recyclable e-waste is thrown away in domestic and commercial rubbish every year and lost to landfill or incineration. We’re in a particularly tricky situation with COVID-19 as well. With more people working from home and household recycling centres being closed during lockdown, more electricals will have been thrown away in domestic rubbish than usual.

We already collect and recycle IT equipment from commercial customers and provide a fully accredited data destruction service, but we’re beginning to branch out further. We recently teamed up with not-for-profit Material Focus for the Recycle Your Electricals campaign, which aims to make it easier for everyone to reuse and recycle their unwanted waste electricals.

How can businesses get involved in the Recycle Your Electricals campaign?

We’re helping organisations to set up on-site ‘amnesty collection hubs’ so staff can bring in their small unwanted electricals from home. We’ll take everything from electric toothbrushes and kettles to smartphones and make sure it ends up in the right place for reuse and recycling.

The key message for businesses is to help your staff do the right thing and help us to tackle this growing waste mountain. We’re looking to build new relationships and connections with organisations across Greater Manchester – anybody who’s interested can get in touch with us via our website.

What else is on your radar over the coming months?

We’re continuing to plan for the future and understand what supply and demand looks like. It’s still really hard to work out what’s on the horizon, how long this crisis will continue and what the recovery will look like.

We’re in the process of moving into a much larger building that requires a lot of refurbishment, which we’re currently fundraising for. The building will house our sister charity EMERGE 3Rs and its FareShare Greater Manchester operation as well as our recycling operation, allowing us to take a lot more material and improve efficiency.

We’re exploring ways to ensure the building is as green as possible; installing solar on the roof and a heat recovery system from the refrigeration, which the Business Growth Hub’s resource efficiency team is helping us with.

As a Society for the Benefit of the Community – otherwise known as a ‘Bencom’ – we’re planning a formal community share offer in the not-too-distant future, so others can become shareholders and invest in our business. Watch this space and please contact us to find out more.

 

Posted under General Interest, Waste Management and Waste and Recycling on 23 September 2020