Could the Biffa Green Waste Club model be the future for cash-strapped local authorities?

Written by: Blair Drummond | Published:
Biffa's Green Waste Club has been running for 15 years

Can you remember where you were on Saturday 19 March 2005?

Roger Edwards can. On that misty morning in Littlehampton, the then business development director of minnow municipal contractor Verdant was watching a bin crew collect and empty hundreds of wheelie bins full of garden waste.

That low-key birth of the Green Waste Club (GWC) has now grown into a service operated by Biffa in seven locations across England, and with more likely to sprout over the coming years.

Biffa’s newest club was launched in Herefordshire in July, and is its most ambitious service expansion to date. Previously, the residents of five towns in the county had to buy green waste sacks from the council, which then disposed of their garden waste along with residual waste. Now they have the GWC service option, delivered by a crew and RCV based at Biffa’s neighbouring Forest of Dean contract.

Across the years, the Green Waste Club model has stayed the same, and the Herefordshire GWC service mirrors that which was rolled out for Arun District Council 12 years ago.

Now as then, it’s based on using wheelie bins, and in return for a modest subscription (usually the equivalent of a coffee and a muffin a month), GWC members get their own 240-litre wheeled bin for collecting garden waste such as lawn and hedge clippings, leaf fall, prunings, dead plants and small branches. Bins are emptied at the kerbside every fortnight by a dedicated Biffa crew, and the green waste is then processed into compost or soil conditioner.

A variety of convenient payment options are available for members, with discounts for longer-period memberships, and neighbours with small gardens can club together to share the cost of a bin.

Planting the seed

The GWC concept was originally developed by Verdant when it successfully competed for Arun’s waste collection and street and beach cleansing contract in 2004. The council’s tender also called for running a green waste collection service while saving money.

Edwards, now managing director of Biffa’s municipal division with over 35 local authority clients and turning over £200m annually, says Verdant’s proposal “pressed all the right buttons”.

“We offered not just maintenance, but expansion of green waste collections in the Arun district,” he recalls. “Our willingness to take all the financial risk of setting up and running a new, outsourced service was attractive to the council, but what helped clinch the deal was our guarantee that collected green waste would be sent for recycling, rather than being disposed of as residual waste.”

That can push up local recycling rates, sometimes by up to five per cent, as well as cutting many thousands of pounds from council waste disposal costs.

From a seed to a sapling

Any doubts as to whether Arun residents would pay for a contractor-operated service were quickly dispelled once marketing got the message across. “At one stage, we had to take the phone off the hook because we were getting so many calls to join up,” Edwards reminisces with a smile. More than 4,000 local residents signed up in the first few pre-launch weeks, which forced a quick, wholesale revision of the planned service.

Arun’s GWC service was originally envisaged as a weekend-only operation, using a RCV and crew ‘borrowed’ from Verdant’s normal week-day household collections service. Not for long, as Edwards states: “That plan went out the window by week two, and we quickly reformatted the GWC as a week-day service, using a dedicated collection vehicle and crew.”

As a result, Verdant didn’t make money from Arun’s GWC in the first year. Edwards explains: “We made a loss, but knew the concept was operationally and financially sound. I just had to remind everyone that we should have a 12-year, not a 12-month, view.”

Strong and spreading growth

Scroll forward a dozen years and there’s clear evidence his confidence was well-judged. The seven Green Waste Clubs now operating in Arun, Portsmouth, Surrey Heath, Tandridge, Melton, East Northants and Herefordshire have a combined membership exceeding 60,000.

Together, they’ve helped divert over 150,000 tonnes of green waste to recycling, an impressive record, and the income stream that flows to Biffa as its reward for taking on all the service risk is ‘healthy’.

As the Club has grown in reach, so its service offer has matured, not least in sales and marketing. Recently appointed GWC business manager Lee Mewett revamped marketing materials prior to the Herefordshire launch, and then launched a targeted campaign to inform and attract residents. Leaflets, local press advertising and advertorials all helped to effectively position the club, and now word of mouth is playing its part.

Mewett emphasises the importance of simplicity. “We live in a digital age, and people are pretty used to signing up online. Anyone wanting to join a club can do so easily via the Green Waste Club website, which also has lots of pricing and payment information. A few key strokes and it’s done.”

Once registered, members can easily access their account details to renew subscriptions, ask questions and so on, and there’s also a dedicated GWC call centre to support them.

As well as an online newsletter, members receive renewal and ‘recommend a friend’ incentives, competitions, discounts on garden equipment and, in some areas, access to the compost that is the end transformation of their green waste. The dedicated 26-tonne RCVs that service each club are also highly branded, with colourful livery that makes them very distinctive.

Planting the seeds for tomorrow

A GWC is usually established as part of a broader Biffa contract with a particular local authority – but not always. The standalone East Northants Club competes with the local council there, and similarly the Herefordshire GWC runs in parallel with a county council service. That didn’t stop hundreds of residents signing up to the new GWC within a few weeks, and Biffa says its call centre is handling ‘scores’ of membership enquiries each week.

So is this the way forward? Pointing to a LARAC prediction that by 2022, and as a result of funding cuts, all English authorities will be charging for garden waste collections (which are a not a statutory obligation).

Edwards asks: “Why should a council bear the cost and risk of operating and managing a garden waste scheme? We can do it for them. It’s our money, it’s our risk, and councils can maintain or increase their recycling rate and save on disposal costs at the same time. It’s a no-brainer, surely?”

He emphasises that Biffa would always prefer to work co-operatively with councils in the standalone GWC scenario, but is clear that “if the council wants to go its own way and compete, may the best man win”.

Nearly 13 years after watching the first GWC bin lorry trundle around Arun, Edwards knows Biffa has a convincing track record and sales pitch: “We have the reach, the experience, the infrastructure, the processing relationships and the funding to deliver what councils and residents need.”

Growing big oaks means planting small acorns, and Biffa’s plans for helping councils maintain garden waste could mean it will be sowing the seeds for more Green Waste Clubs.

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