Beginning with the Aire and Calder project in the early 1990s, several demonstration schemes have shown how firms can improve profit margins by auditing the flow of materials through their operations and taking steps to minimise waste. But most of the success stories have involved larger companies. Spreading the culture into SMEs remains a considerable challenge (ENDS Report 250, pp 21-23 ).
Half of the £1 million savings identified in the Clyde waste minimisation project could be implemented at zero or low cost. Measures implemented after the first year brought savings of £372,000, and the results far surpassed the original target of £180,000 in savings.
Assuming a 5% profit margin - typical for manufacturing businesses - each £1,000 saving is equivalent to an increase in sales of £20,000, argues the project's coordinator, Professor Roger Willey of the University of Paisley's Centre for Environmental and Waste Management. A business seeking to increase sales volumes would incur significant capital and operating costs, whereas waste minimisation measures are often low cost.
The participants were manufacturing businesses with 11-180 employees from sectors including chemicals, food, packaging and tanning. Of 187 opportunities to save costs identified in the project, 52% involved improvements in basic housekeeping - avoiding spillages, preventing material contamination, and switching off water or energy sources when not required.
One of the companies, a nail manufacturer, found that it was scrapping 66 tonnes of nails each year due to overfilling of skips and careless handling. A chemicals producer was losing valuable product through spillages from old and poorly maintained equipment. And a canned food producer found that it was wasting significant tonnages through spillage in the canning process.
A novel feature of the project was the involvement of three large firms - ICI, SmithKline Beecham and Ciba Geigy - as "mentors". All had undertaken their own waste minimisation programmes and were keen to share their experiences. Consultants RPS Cairns and Carl Bro Kirkpatrick were also involved in the £200,000 project, which was funded by the Scottish Office.
Recruiting SMEs initially proved "extremely difficult", according to Professor Willey. "There was no evidence that waste minimisation would work in SMEs. What this project shows is that it doesn't matter what size the company is."
Professor Willey argues there is little need for further demonstration schemes since the benefits of waste minimisation are now well documented. He is instead working with companies directly, with funding through local enterprise bodies and the Scottish Office's Better Business scheme. He says a waste minimisation audit in an SME can cost as little as £6,000.
Professor Willey will shortly launch a waste minimisation project in Armagh, offering advice to 25 SMEs - including a fish and chip shop - with funding from the Northern Ireland Office and the city council.