Last reviewed 13 March 2018

All environment managers are striving to reduce the levels of waste their estates are producing. Dave Howell asks whether achieving zero waste to landfill — and a corresponding 100% recycling goal — is possible today?

The recent high-profile headlines about single-use plastic bottles and the need to reduce waste entering the environment has placed the impact of the waste everyone produces at the top of the environmental agenda.

Environment managers have of course been endeavouring to reduce the quantities of waste their estates produce for several years. However, there is now a new impetus to do even more.

Consumers and commercial partners are increasingly using environmental credentials as a differentiator when choosing who to buy goods and services from. The question is, is the drive to 100% recycling and zero waste to landfill a realistic goal for all companies and organisations?

As no two businesses or organisations are the same, developing a zero-waste-to-landfill policy that can be implemented will mean a bespoke approach. And there is a clear urgency. Taking the initiative is a call to action for all environment managers. PwC, for instance, launched its “let’s talk rubbish” campaign to educate its employees and reduce the confusion about what can be recycled and how waste should be handled as the company moved to achieve zero-waste-to-landfill status.

Many businesses have shouted about their achievement of zero-waste-to-landfill status. This has been in part a reaction to the continued rise in costs associated with sending waste to landfill. “Diverting food waste away from landfill has also become an important part of business action on the urgent challenge of climate change,” states the Carbon Trust. “Currently around 3% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions comes just from the methane arising from the decomposition of biodegradable waste at landfill sites.”

Legislation could also play a part. Scotland will place a ban on municipal biodegradable waste by 2020. It’s likely that the rest of the UK will follow this lead to tackle the levels of food waste in particular that continue to expand despite efforts to reduce these levels.

Focus on food

The continuing issue of food waste is a major component of the drive to achieve zero to landfill. The UK throws away in excess of 14 million tonnes of food each year. For environment managers, the micro-scale of their food procurement and understanding the supply chain they buy from, plus how waste food is treated, are insights that need to come into sharp focus.

In its report, the Vision 2020 initiative states: “The challenges of dealing with food waste are complex but this should not hold back change. With clear direction, we can create opportunities that will drive the positive environmental, economic and social outcomes, for the greater good.”

Food waste needs to move up the waste hierarchy to gain positive action from every business and organisation. However, understanding and managing waste food and how this is dealt with is only one side of the equation. Environment managers should look carefully at every stage of their procurement to reduce to a minimum the levels of food waste actually being produced.

How waste food is managed by recycling partnerships is also essential. Energy from waste plants and anaerobic digesters should be part of the waste management lifecycle to maximise food waste as a resource. The industry is moving in the right direction, but more integrated services are needed that environment managers can tap into, as they develop their waste policies.

Going circular

The ideas behind the circular economy are well-defined. Environment managers have been pushing their development of end-to-end procurement and disposal for over a decade.

Since China announced a ban on importing plastic for recycling, recycling service providers will have to expand their capabilities and service provision to meet the shortfall initially. However, environment managers can ease this pressure by implementing their own initiatives.

Figures obtained by The Guardian newspaper reveal that a million plastic bottles are purchased globally every minute of the day, with this figure set to jump by 20% by 2020. Bottles could be produced from rPET, which is 100% recycled plastic. Environment organisations such as Greenpeace are campaigning for the largest producers of plastic bottles to switch as soon as possible.

Businesses such as Network Rail have already announced plans to trial drinking water facilities at London Charing Cross station to enable users to refill plastic water bottles. David Biggs, Network Rail’s Managing Director of Property said: “By introducing free water fountains at our managed stations we can make a simple change that not only helps quench the thirst of station users, but also has a positive impact on our sustainability ambitions by reducing single-use plastics. We’re looking forward to the introduction of these water fountains and the benefits they will bring the public and the environment.”

Achieving zero waste to landfill is possible for all businesses or organisations but it is important to understand what this means from a practical standpoint. Does zero really mean zero?

Environment managers should clearly understand that zero waste isn’t the same as zero waste to landfill. Zero waste is often an aspiration where business will work towards eliminating waste upstream and downstream. Whereas, zero waste to landfill is a defined certification that can be shown to have been achieved.

Ultimately, environment managers need to understand how they can use the concepts embedded in the circular economy. How their policy on waste can be updated and how the relationships with their recycling and waste removal partners can be reinforced to deliver a roadmap that enables them to achieve zero-waste-to-landfill status.