Waste gets an ethical makeover at John Lewis

John Lewis Partnership prides itself on its honest and open relationship with customers - it's a philosophy that is now filtering down to its waste operations, as Maxine Perella finds out

Retailing is essentially a clean industry in terms of waste management as very little is produced in the way of challenging or hazardous materials. But that hasn’t deterred John Lewis Partnership (JLP) from taking a very thoughtful approach to its waste arisings – and one that other retailers would do well to follow.

For JLP, it’s not just about achieving zero waste to landfill targets – that would almost be too easy according to the company’s recycling & waste operations manager Mike Walters. He strongly feels that corporate accountability for waste arisings should stretch beyond the point at which material changes hands with a contractor or reprocessor.

“To have a clear waste strategy we need to have control over what happens to it,” he explains. “The general view out there seems to be once you pass it on, it’s no longer your waste. I can’t buy into that.”

While JLP aspires to zero waste, its current diversion target stands at 95% by the end of 2013. That extra 5% diversion will likely not be achieved until 2020 because of the company’s strict policy in defining what still goes to landfill – for instance, any fly ash residue from energy recovery.

“There are undoubtedly pressures on me because how can our competitors have a fanfare about diverting 100% of their waste years ahead of schedule and then there’s me saying it won’t happen until 2020. I wouldn’t dream of saying any of their claims are misleading, but they are applying one measure,” Walters asserts.

The approach JLP is taking is admirable because holistically, it is the right thing to do – it is also highly transparent. The company takes ownership of all of its waste right through to the end destination. That means keeping materials in the UK rather than exporting them abroad, and looking at the carbon impact of every diversion strategy.

Such accountability has resulted in some tough decisions along the way. The company has streamlined the number of waste contractors it deals with – from 30 to five. Walters says the process was quite painful, as many of the companies it had to let go were providing a good level of service – but with 30 different data sets it was impossible to manage waste flows in a uniform way.

“Strategically we have made a decision to focus on UK recycling and that seems to be bearing fruit now. Consolidating our contractor base gives us full transparency of our waste flows … I can then start looking at all the ways we can utilise the output from it,” explains Walters.

And closing the loop is where JLP wants to be. In 2011-12 the company generated in total just over 67,000 tonnes of operational waste across its John Lewis and Waitrose stores – while the majority of this was sent for recycling (66%), of the 23% that was recovered through energy-from-waste, food waste accounted for 6,495 tonnes.

Cawleys is contracted to take the food waste, most of which gets channelled through 10 different anaerobic digestion (AD) plants depending on location. If there is no local AD facility, it goes for in-vessel composting, but the long-term aim is to process it all through AD because of the energy potential.

“As a business we would love to have a call on the energy output. We buy green electricity and have done for a few years, but to draw off gas to power transport is an interest we have in the future,” Walters says.

That said, JPL’s stance on food waste is to redistribute it wherever possible, providing it is still fit for consumption. “The core aim has to be consuming food, it’s grown for consumption, we should be sure at every opportunity that its primary purpose is met. Would I ever foresee commercial considerations overtaking that? No. Having it eaten, whether by a human or animal, would always be our focus,” Walters maintains.

Another waste stream which could prove beneficial for the business is soft plastics – around 3,500 tonnes a year get sent to Centriforce Products for extrusion, but Walters is looking at ways to utilise this material for new store builds in the future. JLP is already putting the waste wood from its pallets and old beds to good use – next year this material will power one of its new energy centres.

Further up the hierarchy, Walters says reuse will become increasingly important, particularly with the bulkier items that John Lewis delivers. Here, drivers will be encouraged to offer a “white glove service” through its customer takeback service so that used items are not treated as waste, but as having potential for a second life.

“We’ve been backhauling products for many years, that unlocks the ability to recycle. And by utilising the space in our vehicles, we can also backhaul packaging materials too – we are now doing that with polystyrene for our white goods appliances. Previously it would have gone into our compactors but it is so voluminous, it doesn’t squash up tight. Now its backhauled by one of our waste contractors and we’ve halved the number of disposal journeys,” Walters says.

Asked where JPL has made the greatest gains in its waste management drive, Walters points to better source-segregation of materials and staff buy-in. JPL is somewhat unique for a big business as every employee owns a stake in the company so arguably it is in their interest to diligently recycle or reuse what they can. That said, there are still challenges but joining the dots between resource efficiency and income generation can work wonders.

“We are very transparent about where our waste goes, but also we give our staff actual figures – so they can see how much a tonne of cardboard or plastic generates in income for our business. And the more profit we generate across the company, the bigger the bonus,” Walters points out.

Commercially, there is a very straightforward way of thinking about waste, he adds: “Every tonne of waste buried in landfill costs us more than £100, and this increases every year”. Once businesses take that as their starting point, the rest often falls into place.

Maxine Perella is Waste Market Editor of edie

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