Waste woe warning of London’s lunchtime litter

While as a city recycling rates are showing every sign of climbing, London's lunchtime still creates a mountain of waste every day as workers head for the nearest shop, tuck into a pre-packaged meal and dump the litter and left over in the bin. London Remade looks at the problem.

Recycling household waste is increasingly becoming second nature with the majority of local authorities providing door to door collections. As many as eight out of ten Londoners now receive a collection from home.

In contrast, the environmental cost of lunchtime waste is higher than ever with little infrastructure in place to encourage good recycling behaviour. London alone produces approximately 263 tonnes of waste every lunchtime, enough to fill Trafalgar Square every week.

This level of waste is simply not sustainable and the UK cannot continue to cope with the amount of rubbish being produced.

But does responsibility lie with the producer or consumer? Excess packaging, often surplus to requirements, makes a major contribution to the high levels of lunchtime waste currently being produced.

Retailers respond to market demand and simply by choosing to buy food which is not over packaged, the consumer makes an important statement.

Fruit and vegetables packaged in surplus plastic are a prime example of needless excess packaging.

Taking your own carrier bag to the supermarket or reusing the paper bags, napkins and plastic spoons offered by sandwich shops as a matter of course is another simple and effective to reduce your levels of waste.

Plastic bags are one of the few forms of waste that cannot be recycled but they can be reused.

The Republic of Ireland introduced an environmental levy on plastic bags in 2002 in an attempt to reduce the 1.2 billion bags being given out every year. The levy resulted in a 90% reduction in the number of plastic bags used by shoppers.

Closed Loop London is tackling the lunchtime waste issue by working with iconic retail and fast food organisations to help raise awareness of the closed loop recycling process, fuel the supply of recyclable material and generate demand for recycled packaging.

More retailers need to ensure that packaging is compliant in that it is both recyclable and where possible, that it contains recycled material.

Leading sandwich retailer Marks & Spencer is leading the way in offering recycled packaging in its ‘Food to Go’ and produce ranges for a six month London based trial.

Over 300,000 sandwiches are sold every day at Marks & Spencer meaning the initiative will have a major impact on reducing levels of lunchtime waste. With such a major player leading the way, it is hoped that others will follow.

Marks & Spencer worked closely with Closed Loop London and WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) to implement the scheme during which customers are encouraged to participate in the recycling process by placing their discarded packaging at collection bins available at four central London stores.

Raising consumer awareness and participation in closed loop recycling schemes is an important part of the process in addition to ensuring the packaging materials they use are compatible to enter a recycling stream.

The packaging used throughout the trial tackles both aspects of recyclability as it contains a significant recycled content percentage as well as being fully recyclable, providing a commercial example of a business that can operate in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner.

The project won the Tetra Pak Environmental Award at the IGD Food Industry awards as well as the Best Retail Recycling Initiative at the National Recycling awards in October 2005.

The success of the project indicates how retailers can work with a number of companies, including food and packaging producers, to pool resources and expertise in creating a fully sustainable product on a mass scale.

On the other side of the scale, consumers can also take simple steps to reduce the level of waste they produce. Refilling a plastic drink bottle at home rather than buying a new bottle every day or making a thermos flask of coffee in place of take-out coffee is both economical and sustainable.

Making a packed lunch at least a couple times a week is another way to reduce the levels of waste produced.

Removing or reducing the number of rubbish bins by the side of desks is an effective way to encourage good recycling behaviour. Nearly everything in the workplace can be recycled including a large proportion of lunchtime waste.

An office wormery is an ideal way of disposing of organic lunchtime waste such as fruit and teabags.

Staff should take the initiative to encourage their employers to implement recycling facilities in the workplace. Setting up an office recycling scheme is a simple two-step process of sourcing containers to store the recyclable materials and arranging a regular collection. Visit www.wasteonline.org.uk for further information.

Looking to the future, the 2012 Olympic Games will provide an important catalyst for change. London is committed to making the 2012 Olympic Games the most sustainable event held in the capital, providing the ideal channel through which to encourage recycling.

It is vital that the recycling facilities put in place are not limited to Olympic venues but are available in all public places across London. As well as enabling the city to accommodate the influx of visitors generated by the Games this will leave a long term legacy for recycling once they are over.

The Sydney 2000 Games generated a rise in the city’s overall recycling rates which increased to over 60%, partly as a result of the games and the heightened awareness associated with the recycling initiatives implemented.

Furthermore, through the introduction of a closed loop recycling programme developed by Visy Closed Loop, (the Australian parent company of Closed Loop London) 75% of all waste generated by the Games was diverted from landfill, setting a new benchmark for environmental performance.

London Remade is currently working with the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games to provide guidance on all aspects of sustainability including a closed loop system for all catering contracts and recycling.

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