Battle cry: Where should the War on Waste go next?

With edie's month of editorial content tailored to resource efficiency now in full swing, we highlight six areas where the influential 'War on Waste' circular economy campaign series should head next.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”, according to the famous Chinese general Sun Tzu. But in the War on Waste, half of the battle is becoming aware of the hidden waste streams draining our natural resources and absorbing capital returns.

Celebrity chef-turned eco-warrior Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has acted as the nation’s commander-in-chief in the battle to get incumbent businesses to switch-up business models and stop contributing to a growing mountain of discarded but valuable items considered to be at the end-of-life stage in the value chain.

Fearnley-Whittingstall has so far taken part in a handful of War on Waste TV programmes on BBC One, helping to shed light on the not-so-sustainable discard methods of some of Britain’s biggest retailers.

In episode one, he revealed that as much as 40% of farmers’ crops are rejected by supermarkets because they are not the right shape or colour. His high-profile chastising of these supermarket actions was followed by numerous “wonky veg” schemes cropping up to placate the issue.

Fearnley-Whittingstall turned his attention to the fashion industry for episode two, noting that consumers and retailers bin more than £150m worth of clothes every year in the UK, which end up incinerated or buried in landfill. The response from the fashion industry was less clear cut on this occasion, but some initiatives have been put in place that offer renting or “shwopping” schemes to reduce the amount of clothes lying dormant in wardrobes across the country.

Evidently, there is still more work to be done to drive resource efficiency in a fast-fashion era, but Fearnley-Whittingstall was already embarking on his next high-profile campaign. This time aimed at coffee cups and packaging.

In episode three, the campaign focused on the fact that that more than 5,000 coffee cups are discarded each minute, but less than 1% are actually recycled. Response from the likes of Costa Coffee and Starbucks has seen the launch of innovative in-house recycling and take-back schemes, although criticism aimed towards Amazon has yet to yield results.

The scale of success and response that these campaigns have generated has led some to ask what would happen if the media spotlight was shined on other key waste streams. With this in mind, edie has rounded up six new battlegrounds that should brace themselves for the next War on Waste.

1) Plastic Bottles

The immediate response from some of the brands scrutinised by the War on Waste series has highlighted how social movements and awareness can force change within the private sector.

With a recent Greenpeace report finding that Coca-Cola apparently refused to disclose the size of its plastic footprint, perhaps it’s time to turn the spotlight on plastic bottles. In fact, that report found that the world’s top six bottle brands use a combined average of just 6.6% recycled plastic in their bottles. Around 12 million tonnes of the stuff ends up in our oceans every year and it seems to be the CSR “flavour of the month” amongst firms seeking to use the waste to boost the recycled content of its products.

While companies like Dell and Adidas are now actively using recycled plastics in products, most bottlers are focusing their efforts on developing bioplastics or ‘lightweighting’ – making polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles to reduce costs, plastics-use and carbon emissions. This is commendable, but a general lack of disclosure is harming the industry and a media-centric campaign might finally put a plastic bottle take-back scheme into motion.

2) Plastic workwear

It’s not just plastic bottles that are wreaking havoc as a waste stream. Ultimately, the issue extends to ALL plastics. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has warned that there could be more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050 and Sky’s Ocean Rescue campaign reported that eight million tonnes of plastic is thrown away each year.

But awareness of plastic waste, and innovative mitigation options, are gaining traction, although some hidden streams are doing their best to remain submerged. One single-use plastic that is commonly overlook is overshoes.

Wiltshire-based V12 Footwear recently discovered that engineers working at one of the largest UK utility companies, with around 5,000 engineers, would get through as many as 10 pairs of plastic overshoes daily. According to V12, the company could be sending 70 tonnes of used plastic to landfill each year, no small feat when considering how lightweight they are. The firm has developed MukGuard – which it claims is the “bag for life of the overshoe world” – yet a heightened focused on the company’s using disposal overshoes could ignite a real step change.

3) Black plastic

We promise this round-up isn’t solely plastic related. But, in a similar vein to the coffee cup recycling fiasco, recyclability of black plastic is causing issues amongst Europe’s infrastructure. Black plastic, commonly used for supermarket food trays, is needlessly sent to landfill each year, with volume reaching 1.3 billion discarded products annually.

It has been almost impossible to recycle black plastic due to carbon black pigments, which prevent the packaging from being recognised and sorted by global recycling technologies as they don’t reflect light.

Just last week, WRAP called on UK councils to add black plastic to the list of non-recyclables as 64% are confused about what to recycle. Recycling group Viridor has since teamed up with packaging firm Nextek to develop a new black pigment system, eliminating the need for carbon black and allowing existing near infrared technology to sort the waste and send it off for recycling.

4) Sanitary and hygiene products

Known in the trade as “absorbent hygiene products”, disposable nappies and sanitary items are a huge waste strain for the UK. Around three billion nappies are discarded in the UK and between 1.5 billion and two billion sanitary items are estimated to be flushed down Britain’s toilets each year, contributing to blocked drains and waste ending up in waterways and on beaches.

An innovative and patented new measure from PHS group has found a way to tackle 45,000 tonnes of absorbent hygiene products annually, turning them into burnable bales to fuel power stations.

The use of fuel derived from general refuse is commonplace in the rest of Europe and is growing in the UK, but this is an example of treating the symptoms rather than the cause. While producers and manufacturers have struggled to develop closed-loop streams for this type of waste, heightened scrutiny could encourage greater collaboration, although this issue revolves around post-consumer waste.

5) E-Waste

The upgrade cycles of telecommunications companies and smartphones manufacturers creates a short lifespan for our phones, many of which are tossed aside or lie tangled amongst chargers in what most households would call the “electronics drawer”.

Researchers have already called on the electronics sector to embrace closed-loop systems but other than O2’s flagship recycle initiative, progress has been slow. In Asia, the issue is becoming more severe. A record 16 million tonnes of electronic trash, containing both toxic and valuable materials, was generated in a single year – up 63% in five years.

In China, discarded TVs, phones, computers, monitors, e-toys and small appliances grew by 6.7 million tonnes in 2015 – a 107% increase in just five years. With incumbents slow to move away from profit-driven business models, warfare could soon turn digital.

6) Mattresses

An estimated 167,000 tonnes of mattresses are sent to landfill each year in the UK. Mattresses are difficult to recycle due to the manual separation of the springs, which can take as long as half a day for a single mattress.

The Furniture Recycling Group (TFR) has designed the world’s first automated pocket-spring recycling machine to lower this process to two-and-a-half minutes, which then enables the two products to be sold on, re-used or recycled. The process has helped TFR recycle 700,000 mattresses at a recycling rate of 96% and a landfill diversion rate of 100%. But the group still wants to see more done.

While TFR is quick to credit retailers that have incorporated take-back schemes for mattresses, duvets and pillows – retailer IKEA has trialled a closed-loop re-use initiative on hard-to-dispose-of products – it is concerned that a producer responsibility scheme is still absent. A new focus on this waste stream could ignite a change in producing habits.

edie’s Resource Management Month

March is edie’s Resource Management Month, with a series of exclusive interviews, features and podcasts running throughout the month to drill down on the most effective ways of driving a resource revolution.

From recycling and recovery to closed-loop solutions, our Resource Management Month will explore the various ways businesses can help to deliver an economy that has moved away from ‘take, make, waste’ to a circular economy-based model based on resource efficiency, re-use and redistribution.

Read all of our resource management content here.

Matt Mace

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