Absolute rubbish: Waste entrepreneur Bruce Bratley on building his recyling empire

 
Harriet Green
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A firm environmentalist, Bratley's aim is, paradoxically, to get his customers' waste down to nothing

Did you know that it takes 10 days to recycle a cardboard box, and for it to become a new cardboard box? When the material is too old to re-use in the same guise, it’ll become an egg box. Another recycling factoid: coffee grounds are recycled all over London and turned into biofuel. It’s easy to do because they’re separated out in the coffee-making process. There’s a startup called bio-bean which is working on extracting the oil from the grounds to turn it into bio diesel.

The facts are coming in thick and fast from Bruce Bratley, the founder and chief executive of First Mile, a recycling firm for businesses. In 2004, Bratley bought a van, got a licence and started a waste management company. “It’s a very easy business to set up, because that’s all you need. But it’s also a broken industry, and that’s what I wanted to change.”

Bratley did a PhD in Environmental Marxism, which saw him spend six months watching the effect living near a waste incinerator in Tyneside had on local women. “I realised halfway through my PhD that I didn’t want to be an academic. I had this joke with my City-worker friend Pete that people who begin PhDs should never actually receive a doctorate – because they’re obviously stupid, as illustrated by them starting one.”

After a stint in a startup, Bratley started looking more closely at the waste market in London. “People were paying a lot of money for something that was being done badly. Businesses wanted to recycle, but the councils just couldn’t be bothered. I got the van, went to TM Lewin on Jermyn Street and asked them what they did with their waste. It’s always the same: a sheepish person leads you to a room at the back that’s jammed with rubbish. They were getting 25 bags and a weekly collection. I said I’d collect daily, recycle everything and do it for less money.”

What a waste

Now, Bratley employs 145 people across London and Birmingham – none of whom come from the waste industry. Last year, First Mile did 15m collections, servicing over 16,000 businesses on a daily basis. Nero, Metro Bank, Ted Baker and Paddy Power are customers, along with numerous other household names. For Bratley, operating in a market of large but fairly neglectful competitors, customer service is paramount. “You don’t want people trying to talk to customers while someone in the background shouts about their high-vis jacket and gloves. Our office is more like Apple’s or Innocent’s, I like to think. The most lively element of the operation is my dog, who is a vital team member.”

I ask Bratley why the waste industry can be so appalling – if you’re used to household collections by the council, or lack thereof, you know how bad it can get. “Some of it comes down to how fragmented the industry is. There are incredibly low barriers to entry, which means an awful lot of opportunity but also one-man bands driving vans round next to the likes of Biffa and Veolia who complete against each other for council contracts then take the same group of workers with them. There’s no innovation, there’s no operations infrastructure so talking to customers goes out of the window.”

Bratley suggests trying to call First Mile, then trying Biffa or Veolia to see how different the service is – “they’re the good guys, but they’re still terrible. The service is provided for the sake of waste – the customer is secondary to the volume they provide. We don’t think about it like that.”

Bratley didn’t just start with infrastructure – he decided to create a new category: waste data. He didn’t only want to know how many sacks had been dropped off to a business, and how many were collected. He wanted to provide information for his customers on their businesses, and he’s gone further than smart bins. “I’ve got sensors on my drivers’ seats, telematics and GPS location data which means I can work out how long it takes them to deliver and collect. Waste can tell you a lot about the health of a company, but I’m not in the business of going through my customers’ waste. What we can do is tell them if, say, one branch isn’t recycling.”

First Mile prides itself on recycling 20 per cent more than competitors, with 90 per cent of the waste it deals with recycled. Bratley starts explaining that there are between 50 and 100 stock keeping units in the UK, and over 50m different kinds of packaging.

And all the while, his firm is enacting something of a paradox: “at the end of the day, this is a pipe-end solution. Our vision is that none of us produce any waste. But we have to tell businesses how much waste they are producing to help encourage them to produce less. Have you seen the blog of the woman who can fit two years’ of waste into a jar?”

A vision of the future is something that’s always close at hand for Bratley. Recycling, he explains, is getting more and more advanced: “the machines are better, there are QR codes on bags so consignments can be tracked, robotics and AI are playing a big part in cleverer sorting. The industry is lazy, but it’ll get there. At the same time, there’s the chicken and egg of consumerism. Do we buy silly singing socks at Christmas because we really want them, or because they’re presented to us?”

We’re moving in the right direction, says Bratley, pointing out that home delivery of food is “fantastic for the environment because we don’t all traipse to the supermarket in our cars. I’m really excited about the speed at which things are changing. Customers are taking back control, and they want to recycle.”

Future focus

Things are changing fast at First Mile, too. Already servicing the country’s two largest cities, Bratley is cooking up a plan for rural businesses. “Our platform is very easy to roll out, so there’s a possibility to use it while playing into existing collection networks.” And as someone who firmly believes the waste market should be entirely privatised, Bratley knows he’d be well-positioned to offer a service to individuals.

“Even more interesting than households, actually, is how you deal with very large retailers. Amazon is getting better and better. It now uses machines to build boxes to fit the product, rather than you ending up with reams of packaging that you just want to bin. We should expect it to go further. If you get to the point where an item is being delivered into someone’s hands and they can hand the packaging back immediately – to a person or a drone – do you need it?”

Bratley gets his phone out to find a picture of his dog. “I’ve got more pictures of the dog than the kids!” Before buying his van, he was picking up sacks in his car, with his nine-month pregnant wife driving. Now, he’s pleased his kids can be involved in the firm.

“They’re great. And I grew up on a farm with a dad who involved me and was there at lunch and tea time. I live four minutes from work, and when I get home I put my phone in a drawer for a couple of hours so I can spend time with my family. Either you can go to work, or your work is a continuum of your life. That’s fine if you find it really fun.”

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