Rolling in it

According to a government survey, office waste costs UK business more than £15B a year. Dr David Gillett calls on today's firms to realise the win-win commercial and environmental benefits of going green

It is alarming reading that more than 70% of office waste can be reused yet only 7.5% reaches a recycling facility.

In fact, the average office worker prints 1,584 sheets of paper in a single month, with 80.6M tonnes of printing entering the waste stream as a result. This represents 24% of total UK waste and is squandering 560,000 gallons of water, 1,360 trees and 320,000 kilowatts of energy year on year.

The UK government has responded by setting ambitious targets to reduce biodegradable waste being sent to landfill by 75% of that produced in 1995 by 2010 and a further 30% by 2013. This is reinforced by the Producer Pre-Treatment Requirement of the European Union Landfill Directive, which came into force in October last year (see page 52 for more details), and means that businesses of any size can no longer send non-hazardous waste to landfill without prior treatment. One form of treatment and probably the route that most businesses will go, involves the segregation of waste streams including recyclable material, at source.

The Pre-Treatment Requirement aims both to reduce the amount of non-hazardous waste going to landfill and to reduce the impact of waste when it is landfilled. In doing so, it should spell the end of the traditional mixed bins of waste that are found in most businesses, with those businesses that do not comply breaking the law and risking action from the Environment Agency. So why the slow pace of change? The answer lies with SMEs, which represent 99% of all UK companies and are responsible for half the country’s economic output. According to a recent YouGov survey, Recycling in the UK plc – a State of the Workplace Report, SMEs are not taking their recycling responsibilities seriously, or those that do are frustrated by a lack of available recycling collection services.

It reveals that many SMEs are likely to be falling short of the legislation. While this is mainly due to a lack of awareness, with more than 80% uninformed about the legislation, more than a third of SMEs were planning not to meet the requirement because they considered difficult to enforce did not have time for another piece of red tape.

Interestingly, 80% of SME directors were also not aware that, if they do not recycle, they would have to pay their waste contractor to do the segregation for them – leading to higher disposal costs.

Going green is also easier said than done, according to our report, with a need for local authorities and private waste contractors to promote their recycling services better. More than 10% of SMEs have difficulties finding a contractor and 13% do not use one because they are not aware of any recycling facilities in the area. There is no doubt that SMEs, in particular, need to do more when it comes to environmental responsibility.

Better education

Looking ahead, there is a clear need to better educate businesses about their obligations, the recycling options that are available and the advantages on offer. There is a wealth of organisations to help companies reduce waste, including BREW, Envirowise, the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme and WRAP. Information, advice and specific case studies are available to promote the environmental case for recycling and, importantly, how to encourage staff participation. This is key since less than 30% of businesses have significant management systems in place such as setting recycling targets, introducing staff education programmes, appointing an environmental manager or showing recycling performance as a KPI in monthly management reports. Such lack of leadership is preventing pro activity and recycling commitment, as well as the opportunity to overcome misconceptions that reducing waste is too difficult.

WRAP, in particular, has been influential through its SME recycling programme, which was set up in 2004 to investigate a range of factors to improve businesses’ recycling rates. While this will not continue next year, its good practice guidance and recycling trials have helped to showcase that businesses can recycle effectively, regardless of their size and location.

Finally, if businesses need an economic incentive to recycle more, they can look no further than their bottom line. Attracting the green pound is now a multi-million pound industry, with a direct connection between environmental good practice and increased profitability. In fact, one in four UK consumers are more likely to spend their money with a company that recycles or reduces its energy consumption.

Long-term effects

The nation does not need another government report or research study to understand the long-term effects of our reliance on landfill. The message is loud and clear as Britain’s recycling rate – currently one of the lowest in Europe – continues to make the headlines.

The issue is that despite the government rhetoric, positive action from SMEs has been lacking and we need to counter the belief that reducing waste is too difficult, too expensive, or both. Without this, Whitehall’s great white hope of meeting ambitious landfill targets could be nothing more than a great white elephant.

Dr David Gillett is director of Taylor Intelligence, a division of Taylor, the UK waste and recycling containment solutions provider. Taylor Intelligence commissioned the YouGov survey mentioned in the article

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