Waste not want not: how SMEs are setting the recycling trend for large enterprises

Sarah Anderson
Freelance writer
19th August 2019

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) are defined as being any registered business with fewer than 250 employees. According to government statistics there were 5.7 million SMEs in the UK in 2018, which was over 99% of all businesses. While the SME landscape may spur economic growth, businesses such as these are also responsible for a large proportion of environmental pressures, with 83% of SMEs feeling that plastic waste is a significant problem in their business.

Over the course of the last decade, there have been many success stories reported within large businesses – for instance, big name supermarkets have halved their plastic bag sales in the past year. However, it is important to remember that change is happening at all levels in the supply chain.

Waste management practices in SMEs

Fortunately, SMEs are implementing sustainable practices in the workplace to reduce their carbon footprint and minimise environmental harm. Here are some of the key ways that SMEs are becoming more environmentally-friendly. 

Going paperless

One of the quickest and easiest ways to reduce waste is by going paperless and switching to digital processes. Going digital is an excellent way to help the environment and can also save companies significant amounts of money on paper and other office supplies. For instance, St John’s Buildings is one of the first barristers chambers in the UK to introduce a paperless system. This system is estimated to save the firm up to £350,000 per year while dramatically reducing its carbon footprint.  


SMEs have adopted a number of methods to recycle and reduce waste more effectively. For example, recyclable card baler machines are modern recycling machines that effectively flatten and compress cardboard boxes, creating a bale of cardboard that can then easily transported to recycling facilities. Cardboard is the biggest waste stream for the majority of SMEs, so managing your cardboard recycling more effectively is an excellent way to reduce your carbon footprint and become more sustainable.

Encouraging remote work

Another way to instantly reduce emissions and make your business more eco-friendly is by encouraging remote work. Allowing employees to work from home will drastically reduce business operational costs, lower your carbon footprint, and has also been shown to improve office morale and employee satisfaction. Pebble Magazine, a digital publication company in London, has recently taken advantage of these benefits by allowing its whole team to work remotely from home. This company has managed to reduce costs and environmental harm with their modern approach. They now rely on video conferencing tools such as Skype to carry out business meetings and cloud-based project management tools to communicate and collaborate on work projects.

Sustainable suppliers

Many SMEs have also become more eco-friendly by working with their suppliers to adopt more sustainable practices when it comes to managing stock. For instance, popular bakery Bagelman has reduced its environmental impact by having coffee delivered in refillable 5kg and 10kg packets, instead of the 1kg foil packs that it was receiving previously. They have also switched to biodegradable packaging to further reduce waste. These changes are fairly simple to implement and can make a dramatic improvement to the carbon footprint of your business. 

Barriers to SMEs creating a sustainable workplace

While many improvements have occurred in recent years, there are still a number of barriers that are preventing SMEs from creating a sustainable workplace. For instance, it is thought that many SMEs want to cut plastic use, however they lack the financial incentives to help them make the change. According to research by Close Brothers Asset Finance, 83% of SMEs feel that plastic waste is a problem and 63% have initiatives in place to reduce plastic use in the future. However, 58% reported that incentives for this are too weak. It is believed that many small businesses rely on plastics and do not have the resources to investigate alternatives to plastic.

What’s more, information on sustainable publisher, Circular states that - “A third of senior decision makers in SME businesses say their business is challenged in its reduction of single-use plastic by the fear that it could potentially be left at a competitive disadvantage, while half say their business is not motivated at all by the opportunity to implement change ahead of others and be a leader in single-use plastic waste prevention in their sector.” In response to this, many people therefore believe that the government should be focusing on offering further incentives to SMEs to help them reduce waste and switch to more sustainable practices. 

Ways that SMEs have reduced their waste

Despite the above, many SMEs have found ways to effectively reduce their waste through adopting more sustainable practices. While it is evident that large supermarkets and corporations have been making changes to reduce their waste – such as introducing payment schemes for plastic bags – their sheer operational scale disincentivises them from going the extra mile to make their enterprises as eco-friendly as possible. Whereas, many smaller companies are developing ingenious ways to reduce, reuse and recycle, thus saving both energy and money. For that reason, many SMEs are leading the way to a circular economy and setting the recycling trend. Here are some of the top sustainable SMEs: 

Winnow - This British company has developed technology that measures the amount of food being thrown away and provides advice on how to reduce kitchen waste. 

● Close the Loop - This innovative Australian company has discovered a way to turn old printer cartridges and plastic waste into high quality materials used to build roads. 

TriCiclos - This company started in Chile back in 2009 and has now built the largest network of recycling stations in South America. These stations have diverted 33,000 metric tons of recyclable material from landfill and saved over 140,000 metric tons of carbon emissions.

Key takeaways 

Plastic and other waste is a huge environmental concern and all businesses should be making changes to reduce harmful emissions and become more sustainable. While there may currently be a lack of incentives for SMEs to investigate alternative solutions to plastics; there is clear evidence that many SMEs are finding innovative ways to reduce their carbon footprint and lead the way to a circular economy.

About the author

Sarah writes reports and articles informing on commercial waste prevention strategies in the UK, specialising in disruptive innovations in smart waste management. In her spare time, she continues to implement new ways to reduce her own household waste and can be found at the forefront of local beach cleans.

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