With the government under pressure to hit a 70 per cent recycling target by 2020, more businesses must embrace the environmental – and economic – case for zero waste, writes Mike Scott
Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, wherever goods have been made, they have been accompanied by the creation of waste. “It was just seen as the cost of doing business,” says Forbes McDougall, corporate solid waste leader in the global product stewardship team at Procter & Gamble (P&G).
But today, a growing number of companies, including P&G and other global giants such as carmaker GM, are working to ensure that their facilities do not send any waste to landfill.
P&G, which makes everything from toothpaste and shampoo to nappies and pet food, has already made 54 of its 160 sites around the world zero waste and plans to have completed the process at 70 plants by the end of the year.
The rationale is quite simple, Dr McDougall explains: “Everything you divert from landfill is avoided cost.” With landfill tax soon to hit £80 a tonne, those costs are considerable. P&G believes it has saved more than $1 billion over the last five years by reducing waste. “You have already paid for these materials up front. If you don’t recycle it, you have to pay again to dispose of it,” he adds.
“Dumping stuff that is worth money on a planet that is running out of resources does not add up – we have to be smarter in the way we run society”
Businesses are realising that “they have to be part of a move from a linear economy to a circular economy,” says Alan Knight, sustainability director at Business in the Community. “There is a change in the business model from disposing of waste in landfills to a focus on resource recovery.
“Dumping stuff that is worth money on a planet that is running out of resources does not add up – we have to be smarter in the way we run society,” Dr Knight adds.
The move towards zero-waste economies has been driven in part by tougher regulation, such as the landfill tax and EU directives requiring the recycling of cars and electronic equipment, helped by a growing interest in sustainability from consumers. Companies are also more concerned about the increasing scarcity of many resources, their cost and the ability to secure supplies, which these days come from all over the globe, in the face of challenges such as extreme weather events.
“Zero waste is about the economy, it’s about jobs, it’s about savings to industry – it’s not just an environmental thing,” says Iain Gulland, director of Zero Waste Scotland, which is charged with making Scotland a zero-waste economy by 2025. The move will create about 12,000 new green jobs in the country, he adds.
A zero-waste approach can cut upstream costs and increase revenues by locking customers into your service, says David Bent, head of sustainable business at Forum for the Future. “For example, leasing out uniforms instead of selling them would save money for the consumer and vast amounts of resources. Businesses need to find their place in an economy which tries to squeeze the most value out of each atom.”
The other aspect of zero waste is to rethink how products are designed and produced so they retain some value once they come to the end of their primary use, says Alban Foster, a director at SLR Consulting. “Zero-waste thinking demands that a business continually considers better ways of managing any materials that have the potential to be ‘waste’,” he says.
This can range from recycling aluminium drinks cans so they can be used to make new cans, to turning waste from one production process into a totally new product. P&G, for example, is turning toothpaste waste into jewellery cleaner, while UK company Knowaste recycles nappies, turning them into plastic that goes into products from bike helmets to park benches and even flood defences. The process also produces fibre that is used for everything from cardboard packaging to bricks.
“Nappies never rot. They would sit in landfill for at least 500 years,” says Paul Richardson, business development director at the company, which is hoping to build five to ten processing plants around the country that would be capable of dealing with some 40 per cent of the 1.1 million tonnes of nappies and hygiene products currently sent to landfill every year.
Even waste management companies, which you would think is the one sector of the economy that would not embrace the zero-waste concept, are getting in on the act. “Our focus has changed from getting waste out of cities and into landfill to what materials we can find that have value,” says Richard Kirkman, technology director at Veolia.
Technological developments mean that metals can be extracted from street sweepings and plastics from sewage sludge, which can also generate heat and electricity.
“Ultimately, we’re going to need an economy where we don’t burden the natural world with waste,” says Forum for the Future’s Mr Bent. “We don’t need every company to be zero waste; we just need each company to be able to sell its ‘waste’ as ‘food’ to another company – an open-loop economy. Companies need to experiment and invest in new business models where each link round the chain benefits from passing on stuff to the next user, so that nothing goes to waste.”
NOSE TO TAIL IN PARK LANE
A commitment to eliminating waste is not necessarily what you would expect from a glitzy hotel – but that is what is happening at the Lancaster London on Park Lane, one of the capital’s most glamorous addresses.
“We understand that as a hotel and food business, we have a massive carbon footprint,” says Eibhear Coyle, executive assistant manager for operations. “We wanted to reduce our impact.”
The impetus came about when the hotel kitchens underwent a refit. “It was a massive investment and we wanted to make it sustainable for the next 25 years,” Mr Coyle adds. “One of the first things I did was to remove the waste compactors because they made it harder to change the culture among the staff. It is difficult to change the culture because zero waste means more work for staff, but people have bought into it.”
One of the biggest contributors to the hotel’s waste was bottled water, which used to result in 50,000 plastic bottles being thrown away every year. Now the hotel filters and bottles its own water in reusable bottles.
In addition, Lancaster London asked its suppliers either to deliver food in crates that can then be reused or to decant supplies in the loading bay to reduce packaging waste.
Another driver was a desire to achieve a rating from the Sustainable Restaurant Association. Front of house, the hotel’s restaurants and banqueting facilities adopted a “nose-to-tail” approach that reduces food waste by using “forgotten” cuts of meat that are often neglected.
Not only did this reduce costs and the carbon footprint of the dining facilities, but it has also become a selling point, particularly on the banqueting side. “The majority of our customers are big corporations that have their own corporate social responsibility policies and this aligns with their values.”