Moving beyond paper

Environment Business looks at the role of procurement in driving recycling forward and asks why companies are reluctant to buy non-paper recycled products

Unless businesses, the public sector and consumers not only seek to recycle more of their waste but also look to purchase more products made from recycled materials, the recycling loop will never be truly closed.

Placing paper in the recycling bin does not constitute recycling. To complete the loop – and the recycling process – businesses need to purchase post-consumer recycled paper. This applies across the board, to plastics, aluminium and materials such as recycled aggregates for construction use.

This has led to a number of UK initiatives aimed at changing procurement patterns to reduce environmental impacts and support and stimulate recycling, perhaps most noticeably in the public sector.

Central government spends around £13bn/year on goods and services – including over 21,000t of copier paper. It is hoped that a recent commitment to buy recycled paper will save 350,000 trees, enough energy to heat 10,000 homes and 1.3bn litres of water every year. An existing Department for Transport contract has already reduced waste going to landfill by 11,500t.

Quick wins

But a glance over the Office of Government Commerce’s list of products described as “quick wins” suggests that buying recycled isn’t as easy as it could be. The list is dominated by energy efficient appliances and biodegradable detergents, with only recycled paper products recommended.

“We understand that it’s not easy to source cost-effective products in suitable quantities to meet the strict specifications required,” says Tina Perfrement, of market development programme London Remade, which has been heavily involved in developing the London Mayor’s Green Procurement Code. The code, launched in 2001, has proved successful in stimulating demand for recycled goods, and will hopefully act as a template for the future.

As part of the scheme, London Remade has identified over 100 locally manufactured products made from recycled materials. These range from recycled stationery such as pencils made from recycled vending cups and mouse mats made from tyres; to loft insulation made from newspapers; and paving materials and decorative tiles made from recycled glass.

Looking beyond paper

Research by Wastebusters shows over £11.8m worth of products was procured by signatories in one year. Over 10,000t of paper has been diverted from landfill. But once again, paper dominated, accounting for £9.6m of the spend.

Dr David Moon, procurement programme manager at WRAP (the Waste & Resources Action Programme) says: “We’ve got to get people to realise that there’s more to buying recycled than just buying recycled paper.” He believes there are several reasons why companies have generally failed to look beyond paper products. “Paper is the one product where organisations perceive a risk to reputation if they don’t use it, companies don’t feel the same pressure with other products,” he says. Cost is another. “In the private sector, a lot of organisations are willing to do things on sustainability grounds when there is no cost, but when you ask them to pay a premium things are different.”

Ed Douglas Miller, managing director of Remarkable, one of the UK’s leading producers of recycled products, says the reasons are fairly simple. “Recycling paper a lot easier than a lot of other products,” he says. “And one thing that stops companies buying good quality products apart from paper is that there aren’t many available. You want people to buy recycled, but if the products aren’t there they can’t, and if what’s there is of poor quality they won’t buy it again.”

Simple measures bring success

The London Borough of Wandsworth has shown that simple measures can make a big impact, buying 100% recycled plastic bags to distribute to residents for the collection of its household recyclable waste. The problem still exists however of the perception of recycled products as being of poor quality – and to dispel the perception that only recycled stationary products are available.

“It depends on the ability of industry to come up with ways of reusing the materials we collect,” a council spokesperson said. “For example, at the moment we’re buying a lot of recycled plastic traffic bollards – which is an inventive and effective use of plastics. We would be very willing to purchase even more as soon as the products are on the market.”

These are problems that suppliers must move quickly to address. Organisations such as WRAP and London Remade are working hard to change the negative attitudes that still prevail about quality and cost, and to overcome inertia among purchasing managers, but meaningful recycling means a closed recycling loop, and while this may be a reality for paper, other waste streams have a long way to go.

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