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Sustainability is about making good decisions, you just need to dig a bit deeper

Blog from Owen George, Divisional Commercial & Resource Strategy Manager at Grundon Waste Management

When facilities managers are tasked with how best they can meet their organisation’s environmental goals, they will invariably be shown a plethora of interesting and innovative options that promise the earth – in all senses of the word. As with many things, it’s not always that simple.

Long-term changes that really deliver practical solutions are about so much more than signing on the dotted line and embracing new ideas – compostable, biodegradable or disposable packaging and products to name just a few. These products may be made from materials such as sugar starch, palm leaves, wood pulp or other plant-based materials, but how easy is it in reality to dispose of them?

If you do your homework first, you’ll actually find out that limited treatment facilities do exist, but they may well be hundreds of miles away – adding, of course, to your carbon footprint as you have to transport the products to take them there. And what about the value of those materials? You are presumably paying a premium price to ‘go green’ but then you’re dipping into your budget for their waste treatment, both financially and environmentally. Not as viable a solution on either count.

Contrast that with products made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate), one of the most commonly used plastic packaging materials in the world. Right now, PET is worth around £550 per tonne – its value has doubled recently, driven by supplier demand and the plastics tax. The beauty of PET is that it is 100 per cent recyclable and it can be used over and over again. Even better, depending on volumes and providing the plastic is clean and correctly segregated, it can earn you money back from your waste collector in the form of a rebate.

As a waste management services provider, we are not evangelical about plastic – and of course we tread the fine line of self-interest – we too are on a continuing journey towards improving our own environmental credentials, something we take very seriously. What we do know and understand however, is that sometimes using a product which is tried, tested and totally recyclable may provide a better solution.

Packaging is another hot topic right now and it will be interesting to see what happens with the arrival of next year’s Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation (part of the Government’s new Environment Bill). Designed to reform existing UK Packaging Waste Regulations, it means packaging producers will pay the full cost of managing packaging once it becomes waste. The idea is to encourage producers to use less packaging and more recyclable materials, thereby reducing the amount of hard to recycle packaging on the market and cutting the amount of fossil fuels used to produce it.

Depending on the recyclability of the packaging used, businesses will have to pay a modulated fee to take account of its higher (or lower) level of recycling difficulty. Much of the packaging we see currently features materials such as multi-polymers and inner and outer labels that either can’t be recycled or requires very specialist treatment. Remember the fuss over what became known as the ‘waste mountain of coffee cups’, which highlighted the fact some seven million takeaway paper coffee cups are thrown away every day because their waterproof lining means they can only be recycled at specialist facilities.

I see EPR as being the most significant change in recycling governance since the introduction of the Landfill Tax and the impact it is likely to have on both the types of materials and the value of recyclables in the marketplace will be profound. It is so radical that it is causing a huge amount of uncertainty, and there’s no doubt additional investment will be needed in sorting and capturing facilities to handle the increased collection streams. As a business we continue to invest in new and innovative ways to handle such changes.

For facilities managers, the decisions they have to make in the drive towards improving sustainability will continue to become more complex and the challenges of making the right decision will be many and varied. Very often there is no completely right answer – which is why it’s important to ask questions, to talk to the real experts who really understand the best way to treat all these fancy new materials, and invest in long-term solutions rather than quick hits.

About Sarah OBeirne

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