UK: BIM SOUNDING BOARD - Environment - a business issue.

UK: BIM SOUNDING BOARD - Environment - a business issue. - Companies that have not yet woken up to the importance of environmental issues to their well-being could suffer financially.

by Roger Hewitt.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Companies that have not yet woken up to the importance of environmental issues to their well-being could suffer financially.

How much more are we prepared to pay for waste disposal? The question is asked because whichever way we look at it, corporately or personally, we are going to have to pay more - probably, a lot more.

Years ago the question would not have been asked. Our domestic waste - and much of our commercial waste - was taken away by the local authority and disposed of, we assumed, appropriately. Our only thought was whether the service was reasonable compared to the rates bill we paid. Often our perception was that it was not.

But times have changed. Waste disposal is firmly on the public agenda, due to legislative changes driven chiefly by the pursuit of higher environmental standards. Shanks and McEwan are understandably in the vanguard of these changes. But industry generally is beginning to feel the effects and, unless these are taken into account, they will hit company balance sheets.

Waste disposal in the UK has been done on the cheap for years. In some areas, it still is. Shanks and McEwan is one of the most technically advanced waste disposal operators. The company's strategic aim is to provide a well rounded service, using highest technologically safe practice - whether it means landfilling household refuse, treating difficult industrial wastes or destroying hazardous chemical wastes by high temperature incineration.

But investment in such technology is costly, and the aim - and rightly so - is that "best available technology" should be applied to all waste disposal routes. The rider, "not entailing excessive cost", in most cases is frankly irrelevant; the aim is to ensure basic standards of safety for both people and the environment. Already, new landfills are scientifically engineered to very high standards and incineration plants face tough new emission criteria.

Current European and UK policy on waste management is simple but it is not yet widely understood that it cannot be regarded as a panacea for all waste management problems.

There are several options for the treatment or disposal of waste: waste minimisation and reduction - in other words, not creating it in the first place; recovery of materials from waste streams for recycling and re-use; incineration, preferably with energy generation potential; landfill, again with the potential for electricity generation from the burning of methane gas.

It is of concern, however, that there are those who approach these matters too simplistically. For instance, recycling is not an end in itself. There must be viable and economic markets for recovered materials - and this is not always the case. Incineration is effective but it is costly to develop and does not enjoy universal public support. It also leaves a residue which must be landfilled - and landfilling, too, remains misunderstood. Notwithstanding the success of recycling and other options, there will always remain a very substantial quantity of waste which will need to be safely and economically disposed of. Modern landfill meets this need.

It is clear, nonetheless, that waste management will continue to become more expensive as the move towards meeting the requirements of this hierarchy takes effect.

How well placed is business and industry to meet the challenges ahead and where will future pinch points lie? Sadly, many managers have not yet woken up to the severe public, political and commercial pressures which are facing them.

The "environment", whether we like it or not, is now a business issue - to be addressed as seriously as we might address health and safety, training, or other issues that are fundamental to the well-being of companies. The environment is not a passing fancy, a faddish expression of political potency. It is firmly established on the corporate agenda.

Legislation - the duty of care - has already ensured that business managers, whether they work for a multinational or a corner shop, have well defined responsibilities for the waste they produce and dispose of. New legislation will undoubtedly maintain the pressure in these areas.

A draft packaging directive from Europe is under consideration (see Perspective: Europe, page 36). It proposes severe new ground rules for the packaging of products, and how that packaging should be recovered. They will affect not only the producer, but the wholesaler, retailer and the consumer. Further directives from the EC will also underline the importance of environmental issues, as will the development of regulation under the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

We have seen the impact of the BS5750, and the extent to which business and industry has benefited from its introduction. A new standard, 7750, is now proposed for environmental management systems which will be applicable to all types and sizes of organisations. Those companies that do not embrace the standard at an early stage will eventually find pressure exerted upon them through customers, competitors and shareholders to do so.

What must also be accepted is that waste disposal has been historically an undervalued service and that this will change. Industry will have to pay much more for high technology-based waste disposal that is well managed and controlled from the risk and liability aspects.

The environment, whether it is represented through waste disposal, or through other issues, is not something today's managers can ignore. It must be faced up to, and those companies that do so early, and positively, will stand to gain enormously.

Those that do not, will be left to pick up an ever-increasing bill.

Roger Hewitt is chief executive of Shanks and McEwan and a BIM companion.

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