13 August 2010

Viridor operations laid bare on national TV

By Caelia Quinault 

The operations of waste management company Viridor were laid bare on national television last night (August 12) in the latest episode of Undercover Boss – which exposed issues such as overfilled bins and the difficult conditions faced by waste pickers.

Colin Drummond goes undercover at Viridor's Arkwright Street Household Waste and Recycling Centre in Oldham

Colin Drummond goes undercover at Viridor’s Arkwright Street Household Waste and Recycling Centre in Oldham

However, some critics have been quick to attack the show for being too contrived and “soppy” – with the Daily Express going so far as to brand it “Undercover Dross”.

In the show, which was aired at 9pm on Channel 4, Viridor's chief executive Colin Drummond went undercover at five sites across the UK to see what it was like at the ‘sharp end' of the business.
Pointing to the “dog-eat-dog” nature of the waste sector, he said he hoped the experience would teach him lessons on how to stay ahead.

He said: “I think it is right and proper for a chief executive to go out and do what he expects his guys to do. I also want to see if… there are things we are doing wrong.”

Described by his wife Georgina as a “driven perfectionist”, Mr Drummond posed as former office worker John Roy who was trying out different level-entry jobs for a television programme.

His experiences ranged from collecting trade waste in Manchester and helping out at a household waste recycling centre in Oldham to joining waste pickers at materials recycling facilities in Bristol and West Sussex and working at a transport depot in Plymouth.

On his journey, Mr Drummond was struck by the commitment of many of his workers and in particular the efforts of transport depot worker Tim Lake, who has thyroid cancer but was still working every day and used holiday days when he had to go for treatment.

The chief executive was similarly impressed by the staff at the Arkwright Street household waste recycling centre in Oldham, who greeted everyone at the site to advise them on where to recycle different items and have helped drive up recycling rates dramatically.

On the flip side, Mr Drummond was shocked on his visit to the company's construction and demolition materials recycling facility at Filton in Bristol by the harsh conditions in which the pickers worked – which one remarked on as a “prison sentence” – and becomes concerned with their health and safety. He branded the dirty mess room at the site “shocking”.

Buoyed by his experience, Mr Drummond told his board he wanted to “tighten up our policies and take some actions.”

Notably, he said that Viridor staff should have the welfare facilities they deserved, that good ideas fostered by workers needed to be spread around the company and that good agency staff should be given full time employment and helped to progress.

I learnt a tremendous number of things that you just don't learn when you are looking at things from the outside

Colin Drummond, Viridor

He said: “I learnt a tremendous number of things that you just don't learn when you are looking at things from the outside… it is going to affect how we drive our business forward.”


An initial review for the show came from human resources and business website HR Zone, which praised Mr Drummond's determination to go undercover himself rather than to send another member of his board.

However, it raised questions over whether it was a fair representation of the actual experience and added: “one criticism might be that it is too formulaic to be actually useful to a company”.

This view was echoed by the Daily Express, which went further by saying the programme was boring.

It said: “Unfortunately, this show has turned into a sort of soppy, fairy godmother affair in which the boss goes undercover, finds employees who are fighting illnesses or want to go on a course and just gives them a leg-up not open to any of the millions of other people toiling away without the benefit of a C4 TV camera crew. Undercover Dross might be a better title for the show.”

The Telegraph added, on a more light-hearted note, that Harvard and Oxford-educated Mr Drummond “certainly won't be giving up the day job”.

It said: “At one point, as the 59-year-old struggled to push a wheelie bin packed with rubbish over a bump, watching factory workers asked his minder for the day: “He's not going to be instead of you, is he?”


Commenting on the show, Steve Eminton, editor of letsrecycle.com said: “The programme made a good hour's viewing and for the general public will have opened their eyes to the world of waste in a more constructive way than some of the programmes we have seen in recent years.

“There were some excellent examples of good practice, especially at the civic amenity site and in litter picking at other sites, all showing how the sector looks for good practice. Any one with doubts about the need to recycle more cannot but fail to have noticed the volumes of waste still being landfilled although this was also a reflection on the commercial and industrial sector.”

Mr Eminton added: “In terms of emotion, some viewers also found it a bit of a tear-jerker at times, but there were real insights into the industry and its people and hopefully the problems found, such as at Filton, will be properly remedied.”


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