Biffa boss gets hands dirty on Channel 4
31 July 2013
Channel 4 viewers were given a glimpse into Biffa’s waste and recycling services across the UK when chief executive Ian Wakelin appeared on Undercover Boss this week (July 29).
In the show, Mr Wakelin spent a week posing incognito as an out-of-work accountant called Mark Campbell who was supposedly seeking to learn more about employment opportunities in the waste industry from staff at Biffa.
He experienced first-hand life as a Biffa collection driver, a materials recycling facility (MRF) picker in Barking, a household waste and recycling centre (HWRC) staff member in Wales and a sales worker in London, before revealing his true identity and unveiling plans to tackle some of the problems he discovered at the Biffa coal-face.
Partly as a result of his experiences on the programme, Mr Wakelin said Biffa would be upgrading all of its waste transfer stations and MRFs across the country, including a £2 million upgrade of its Minworth facility near Birmingham.
The Biffa boss was also unimpressed by the number of items in working order – including bikes and microwaves – which he saw coming into Biffa’s HWRC in Wales while working undercover, and has pledged to try and find a way of reusing more of these items instead of sending them for recycling.
But, speaking to letsrecycle.com, Mr Wakelin said he was given no clue as to what he would be doing and who he would be meeting each morning when the show was filmed in early June 2013.
He said: “I think the hardest part is once you agree to do it you give total control and editing rights over to the show and you have no idea what you are going to be doing each day. Who knows what is going to happen and what will end up in the programme? That is the most worrying thing.”
'Every organisation has issues and they need fixing, so I think we came across as a company that is open to admitting problems – we didn’t try to hide or oversell it.'
Ian Wakelin, Biffa chief executive
Still, he said he enjoyed the experience and has received an “enormous” response from staff, industry figures, reuse charities and other businesses since the show was aired on Monday at 9pm.
After the programme was aired, the likes of the Environmental Services Association (ESA) and Viridor Tweeted in support of Channel 4 and Biffa depicting the realities of the waste industry on TV.
Although the realities of the industry didn’t impress everyone, with many viewers suggesting on Twitter that working in a picking line wouldn’t be their first choice of employment after watching the show.
Chief executive of SITA UK, David Palmer-Jones also Tweeted in response to Mr Wakelin’s unsuccessful attempts at selling Biffa waste services to businesses in London.
He Tweeted: ‘Watching Ian Wakelin of BIFFA on #UndercoverBoss trying to sell his services on the streets of South London, Ian don't give up your day job!’
Commenting on the responses to the show, Mr Wakelin told letsrecycle.com: “Most of it has been positive and some very nice things have been said about how good it is to see a company that is happy to open itself up.
“Every organisation has issues and they need fixing, so I think we came across as a company that is open to admitting problems – we didn’t try to hide or oversell it.”
He added: “Our industry lends itself to the programme well as it is a bit messy and unglamorous.”
On his first day undercover, Mr Wakelin – posing as Mark Campbell – was sent off for a 10-hour shift working alongside picker Ron at Biffa’s MRF in Barking, East London.
Mr Wakelin was impressed by the hard work of staff he encountered on the programme, but giving his first impressions of the Barking MRF site, he said it looked “a bit run down” and that it didn’t “look like a nice place to work”.
Despite being told that workers at the MRF needed to pick out 40 recyclable items per minute in order for profit to be made, Mr Wakelin managed to pick out just 19 items on his first attempt. Later in the day, the MRF belt broke down and production had to stop, which was said to be a common occurrence.
As a result, Mr Wakelin announced at the end of the show that £250,000 would be invested in new MRF belts and improving working conditions for picking staff at the Barking site.
He also told letsrecycle.com that there would be a complete review of the Barking facility, which would be used as a basis for improvements to be rolled out at Biffa MRFs across the country.
And, asked whether he was aware of problems at Biffa before he filmed the programme, Mr Wakelin said: “Some of it I half knew, but some things I was quite shocked about. I half expected what I saw at Barking but it just confirmed that Barking needed upgrading.”
Mr Wakelin’s mentor for the day at Barking, Ron, was also given a season ticket for his beloved Leyton Orient FC as a reward for his hard work, although Mr Wakelin told letsrecycle.com that Ron has also since been found a job working for Biffa in York so he can be closer to his fiancé.
Finally, asked whether he would encourage fellow management staff at Biffa or bosses at other waste management firms to spend time working at the coal-face of their business, Mr Wakelin said: “I actively encourage all my staff to spend some time working on the shop floor - you have to do that as you really learn what goes on. But you need to think hard before you say yes to the programme because once you do it you have no control over what happens!”
Channel 4’s Undercover Boss episode featuring Biffa was aired at 9pm on Monday July 29 and is still available to watch on 4OD.
Biffa is not be the first waste management firm to be featured on the Channel 4 show, after Viridor chief executive Colin Drummond OBE also appeared on Undercover Boss in August 2010, exposing issues such as overfilled bins and the tough conditions faced by waste pickers (see letsrecycle.com story).