How the Commonwealth Games can inspire sustainable large-scale events

With the Commonwealth Games held in the UK in July/August 2022, Michael Topham, CEO of Biffa reflects on ‘How the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games can inspire your next sustainable large-scale event’


Having been an avid fan of the Commonwealth Games all my life (my best memory is the exciting 200 metre final in the 1982 Brisbane Games where a dead heat resulted in two gold medals) I, like many others, am looking forward to the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games from 28 July to 8 August. The Games is an impressive feat – and years of planning go into such an activation. The challenge, however, is the environmental impact of large-scale events – and in fact, any operation of any size – if not considered fully.

Michael Topham, CEO of Biffa, who explains the role of Biffa as waste and recycling  partner for the Commonwealth Games

Birmingham will see a massive influx of people and an economic boost from this year’s Commonwealth Games. Spectators, athletes and staff will commute, stay in the area, attend events, and enjoy the hospitality over a two-week period. This significantly increases the production and use of materials, packaging and food – and so, inevitably, increases the amount of waste.

At Biffa, we are proud to be the selected Official Waste Management and Recycling Provider for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games – chosen because we are helping Birmingham 2022 become the most sustainable Games yet, by recycling and recovering more, not exporting any plastic waste and ensuring zero waste goes to landfill.

While not every organisation has the huge task of putting on an event like Birmingham 2022, there are some fundamental principles that all business leaders and decision makers can adopt when hosting or running any size of event to cement their place in the circular economy.

Plan ahead – and get the right people around a table early

Sustainability should be the seam that runs through every touchpoint of your event. Getting the right people around the table as early as possible is essential to lessening the environmental impact of your event. Diversity in expertise and experience nurtures creative thinking. Different backgrounds and perspectives help shift the focus from what needs to be done, to what is possible.

For example, most people associate waste with cleaning-up after something has happened. In fact, we offer end-to-end recycling services. Involving waste management professionals in the early planning stages means being able to map waste streams, identify problem materials, and even prevent and reduce waste. At Biffa, we can even advise partner vendors on packaging materials that are easy to recycle, or how to redistribute surplus stock as we do with Biffa-owned Company Shop Group. A clear strategy with buy-in from key stakeholders early is the best way to unlock these opportunities.

Sustainability is farther reaching than just managing waste. However, managing waste sustainably can contribute significantly to reducing carbon emissions and therefore the overall environmental impact of an event. Birmingham 2022 benefits from Biffa’s local infrastructure; we use less fuel by travelling shorter distances, meaning lower emissions for the event.

Consider (and harness) how your event affects the area

Where events take place, crowds follow along with environmental and social ramifications. Look beyond the walls of your venue. Identify opportunities to connect with vital community groups, such as charities or local public services, to collaborate for the city’s benefit and leave a shared legacy. We’re proud to give back to Birmingham and its surrounding area.

Over 12 days we are expecting to collect, sort and process 400 tonnes of mixed recycling at our transfer stations in the West Midlands. It doesn’t stop there though; we also anticipate sending 230 tonnes of food waste to anaerobic digestion, which will save over 140 tonnes of CO2e when compared to landfill – the equivalent of 17 million smartphone charges. One hundred tonnes of glass and 20 tonnes of metal will all be recycled. Plus, 600 tonnes of non-recyclable waste will be processed to create energy from waste, helping to power homes and businesses in the West Midlands.

We’re also supporting West Midlands Police, which will be using regional facilities (with Biffa service for general waste, dry/mixed recycling and food waste) as bases for the Games between June and August.

Engage and enthuse your wider workforce

Not all businesses have dedicated sustainability specialists on the payroll. One solution to help drive your environmental agenda forward is empowering your people to be ‘champions’. The younger generation particularly is passionate about protecting the planet (Deloitte reported that Gen Z is adopting more sustainable behaviours than any other group) so harness that. Encourage them to investigate how your business can do better and keep on top of emerging trends. If they’re willing, it may feel more like a passion project, instilling a sense of ownership that boosts their confidence – and overall performance – benefitting your bottom line.

Biffa is the official waste management and recycling provider for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games

Bringing your wider team into the sustainability journey could extend to involving them in the event itself. For example, 100 Biffa volunteers – from all areas of the business, many of whom live in or close to Birmingham at the Games. We’re delighted so many people jumped at the opportunity to experience the atmosphere and be part of a historic event for Birmingham – as the Games’ recycling ambassadors.

Identify your impact and inform the public

Our volunteers’ role will be advising attendees on which bins to use (to avoid contaminating recycling) and distributing a handy Visitors’ Guide as part of a wider education mission on the circular economy. Birmingham 2022 is committed to leaving a carbon neutral legacy; our aligned drive for sustainability enables us to inspire people to think and act differently. Our mission at Biffa is to change the way people think about waste. Our priority is influencing behaviour for good – not just emptying the bins and processing the waste.

Use your event – and the communications surrounding it – as a vehicle to raise awareness of your sustainability pledge and wider values. Consider also how your partners can amplify this message.

My personal motivation

What makes me proudest as CEO is the reaction of the Biffa team. Their passion and drive to participate in a historic event, spread joy and educate is impressive. Birmingham 2022 – or any large-scale ceremony – poses a unique opportunity to set a precedent for sustainable events going forward.

Mick Wright, executive director workforce and games services at Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, shares my sentiment. He said: “We want Birmingham 2022 to have a positive impact that lasts long after the final medal has been awarded and our environmental responsibility is at the heart of this, including a commitment to creating a carbon-neutral legacy.

“Our aim is for the Games to not only be hugely positive for the West Midlands, but to also set a benchmark for sustainability that all future Commonwealth Games and major sporting events can aspire to. We are delighted to work with Biffa towards achieving this aim.”

Birmingham 2022 is proof that an event that benefits all parties and the planet is well within reach. We can’t make the sun shine, but we can ensure that all the waste from this year’s Games avoids landfill and contributes to a brighter future in a circular economy.

AUTHOR
Michael Topham was appointed chief executive officer of Biffa in September 2018, having previously held the role of chief financial officer from 2013. He has more than 15 years’ experience in the waste management sector, having held divisional managing director and finance director roles within Biffa before being appointed group chief financial officer, and as finance director of Greenstar UK prior to its acquisition by Biffa in 2010. He trained as a Chartered Accountant with PwC in London where he held positions in both the audit and transaction services practices.

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