Change agents at work: Turning trash into treasure

10th May 2012

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Andrew Maguire, health, safety and environment manager at Kepak Convenience Foods, reveals how he cut waste to landfill and created a £250k revenue stream

Realising our waste isn’t actually waste, but another firm’s raw material, has been the real key to the successes I’ve had in helping my company, Kepak Convenience Foods, redirect hundreds of tonnes of waste from landfill each year.

While you may not recognise the name Kepak, you will have definitely seen the convenience foods we make in your local supermarket. Each week the Lancashire plant where I work produces the equivalent of two million burgers, wraps and panini, under the brand names of Rustlers, Zugo’s and Big Als.

As the company’s health, safety and environment manager, I’ve got a few hats to wear. Alongside managing the site’s compliance to our pollution prevention and control permit and our integrated food safety, health and environment management system, I’m also at the forefront of our sustainability efforts.

Waste not, want not

For the past four years, much of my focus has been on how we reduce the amount of waste we send to landfill. As a rapidly expanding company, keen to lessen our environmental impacts, and with the costs of landfilling increasing to £80,000 a year, improving our recycling rates and avoiding waste creation has become a priority.

One of the first areas to consider was, of course, food waste. While meat products can’t go to landfill, we were still sending a significant tonnage of other foods, such as bread and cheese. Now, all this waste is composted, creating financial savings and a better environmental outcome.

Another food waste that has become lucrative for us is the fat left over from cooking burgers and a fatty sludge recovered in our on-site water treatment plant. These fats are now made into biodiesel, and that is liquid gold, contributing significantly to the £250,000 a year we now make from diverted waste streams.

While we have been fortunate that revenues for some waste have gone up significantly in recent years, in other areas we’ve had to push hard to find new ways of dealing with waste. We already recycled cardboard and some plastic, but a lot was still going to landfill. The main challenge has been finding the technology needed to deal with mixed plastic; however, things are improving and what wasn’t financially or technically viable a few years ago is now becoming available.

Networking through organisations such as the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme and working with organisations like Envirowise (now part of Wrap), has been really important in helping us keep a close eye on technological developments and in finding companies that could take our waste.

The journey

It’s been a long journey, which is still not over, but working with waste contractors and our suppliers has helped us to improve disposal rates considerably. Our successes include finding a firm to take the laminate plastic waste from packing trimmings, which has taken 10 tonnes a month out of landfill.

We’ve also switched from single-use cardboard packaging for meat products during the production process to a multi-use alternative, a suggestion that came from the shop floor. After trials to ensure the new packaging wasn’t going to fall apart after we used it twice we made the switch, reducing waste and, despite the packaging being more expensive, creating a £100,000 cost saving.

Getting our staff onside has been crucial in enabling us to turn waste from a cost into a saving. As well as being a source of ideas, our operators are the linchpin in ensuring our waste is of good enough quality to become a revenue stream. Just as we would reject materials from a supplier if they weren’t right, our waste contractors will not pay for contaminated recyclate.

Much of the plastic we recycle comes from the bags our bread buns come in. In the early days, we had issues with the contamination of sesame seeds, where workers weren’t shaking out the bags properly.

The key to overcoming such problems has been in engaging all 400 of our staff with the idea that waste isn’t rubbish, it’s a by-product. It’s taken a couple years to embed this in the culture, but now every new employee, on their first day, is given a lot of environmental information, including the importance of avoiding contamination of waste.

Our next step is to become zero-waste to landfill – something we aim to do by the end of 2012 – by sending our remaining waste to an energy-from-waste plant. However, we still have a lot of plastic waste that we would rather recycle because that’s the better option for the environment. So, we will continue to look for new developments and new partners.

Waste management is a constantly moving field and the technology out there now is completely different from what was available a decade ago. In another five years, who knows what we will be able to recycle?

Andrew Maguire is the health, safety and environment manager at Kepak Convenience Foods


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