Hitting the waste minimisation trail

In the early 1980s, when positive results were emerging from the first corporate waste minimisation programmes, the very concept that reducing wastes at source could bring a company financial rewards was still alien to the vast majority of businesses. Our efforts to publicise the pioneers' achievements resulted in some educational exchanges with a certain large British chemical company which can remain nameless, but which recently split itself in two. That company's engineers and chemists were purportedly so good at their jobs that no wastes worth reducing were ever created by their projects. Only when the regulators shifted the goalposts, so it was argued, was an economic incentive created to look for ways of cutting back on waste production.

That analysis was flawed at the time, and it is still flawed today, as that chemical company has discovered by embarking on its own waste minimisation programme. The evidence that such initiatives can serve the twin goals of environmental protection and business efficiency is now overwhelming, but it is still greeted with scepticism or, as a recent survey by the Institute of Directors of its members has shown (see p 6 ), disregarded altogether by a depressingly large proportion of British companies. Perhaps they will now be persuaded by the results of two waste minimisation projects under way with official sponsorship in the Yorkshire and Merseyside areas, and which are showing that extremely attractive financial returns can be obtained from many simple good housekeeping measures and changes in operational practices (pp 15-18 ).

The projects have provided other valuable lessons. It is clear that management scepticism about the rewards of waste minimisation is more likely to be overcome by support from officialdom than by consultants acting on their own initiative. It is also clear that waste minimisation will not work unless backed overtly by top management, and that it will be most effective with full participation from employees.

The challenge for businesses, regulators and the Government is how to build on the successes of the Yorkshire and Merseyside schemes and create a new mix of regulation and voluntary environmental improvement which enhances British industry's productivity. It is apparent that many, if not most, businesses stand to gain more financially from implementing waste minimisation programmes than they are losing through excessive regulation. But since the civil service has only a finite capacity for absorbing and acting on new thinking, that lesson is in danger of being lost amidst the current obsession with deregulation.

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