The impact of small businesses on UK recycling - Biffa
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The impact of small businesses on UK recycling

16 Oct 2023
3 mins
Maxine Mayhew, Chief Operating Officer of Collections & Specialist Services at Biffa, answer’s frequently asked questions. 

Just under half of small businesses use a recycling service. If more were to recycle it could have a big impact. Here’s why and how that might be done.  

Are UK small and medium sized businesses recycling?

Yes – lots of small businesses in the UK recycle. Our research from 2022 showed that half of UK SMEs (47%) are using some type of commercial recycling service.

However, this is not as high as it could be, and not as much as householders. Last year’s Recycling Tracker Report by WRAP highlighted that recycling is an everyday behaviour with 89% of people in the UK doing so regularly.

Earlier this year, Biffa asked over 1000 businesses about their attitudes and behaviours to the circular economy and sustainability. When asked, 35% of small businesses (between 10-49 employees) said they do not measure sustainability. Only 26% said they use ‘increase in recycling volume’ as a metric, while 34% cited 'reduction in general waste' - the most popular sustainability measurement amongst SMEs.  

While a large number of smaller businesses are still not measuring sustainability, out of those that are, waste management is the most common way to measure sustainable progress. This shows that recycling and reducing waste are important to UK SMEs just as it is to UK citizens, however SMEs still need more support around recycling.


We asked business decision makers, "If at all, how does the business you work in measure sustainability?" 

Biffa survery 2023 with YouGov research institute
Biffa sustainability survey 2023 with YouGov research institute 

What are the barriers to sustainability for small businesses?

Cost is the biggest barrier to sustainability cited by small businesses, accounting for 34% of SME respondents to the survey. Other popular answers were ‘business has other priorities’ and ‘lack of time’. This is supported by our research in 2022 when SMEs cited cost as the main barrier to recycling, along with lack of space.

It is true that certain elements of sustainability involve upfront investment. Electrifying a fleet of vehicles or installing solar panels are expensive, at a time of high inflation and rising costs, these are not realistic for many small businesses.

However, sustainable waste management does offer some opportunities to increase efficiency, reduce waste and in certain cases, save money. Reducing the amount of general waste being disposed of in your business, working with suppliers to reduce packaging of products, auditing single use materials, and exploring the addition of recycling services to separate valuable materials, are options that most business can try.   


We asked business decision makers, "In your opinion, which, if any, of the following barriers prevent your business from being more sustainable?" 

Biffa sustainability survey 2023 with YouGov research institute
Biffa sustainability survey 2023 with YouGov research institute

What impact can SMEs have on recycling?

Small businesses can make a big and positive impact on UK recycling. Last financial year, out of all the industrial and commercial waste Biffa collected, 31% of came from SMEs and 34% came from corporate customers. What smaller businesses do collectively is essential to the sustainable future of the UK.

Biffa recycles 10 billion plastic items every year and in the last year we have increased capacity to recycle even more. This means more can be recycled in the UK, and less new materials need to be brought in which reduces carbon emissions.

We need businesses of all sizes to separate recycling and avoid contamination and wishcycling. This ensures we get quality materials which can then be transformed into new products. Recycling is a vital part of UK sustainability, any business can participate in the circular economy by starting to recycle or increasing their recycling activity.

If all  smaller businesses had a recycling service, SMEs would be the largest contributor to UK recycling. This Recycle Week we are calling for more small businesses to take that step and start recycling. Small steps lead to big change when we make them together.


Watch this video to find out how to separate recycling... 

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What can small businesses do to recycle more?

Getting started can be the hardest part. It’s a tough time to be operating a business, there are initial challenges such as: finding more space for bins, arranging a supplier, informing and involving colleagues, and ensuring some quality control of what goes into the bin. This can seem like a lot, but Biffa experts can help.

Once a business has a recycling service set up, it’s a case of recycling as much as possible. This involves everything from auditing single use items, to contacting suppliers to use recyclable alternative materials in packaging, all the way through the avoiding contamination and wishcycling.

Each sector and each business are different, so each needs a custom strategy in place. We do this for businesses of all shapes and sizes through our free waste audits, helping them waste less and recycle more.

Find out more about how Biffa can help your business...

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Services for small to medium enterprises

Whether you’re a start-up or have been in business for years, we can provide cost-effective small business waste management services that meet your specific needs.