A conversation with Philippa Roberts of binit the sustainable waste disposal company
by Aimee Rigby/21st-August-2020
So welcome to Zero Waste Kode, would you like to introduce yourself and your background?
Hello. So, I’m Philippa Roberts, I’m the co-founder and CEO of Binit, and we provide brilliant recycling and rubbish services for businesses. So, I’ve been working in waste for probably 20 years now actually,
I don’t know where the time goes to! And I started the business because I had an increased frustration with the way that the waste sector was working, it didn’t feel like it was innovating at the speed that our customers would want. And the world has changed a lot in the last 20 years. So, I started working in waste originally because I didn’t get into university first time around. So, I had an enforced gap year. And one of the things I did was go and work on a sea turtle project in Costa Rica. And it was one of those life changing events for me, because I think at that point, and this was the early 90s, I was thinking I was going to go and work in the city and be a stockbroker or something. And I suddenly learned about sea turtles. And at the time, they were under threat from poaching, but from plastic waste in the oceans. And it was the first time I’d really been made aware of that. So, when I came back to the UK, and I finally got into university, I decided that actually I wanted to do something about that plastic waste in the oceans. So, I ended up moving into waste to see if there was something that I could do to stop this terrible problem. And here we are 25 years later, and the problem has just magnified and gotten much worse. But I hope that I’ve been trying to do something about it along the way.
Yeah, definitely. So, how do Binit differ from other waste collection companies that are contributing to this issue?
Well, I think we came about because we were looking at solving some very specific problems. So, we were looking at how to stop waste getting into the oceans. And a lot of that gets through our existing wastewater systems. So, you know, it’s litter on the streets, that goes down the storm drains and ends up on the seas. So, when Binit first was created, it was actually an app for taking photos of litter, and we were geo-tagging them. And the idea was that if we could collect enough data and actually have proper geo tagging, you would find patterns and you’d be able to find the points in the system where the waste was getting in the oceans.
And like say a lot of it would be through existing wastewater systems, storm drains. And the plan was to map that with weather patterns and tide patterns and things when people are on beaches. But it’s a really hard thing to do, in that, you need a lot of citizen science, you need an awful lot of data. And it’s really hard to turn actually into a business and make sustainable. And so, while I was working on that, and I think I was probably the only person in the world using the app. And so, I interviewed somebody who was involved in street cleaning/ street cleansing in Exeter. And it turns out that a lot of the litter on the streets in Exeter comes from poor trade waste collections.
So, businesses put bags of rubbish or recycling out on the street. And we’ve interviewed over 500 businesses in Exeter now, and those bags get ripped open by students, seagulls and homeless people. And if you are in any sort of place where it’s windy, or it rains, or you have seagulls, these bags get broken open, and the waste and the recycling gets blown around the streets. And it’s a problem that the taxpayer picks up; the cost of fly tipping and littering is over a billion pounds a year here in the UK.
So, it’s a cost to the taxpayer. But also, this stuff just ends up in our ecosystems. And obviously a lot of it is plastic waste. So, we decided to look at that. So, Binit pivoted in the tech terms. And we started looking at commercial trade waste collections. And one of the fundamental things we do is, we bring together SMEs who don’t produce much rubbish or don’t have any space, and essentially give them communal bins that they can all use.
So, their waste is no longer going on the street. So, we’ve been developing some tech around that. So, we’ve got some hardware that we’re prototyping at the moment. And we decided when we were also looking at this, as we were talking to these businesses, we realised that there’s a real issue with multiple vehicles going to pick waste up from the same sites because of the way that contracts work. So again, we try and get co-located businesses to be using the same provider. The same wheels to pick up the material so that we reduce vehicle movements.
So, we work on an Uber model. We don’t run any vehicles ourselves; we sub out the collections but we own the bins, and that’s why we’re developing taking the bins. And because there are bins, we can get anyone to empty them.
So, we end up with a model where actually we can offer a greater level of source segregation. So, maybe the same amount of bins at the back of four shops as there were before, but instead of each shop just have a one waste, one mixed recycling, will now have a waste will have a food, a glass or cardboard, and then dry mixed recycling. So, we get much better segregation, which means we get much higher recycling rates. And hopefully, we’re getting the litter off the streets.
Sustainable co-founder of binit Philippa Roberts
Amazing. Yeah. So once all of that’s been collected, how do you then decide on what the most sustainable solution is for one of those particular types of wastes?
Well, ideally, we try and find the best environmental option in any given area. So, for the rubbish that’s left over, the residual waste, the best option would be energy from waste, and we’re trying to find what the closest energy from waste plant is, and then see how we can get it there. So, we try and work backwards. But as we’ve grown, we found the wider range of businesses now, and for a lot of them, especially at the moment, price is an issue.
So, it does mean that sometimes we’re giving a couple of options to a business, because the closest solution may not be the most environmentally preferred option, but it might be cheaper. And so sometimes we do have to say to people, okay, you know, this is the cost for processing this in the best environmental option. But the cheaper option might be for it to travel further away to a different energy from waste plant, for example, and they might go for a cheaper option.
But we’re trying to be transparent about that. So that, when people want to know where their waste is going, I think it’s important that you’re honest with them. And, even if something is going to energy from waste, then there is probably a likelihood that at some point, something from that will end up in landfill. So, we want to not actively send anything to landfill.
But there are times when that does happen, depending on what the waste is, or, you know, all energy from waste plants have shut down periods for annual maintenance. And at that point, waste often gets diverted to the nearest location, which could then be a landfill site. So, we try and work with the plants. We try and get details of maintenance schedules. So, we can see if we can divert that waste to different energy from waste plants during those maintenance periods. But it’s a slightly different way of working and it’s probably a little bit more complicated than the traditional, you know, get it on wheels, move it somewhere as cheap as possible. Get out of the way model, I think.
Speaking of models, how does Binit support the circular economy model? Obviously, because you’re working with waste; waste isn’t something we usually see in the circular economy model.
Yeah, it’s interesting, because I think circular economy is a really exciting idea. Because it’s the first time in the 20+ years, I’ve been working in the sector, where we’ve talked about an environmentally sustainable way of living that isn’t a hair shirted way of living.
So, environmentalism has often been very reductionist, and it’s about things that you can’t do or that you need to do less of. And the exciting thing about the circular economy, is that we’re trying to reimagine the way that we’re doing things so that it doesn’t have the same negative impact, and ideally, ends up having a positive impact.
So, we’re very much at the start of the circular economy journey as everyone else is. And in dealing with waste, we’re really dealing with the bit at the end that we actually want to be getting rid of, which makes it quite difficult. So, in our model at the moment, for example, we collect data on all the waste that our customers produce. And once somebody has been with us for 12 months, then we can move them to a flat rate model, where they pay a flat monthly rate every month for the services.
And then it’s beholden on us to work with them, to see if we can help them reduce their waste, increase their recycling, but ultimately reduce their waste. So come up with initiatives and things that might help them reduce what they’ve got. So that might involve doing waste composition analysis to see if there’s things they’re throwing away, which actually are going through their business too fast. The waste in their bins is just an indicator of the resources that flow through their business. And if we can find out what they’re procuring, we can work with them to see how quickly that flows through their business. If it’s flowing through too quickly, if things are being thrown away in greater volumes or numbers than they would expect and talk about procurement.
And we can advise them on alternatives. So, substitutability, I think is going to be an increasingly important thing. Whilst most plastics are recycled, ultimately, they have terrible impacts on the environment when they get out there. And at some point, they can no longer be recycled, they do just get burnt, or in some cases, landfilled, and so substitutability will be an important part of that, seeing what alternative materials we can help our clients find and use. And we are lucky because we get to see all the stuff that people throw away. So, we get to get that bigger picture of the problem items that currently don’t get recycled and always end up in the bin.
Or, you know, at the moment, it would be the increase in PPE like single use face masks, for example, and see if we can find solutions for some of these things, even if they’re only going to be a short term problem. But a circular economy model is a difficult one. And we are all on a learning journey at the moment. And the hardest part of it would be coming up with something that’s truly regenerative and restorative, which is the bit that often people forget about when they talk about a circular economy. And if we’re to get something that’s truly regenerative and restorative, it means working with organic materials that can go back on the land that can have a positive benefit at the end of their life. And that means ultimately, probably, quite a big shift in terms of the composition of the things that we consume. So that more and more of them are made from materials, plant-based materials, that that ultimately get composted, which is a massive redesign of lots of our products, and massive change in our waste infrastructure so that we can process those materials and put them on the land. And I think we need a good understanding of where those plant-based materials come from, to make sure that they’re not displacing either food crops or natural ecosystems. But I think we do need to move back to a more nature-based nature-inspired world, if we are to be truly circular.
Above images; Different activities Binit takes participates in
Absolutely, yes. So, just out of interest, are you aware of any problem waste items that are thrown away in the hospitality sector?
At the moment, compostables in the southwest is a big one, because there is no plant here in the southwest, that can process compostables. And it’s a really difficult problem to deal with. So, we’ve been working for probably, I say about 18 months, but there’s been this weird time warp with the pandemic at the moment, so it might be longer than that, to try and get a project together talking to the University of Exeter, about trying to get a project together to see if there’s something we can do to get compostables processed here in the southwest.
So, at the moment, you know, if they go in a food bin, they’ll probably be pulled out at the front end of any industrial composting process as contamination, so maybe about 5% of the material will go through and get composted. So, it’ll end up in energy from waste, which is not a bad thing, because it’s a non-plastic base material in the first place. But I do worry about the an idea that people might think we’re greenwashing, that either the hospitality businesses that are using compostables or the waste management companies that are picking those up, that we might not be being as transparent about that as we could be or that people aren’t aware. And we know that if people think their recycling isn’t being recycled, their behaviour changes, and they stop having trust in the system.
So, where can our listeners find out more about Binit and get in touch if they’d like to know more and hopefully use your service?
So, the website is www.binituk.com or email us on firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re particularly interested if there’s anybody in the southwest who wants to process compostables because we are trying to get this project up and going at the moment. But more than happy to talk about bins with anybody.
Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for telling us all about Binit and for coming on the podcast.