Last reviewed 15 June 2021

Recent reports of UK recycling dumped in Turkey clearly demonstrate that we need to do more to manage our waste. Laura King considers what businesses can do, and why.

In the UK we use over five million tonnes of plastic per year and produce some of the highest volumes of plastic waste per person in the world. Around half of the plastic used is in the form of packaging, and much of our plastic waste is sent to landfill or for incineration. What is separated for recycling is often exported due to the UK not currently having enough domestic capacity.

Although waste can only be exported if it is to be recycled or dealt with properly, investigations by organisations such as the BBC and Greenpeace have found that this is not always the case, bringing to light evidence that our recycling waste is being illegally dumped. Inevitably, this means that our waste is leaking into the environment causing numerous problems locally, nationally and globally.

Such reports raise wider questions, not only about the ethics of exporting our waste for others to deal with and the issues with improper disposal, but also about our way of life that leads to the creation of rubbish in the first place. Plastic waste has been a campaign focal point for the last few years, but the overarching problems and principles that have brought plastic into focus largely hold for all materials. Namely, that as a nation, we are using too many resources, including plastic, and throwing too much away with severe consequences.

Indeed, a recent report by Green Alliance reported that: “The UN has suggested that a sustainable level of overall resource consumption is between six and eight tonnes per person per year. In the UK, we consume twice that, at 14.7 tonnes”.

The report argues that the solution is systematic change that tackles resource management not only through product standards and design principles, but also through tackling behaviour and business models.

What can businesses do?

As a corporate citizen, businesses can address waste both within their own operations, as well as in the goods and services they sell. Below are five ways to reduce waste and improve resource consumption.

1. Follow the waste hierarchy

Despite reports of illegally dumped materials, recycling is still a critical part of managing waste. However, although important, recycling should not be the first tool used and instead the age-old saying reduce, reuse, recycle should be followed as per the waste hierarchy.

This means that although exciting recycling solutions can often have more PR appeal, reducing waste should always come first, followed by re-use (for example, by cleaning, repairing or refurbishing).

Taking packaging for example, the first question should always be whether it is essential, can it be removed by design? If it is needed, the second question should be whether there are options or business models for re-use. Finally, if all other options are exhausted, any packaging should be 100% recyclable.

2. Optimise waste collections

There is little point adopting new recycling initiatives or investing in new environmentally friendly products if the waste industry is not able to support your efforts. For example, in the UK many bio-plastics should not be recycled with traditional plastics as they cause contamination, and some compostable packaging is only suitable for industrial composting facilities, rather than facilities more akin to home composting.

Speak with waste contractors about what materials they can take, and if selling a product, consider what disposal options are available to the end user.

It is also worth considering how well waste is managed within the workplace and talking with contractors about how well the business is optimising its waste collection. Are recycling points well-used? How much contamination is there? Are there alternative options?

3. Procurement policies

Procurement can be a key way to reduce material consumption and many resource-friendly and circular economy principles can be integrated into purchasing decisions. For example, consider whether there are non-ownership-based sourcing options? Can specifications require that products are easily repaired, or made from regenerative sources or recycled content? The Ellen Macarthur Foundation offers some high-level guidance in its Circular Economy Procurement Framework.

4. Circular economy principles

The circular economy is an alternative to the traditional linear economic model of make, use and dispose. Instead, it describes a way of working that aims to decouple resource use from growth by designing out waste and pollution, keeping resources in use for as long as possible and extracting the highest value from them before re-integrating them into the system through re-use or recycling.

Consider whether any circular economy business models could be used by the organisation, for example, offering services that are paid for according to use or outcome achieved, identifying uses and alternative markets for waste streams, offering incentives to return products for refurbishment or re-sale, or designing products which have a long life and can be refurbished and repaired.

5. Linking resource efficiency and carbon

Resource efficiency and reducing waste may not be as glamourous as other environmental actions, but, is just as important and can represent a boost to efforts such as carbon reduction targets. Linking the two may provide more leverage for resource efficiency, especially if a reporting framework is already in place for carbon.

A report by WRAP found that eight relatively simple resource-efficient strategies could deliver 89 MtCO2e in UK emissions; over 10% of the carbon reductions required to shift from the UK’s fifth (1,725 MtCO2e) to sixth (965 MtCO2e) carbon budget. Many of the steps highlighted link into the same concepts required by more circular thinking, for example by:

  • switching from buying goods to purchasing services

  • making the maximum use of products, for example, by not building in functional obsolescence

  • increasing the use of recycling in the UK, for example, by joining organisations such as the Plastics Pact to help create new markets for recycling plastics.

Reasons to act

A Client Earth report published in 2018 highlighted some of the risks to businesses of plastic waste. Although targeted towards plastic, many of the risks are not dissimilar to those faced by businesses who do not place due regard on their resource use or create unnecessary waste. Ultimately, all improperly managed resources have a huge impact on the environment, human health, climate change and societies, and as the linear model becomes more unsustainable, so too do businesses that do not adopt alternative ways of thinking.

Risks highlighted include:

  • transitional risks: arising from the shift to a circular economic model and resulting in increased legislation and disruptive innovations

  • reputational risks: if a company is not seen as doing “the right thing” or if shown to play a part in a problem, reputational risks include the loss of licence to operate, loss of brand value, or disengagement by investors

  • physical risks: for example, direct risks such as the impact of pollution on tourism.

Summary

As a country we have become increasingly aware of the impact of our waste on natural systems as well as other societies. Reports such as those from the BBC and Greenpeace will continue to raise awareness, along with high profile corporate efforts (consider increasingly common commitments by supermarkets to reduce plastic packaging). Businesses can look to internal operations, as well as the goods and services they provide to improve resource efficiency and reduce waste. Opportunities include adopting the waste hierarchy, good procurement policy, understanding waste collection services, considering waste within the context of climate efforts, and considering new circular business