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Planet before profit

Nick Oettinger, Managing Director of The Furniture Recycling Group, looks at the need for effective policies to recycle bulky waste and promote a circular economy

Every year, we throw out 1.6 million tonnes of bulky waste in the UK, and about 19 per cent of this falls into the textile category – largely comprising sofas and mattresses, with most items being sent to landfill. Despite the landfill tax having pushed up the cost of putting rubbish in the ground in the last 10 years, sending textile waste to landfill remains the cheapest and most straightforward disposal option.

The UK is overly dependent on landfill, which has a potentially worrying impact on the environment. Bans have already been imposed in many EU countries, with governments and policymakers realising that alternative, more environmentally friendly solutions are required if countries are to move towards a circular economy model and meet their carbon footprint reduction obligations.

The circular economy is created when materials are manufactured, used by the consumer, recycled and reused as a new product, thereby starting the cycle again. It’s a by far better alternative to the traditional linear economy which results in materials ending up as waste and going to landfill, damaging the land on which we live.

One such initiative that has been implemented in countries such as France and Japan is extended producer responsibility (EPR), which requires that all businesses who manufacture, import or sell products are held accountable for dealing with the waste they generate. In Japan, in particular, they have implemented an EPR law for a range of industries, demanding that some manufacturers use recycled materials in new products. EPR schemes seem to be working in some UK industries, with packaging, electronic goods, batteries and cars all now subject to EU requirements.

We would argue that one particular policy that needs to be introduced is a recycling levy placed on all non-biodegradable products, to pay for the responsible recycling of goods at the end of their useful life. However, despite various announcements such as the government’s 25-year environment plan, the resources and waste strategy and proposals for an environment bill, everything so far seems to be little more than putting a sticking plaster on what is a much larger, long-term issue.

Hopefully, we may soon see the UK government implement a policy for mattress recycling, placing a legislative requirement on all those responsible for mattress disposal to dispose of end-of-life mattresses in an environmentally acceptable way.

Action needs to be swift, as we estimate the UK’s landfill sites could burst their banks in as little as four years if nothing is done to stem the current amount of waste being sent to these sites.

Why are schemes for the recycling of bulky items taking so long to evolve and gain acceptance? Cost is an important factor, as there is no doubt that landfill remains the cheaper option. Other barriers include the lack of outlets and services that could help FM teams dispose of such items in an environmentally friendly way, such as sending them for recycling.

We definitely need to change our attitudes towards recycling in this country – and it starts at the top. A study by FM service, Direct365, revealed that more than one in four employees want the companies they work for to step up for the environment.

If employees see management actively encouraging recycling, the endorsement will help to promote change in the company culture. Shockingly, 90 per cent of businesses in the UK still don’t have a recycling policy. But by educating both staff and stakeholders on what is actually recyclable and how waste affects the environment, we can create workable recycling policies.

Many businesses now include corporate social responsibility (CSR) and triple bottom line (TBL) as a key part of their business models. The importance of CSR in business has been gaining momentum over the past decade. TBL accounting incorporates profit, people and the planet, also referred to as the three Ps, as opposed to a traditional single bottom line: profit. In other words, a business can choose to consider the social and environmental impact of its activities in the pursuit of profit and improve its corporate image in the process.

High-profile organisations and brands are increasingly implementing sustainability plans to improve their reputation and help them meet government targets. Marks and Spencer, for example, launched a sustainability strategy called Plan A in 2007 at a predicted cost of £40 million. After 10 years of reducing packaging materials, cutting food waste, installing energy-efficient LED lights in stores and warehouses, and monitoring real-time energy and water use, the company reported a £176 million business profit before tax in 2016-17.

Cosmetics company Estée Lauder is another example of a business demonstrating strong commitment to good environmental practices. Since 2003 its 23 manufacturing and distribution facilities have sent zero waste to landfill. Any waste that cannot be recycled gets converted into energy.

For more senior managers, a way to establish workable recycling policies is by building new partnerships and/or expanding existing ones. By collaborating with other organisations, recycling pacts can be formed and infrastructure shared.

Since Unilever went zero-waste with its non-hazardous waste in at least 240 factories and 400 sites, it has saved £174 million and created many new jobs in the process. It has since partnered with telecommunications company 2degrees to share its zero-waste model with other corporations. Unilever even went so far as to create a new technology to address recyclable packaging concerns.

FMs need to keep abreast of new developments and position themselves to be ready to respond to any new legislation that comes into force. Their role makes them ideally placed to be part of the conversation, proposing and implementing strategies and policies that help both the environment and the business. Part of this should be a review of procurement practices, ensuring, for example, that purchased furniture contains a proportion of recycled content and includes recyclable components to help with later disposal and reuse.

About Sarah OBeirne


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