At Work With: Bruce Bratley, First Mile
Bruce Bratley believes in a waste-free world. In 2004, he set up First Mile and took the first steps toward revolutionising waste and recycling for businesses in the UK. With a team of over 200 dedicated drivers and doers, Bruce continues to bang the drum for businesses to have a positive impact on the environment, no matter their size.
This month, as part of Plastic Free July, we thought we’d check in with Bruce to find out more about First Mile and how we can all play a part in a plastic free planet.
It’s fair to say you’ve taken on a major challenge with First Mile, but you seem to approach it with endless creativity and you’ve even made recycling and waste management cool. How did you find yourself in this industry and how did First Mile come into being?
As part of my PhD in Social Geography I studied recycling and political ideology of environmentalism. I did so because I was passionate about the planet and nature and could see it was being destroyed through the externalities of consumerism.
I decided to leave academia because I wanted to do more than write essays on the problem and so I got my first job at a recycling start-up called Valpak. I then went on to start First Mile where I felt like more could be done to deliver a better service as well as a positive environmental impact so went about setting up my own company that could do just that.
As a company you talk about pioneering some exciting technologies; can you tell us a bit more?
We’ve always been at the forefront of the industry. It can be a quite a backwards industry sometimes, so it’s important to me and the rest of the company that we keep pushing the boundaries and implementing change for good.
There are a few different areas where we’ve pioneered technologies. For example, we have QR codes on each sack and external bin so we can identify which sack or bin belongs to which customer. This helps us identify if something is contaminated or overweight, then we can alert the customer automatically via the customer portal, once our driver has scanned the sack. And then work with the customer to overcome the problem in the future.
Early on we introduced the online customer portal, meaning that customers can place orders, view their environmental report, download important documents and lots more online without having to call us up which saves our customers time.
We’re also testing out automated bin sensors which automatically alert us if a customer’s bin is full, so we know to go and empty it.
We’ve worked with lots of brand partners to find useful end of life solutions for their products. Such as Hunter where we recycle wellies and turn them into horse arena and playground surfacing. This is important for educating consumers and the brands.
Additionally, we’re in the process of creating an app which can be used by communities to help improve their local neighbourhood by reporting on issues like litter, fly tipping, street problems and air pollution.
What has been the biggest challenge in getting more businesses to make their waste and recycling a priority?
Education on a number of levels. Firstly, many businesses think they have to use the council and don’t realise they can use private companies such as First Mile to take care of their business waste in a more environmentally friendly manner. And secondly, many business owners don’t appreciate just how much of a positive impact recycling can have on a company’s carbon footprint so don’t prioritise it. Recycling is an entry level green activity that can be done every day. Just because it has been around a long time often means that is overlooked, education is really important to show it is a key green activity that everyone can do daily.
You run recycling workshops for your clients. How have the workshops gone down, and do you offer any other resources?
Our customers love our recycling workshops. They are a great way to educate, engage and even excite employees on recycling. It empowers every single person to do their bit at work, as well as at home.
We have lots of other resources such as free recycling posters for each service, a weekly podcast hosted by me called Wasted and monthly recycling reports for your business. There are other services that we offer such as Waste Audits where businesses can find out what’s in their waste and be advised on what services they should have in place, and what they could be doing better to improve their recycling rate.
We were regular attendees to the weekly ‘Can I recycle this?’ live events you held on Instagram during lockdown. What was the biggest takeaway from these sessions?
That’s great to hear that you took part in those sessions – thank you! One of the main takeaways was that so many people are still confused by recycling, but that the intention is there to do the right thing and recycle more, which is great. We received lots of questions about everyday household items such as corks, pet food packs and aerosols. Also, items such as coffee cups, crisp packets and everyone seems confused about compostable items.
What was lockdown like for you and your team, and for the waste industry as a whole? How have you had to you adapt?
It has been challenging in several ways, but we’ve had to adapt pretty quickly, and managed to do so well. I’m incredibly proud of the entire team in the way that they’ve adapted and helped the business in any way that they can, and it makes me really positive for what the future holds.
Given that most of our customers are businesses and were closed during lockdown, it meant that our customer base significantly reduced during this time. With our spare drivers and vehicles, we were able to adapt quickly though. We set up a fruit and veg delivery business, we delivered vital supplies to NHS staff, and we became the delivery partner for a plant / flower business called Plant Pack.
We also had to move our entire office-based team to remote working. Thankfully we had the technology and systems in place already to allow us to do that. From a communications and engagement standpoint we’ve made heavy use of Teams and implemented weekly roundups for the entire business, regardless of whether people were furloughed or not. We’ve also had to quickly become experts in PPE waste and provide a much-needed solution for our customers.
As we come out of lockdown and the way people work and go about their daily lives continues to be different, our business model is having to adapt, but I’m confident we are set up to do just that and that we will continue to grow.
I’m totally with you in believing in a world without waste and where everything can be reused or recycled. Obviously, we’re not there yet, so tell us a bit about what happens to the waste that can’t get recycled right now?
I’m glad that you’re on the same page as us. Despite being a waste company, we really do want a better world, and one without waste is worth striving for. Essentially waste is just a design flaw, so we believe with better product and packaging design as well as changes in consumer behaviour and of course fundamental recycling services, eliminating waste should be achievable.
But for the time-being, anything that can’t be recycled is turned into green energy. We are firmly against sending anything to landfill, so materials that can’t be recycled are sent for incineration where heat from the process is captured and used to generate energy which is then sent to the National Grid.
You work with a number of charity partners. Can you give us a flavour of the work you do with them and maybe why these causes are so close to your heart?
We have three charities that we work with. As a company it’s important that we give back to communities and causes that we care about.
Small Steps Project. We’ve supported this charity for around 10 years and it’s a cause that’s very close to my heart. Essentially it supports families, and particularly children, who live on rubbish dumps in poorer countries around the world. You can find out more in episode 5 of our Wasted podcast:
Crisis: At Christmas we work with Crisis’ homeless shelters to collect their waste and recycling for free. We also provide useful items for the shelter guests to help them at this particularly difficult time such as extra clothing.
Rewilding Britain: each year our staff pick a charity to support, and for two years in a row, they’ve picked Rewilding Britain. The environment is so central to First Mile’s mission, so helping to support an organisation which is intent on improving the landscape and biodiversity of the UK is really positive. There’s a great interview with them on our podcast that’s well worth a listen: Episode 4: the rise of un-gardening
What would be your key bit of advice for businesses or individuals out there who want to make a more conscious effort in their recycling?
My top 4 tips would be:
Recycle your food waste. It’s easy to recycle and can be turned into energy and fertiliser
Make an effort. It just takes a little bit of time to educate yourself on what goes in what bin, and once you’ve learnt that, recycling is easy. Getting it right makes such a difference to the success of the process.
If you have something that can’t go in your standard business or household recycling bins, check out our recyclebox website, as chances are, we can probably recycle it for you!
Talk about it – come on IG Live “Can I Recycle That” and ask me if you don’t know what and how to recycle. Lots of people don’t know what to do so all questions are great to have.
Finally, can you share any fun or interesting products or tips that can help us reduce our plastic use?
Almost everything you use probably contains plastic, so challenge yourself to de-plastic your house / workplace, from the big things to the small things.
For example, most sponges are made from plastic, so when it comes to replacing your sponge, find a non-plastic alternative. The same with your toothbrush – try exchanging it for a wooden one. Can you buy your washing powder in a cardboard box rather than plastic capsules for example? Keep assessing everything that’s in your house / workplace and think about what non-plastic alternative you can replace it with when it comes to the end of its life.
Be careful not to fall for ‘green washing’ where companies try and sell you a so-called environmentally friendly solution, which in fact is no better than its plastic alternative. Like biodegradable items. People see this word and think it means eco. But everything is pretty much biodegradable. Your phone is biodegradable, it might just take hundreds of years to biodegrade. Don’t be fooled!
And finally, think about your clothes purchases. Most clothing contains plastic. Polyester, nylon, acrylic – all plastic. If you must buy clothes, try going for more natural materials. It will also save a huge amount of microplastics entering our waters every time you wash your clothes! You can read more on that here