Shopping for an EMS

In June last year, as part of a pilot project to extend European EMAS (Eco-Management and Audit Scheme) regulation beyond the manufacturing sector, Sainsbury's distribution centre in Basingstoke became the first site of its kind in the UK to achieve registration. Jacqui Darby, environmental services assistant manager at Sainsbury's Distribution explains the rigours and benefits of implmenting EMAS.

With 405 stores serving over nine million customers each week, Sainsbury’s Supermarkets Ltd, part of the J Sainsbury Group, is one of the largest retailers in the UK. Virtually all of J Sainbury Group’s activities have an impact on the environment, and its aim is to reduce their effects through a programme of continuous environmental improvement. The Environmental Management Department is currently developing and embedding environmental management systems into each of the operating companies. All 12 of Sainsbury’s strategic targets focus on key environmental issues.

Serving the Sainsbury’s stores is a network of 19 regional distribution centres (RDCs) which make up the Sainsbury’s Distribution Division. It was at one of these RDCs in 1997 that the decision was made to go for EMAS, the European Eco-Management and Audit Scheme; considering the age and structure of the site, it would not be a simple task. At the same time, the RDC would be accomplishing the first target in the 1998 J Sainsbury plc environment report.

As EMAS was only available to the manufacturing sector, with a special extension to local authorities, the European Union was keen to test its applicability in other industry sectors so that the revised regulation could be written. As part of a project with West London Trade and Enterprise Council (TEC), Basingstoke RDC became the pilot site for the distribution sector.

Basingstoke RDC in North Hampshire is one of the company’s largest RDCs, covering 32 acres and employing over 750 people. It was built in 1963 on a green field site and was originally developed for meat and cheese production. However, as production lines decreased and ambient food storage increased, the building has been extended a number of times. All production lines stopped in 1989. The result is a building holding many different warehouses – far from purpose-built for its current use.

Environmental effects

The RDC receives goods from suppliers in bulk, stores them, and then breaks them down into individual store orders. It is a 24-hour-a-day, 364-day-a-year operation, delivering to about 80 stores in the south of England, on over 230 outgoing journeys every day. The site holds ambient foods, non-foods, fresh produce and chilled perishable products. Both the produce and perishable goods are stored in refrigerated warehouses, maintained at different temperatures.

The site employed a consultant from Business Eco Network Ltd to aid implementation, and the whole process on-site was co-ordinated from the Distribution Environmental Services.

The first step towards EMAS was to identify the site’s significant environmental effects – both those under direct control and those which can only be influenced, such as transport. Teams of volunteers from all areas were assigned to investigate the issues and come up with recommendations on how they could be improved. The project teams consisted of a cross section of staff: management, non-management and contracted staff all worked together to recommend environmental improvements – enthusiasm, rather than knowledge of subject, was the prerequisite. A host of recommendations were put forward to the management review team, chaired by senior RDC manager Nigel Basey, which resulted in a programme of objectives and targets. The work of environmental improvement then began.

The significant environmental effects fall into four distinct categories: waste; energy; water use and discharge; and local environment.

Waste Cardboard, polythene and damaged products make up the bulk of the waste on site, in all resulting in more than 850 tonnes being sent to landfill every year. As a result of EMAS, improved systems for segregation have been implemented and the site is now recycling around half a tonne of shrink wrap and one tonne of cardboard per week, reducing the total figure by 75 tonnes per year; this, compared to five tonnes of card and just one tonne of shrink wrap in the whole of the previous year.

Ambient foods and non-foods, which are still consumable but not suitable for sale (such as dented tins, soiled labels), are donated to Grocery Aid – a national charity which distributes products to local charities across the UK in a controlled manner. Organic waste is collected by a local farm which uses it for animal feed. All these measures have led to a reduction in landfill of about 25%, saving the site over £8,000 per year.

Energy There are three main uses of electricity on site: lighting, battery charging for mechanical handling equipment (MHE) – trucks used in the warehouse to move goods around – and refrigeration. All three are almost continuous and seemed an obvious target for improvement. Old, inefficient doors between warehouses with differing controlled-temperature requirements have been replaced with five new fast-acting doors which stay closed when not in use.

Lighting is being installed in six locations around the site, which turn off automatically when nobody is around. Office staff were given a presentation on how to save money at home, as well as cutting down on energy use at work.

Water use There are two cooling towers as part of the refrigeration process, which purge water to prevent calcium build-up. Installing a water-softening system has reduced the hardness of the water and, therefore, the requirement to purge as frequently. Chemicals used for descaling are no longer required and associated labour costs are not incurred.

Local environment The RDC is situated about 500m from the source of a local river, into which storm drains flow directly. As the site has its own fuel station and lorry wash, these areas were identified as posing the greatest pollution risk, and so control measures have been put in place to ensure that this risk is minimised. Inspection and monitoring procedures have been introduced to highlight potential problems before an incident occurs. The drains across the site are clearly identified so that you can tell at a glance whether or not they lead to foul sewers or surface waters.

Part of the drainage system adjacent to the waste compactors has been re-routed from surface water to foul, as it was identified that the surface water was at risk from any run-off from the compactors.

Hearts and minds From the beginning, the key issue was commitment from staff. Technological solutions are easier to find and implement – the hard bit comes when trying to influence “hearts and minds”. It is difficult to communicate effectively to 750 staff, especially when people work on different shift patterns. Through a series of presentations, over half of the staff were seen face-to-face to allow the opportunity for questions to be answered. And although mail-shots were carried out and notices were put up, it is still hard to gauge how effectively the message has been put across. Setting up project teams to look at individual environmental issues certainly helped, and a lot of positive feedback was received. Participation of colleagues in finding solutions on-site has led to an increased awareness of environmental issues and demonstrated how people can effect their own environment.

Colleague involvement has certainly played a key role in the success of EMAS. A success that Nigel Basey is proud of: “Working towards the EMAS standard gave us a platform which we used to fully involve all colleagues – management, warehouse operatives, engineers, drivers and cleaners – to get together and try to improve environmental issues that are under our control. We explored the main issues that the groups raised and then empowered colleagues to investigate further. EMAS has not only played its part in helping the environment, it has also helped to reduce costs in certain areas and has been an excellent tool for self development.”

The work certainly does not stop there. To ensure continuing commitment, under the guidance of the site’s EMAS management representative, the project teams continue to review progress against the programme of targets and see how the system can be progressed. Warehouse operatives have been trained as EMS auditors, so the whole system is internally audited – and externally validated – on an annual basis.

There are two major changes which have been implemented to improve efficiency and environmental impact in the way that RDCs work:

  • “pick on receipt” – chilled products are received from suppliers, and instead of being stored in racking, the store orders are picked directly off the boards onto roll-cages. Currently 20% of Basingstoke’s perishable products are handled this way with the aim being that the whole chilled warehouse will use this procedure. This greatly reduces the use of MHE, therefore saving electricity on battery charging.
  • finger scanning – warehouse operatives in perishable and ambient warehouses have a wrist-based screen which tells them which product to pick next. When fully implemented across the division, it is projected that it will save over 1,400 tonnes of paper each year, and improve the quality and accuracy of orders.

EMAS at Basingstoke RDC was the start of an EMS roll-out programme to all Sainsbury’s owned RDCs. The next RDC to receive the EMAS treatment is Charlton RDC in southeast London, and work will begin at Haydock in Merseyside next year.

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