Last week saw the seventeenth – seventeenth, blimey – meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art (an amazing venue, see above). Due to a couple of members being called away at the last minute, we postponed our proposed topic of maximising the value of accreditations, and did a series of short sharp sessions on topics that were bothering those in the room. The first of these was 'waste' and I thought I'd share some of the learning points arising:
Understand your waste streams, volumes and disposal routes
The true cost of waste is 10-30x disposal cost – and it ramps up from goods in to goods out as value is added
Use the 80:20 Rule – go for the big issues first eg product damaged at the end of the process
However, need to be cognisant of 'iconic' waste streams such as coffee cups. They may not be significant in practice, but laypeople often believe otherwise
General societal culture change in domestic recycling helps with recycling at work
Because it is tangible, waste can be used as an effective ‘entry drug’ for wider employee engagement for Sustainability.
Make sure reducing waste is always incentivised eg in tenancy agreements
Involve employees in developing waste solutions – you get better solutions and buy in
Don't empty recycling bins containing ‘wrong’ materials – makes the point very clearly
Make segregation easy and use a standard colour/logo scheme
Seeing somebody have to sort out mis-segregated materials can lead to a positive guilt trip (eg show the consequences)
Educate employees including understanding the benefits (eg £ per bag)
Be careful with Waste Transfer Note terms & conditions – you could be signing an ongoing contract
Supermarkets are particularly good at waste reduction from suppliers – much to learn from them
Reduce ‘bought in waste’ from suppliers
Lean manufacturing techniques target and eradicate waste
Order dimensions and quantities carefully to avoid waste
Construction Site Waste Management Plans may not be legally required by law any more, but you can still insist on them in construction projects
Can use objective-oriented procurement and forward commitment procurement to drive innovation in waste management services
There has been a raft of big Sustainability announcements from Corporations recently:
Ikea achieving zero waste last year;
Google saying they'll be 100% renewable-powered by the end of the year;
Unilever's pledge to make all its plastic packaging ‘fully reusable, recyclable or compostable’ by 2025.
These are BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals) and a half. And what's more they're being delivered. That's because big stretch targets such as zero waste or 100% renewable energy make you think in a quite different way to incremental targets. Business as usual will not do the job, neither will Sustainability as a bolt on.
Yesterday I was at the North East Recycling Forum annual conference, which believe it or not is one of the very few events I attend as a punter (all those commercial conference promoters are wasting their time). Why? Because the speakers are uniformly great and there's always plenty of food for thought.
However, the focus of the 5 speakers was almost entirely on the supply side of recyclates. So I stuck up my hand in the Q&A and asked should we not focus on the demand side - after all in a circular economy, demand will have more influence over supply than vice-versa. The speakers agreed and gave some really good ideas, such as dropping recycling targets altogether and shifting them into producer responsibility legislation to drive the use of secondary materials.
Great, but why aren't we talking about this more? Well, because we still largely see recycling as a way of keeping material out of landfill rather than as a way of creating raw materials. For a circular economy, we've got to cast off those blinkers and see the bigger picture. Basic economics.
There were other, positive, examples at the conference where casting off a narrow focus produced great results. For example, Andrew Gadd of Link2Energy pointed out that while it was standard practice to turn Energy from Waste ash into building blocks, but nobody was extracting the precious metals therein first. So we're locking valuable material up in our walls. Why? Because we are obsessed with quantity over quality which encourages down-cycling (and ultimately impacts on quantity). Recovering those metals first not only boosts the economics of the recycling process, it also removes the need for all the environmentally destructive mining of those metals in the first place.
And such recovery is often cheaper than mining – yesterday the press was reporting that a Chinese municipality has found that its sewage sludge ash has 50-100 times the concentration of gold that you get in the most productive Chinese gold mine. Where there's muck, there's brass.
As we walked to lunch, another delegate was musing on why we don't do this stuff. It's the blinkers we decided, we need to cast them off and think differently about the material we currently call 'waste'.
Something I missed earlier in the year was the discovery that when we sit on the toilet, we are literally sitting on a goldmine. US researchers found that the amount of gold in our faeces is about the same as that in mineral deposits. Another study estimated that, by extracting all metals, the annual excrement of a million Americans could be worth $13 million. There are over 300 million Americans, and a further 900 million plus living in OECD countries whose consumption patterns are broadly similar. You do the math.
In addition, extracting toxic metals such as lead would make it more viable to use composted human waste as fertiliser – maybe extracting gas first – turning a waste material into a potential product.
I love this kind of thinking – urban mining in the true sense of the word where everything from road-sweepings to our own poo is seen as a potential goldmine. Where there's muck indeed...
Yesterday I was at the North East Recycling Forum in Darlington. NERF is one of the very few green events I attend as a punter as they have great agendas and I get to catch up with a lot of familiar faces.
The speaker I most wanted to hear was Andrew Dickson from Zero Waste Scotland. During the Q&A, there was a debate over the circular economy. I said while I was pleased that Andrew had said encouraging things about the need for a circular economy, most of Zero Waste Scotland's efforts seem to be focussed on pushing decent quality recyclate into the loop, and that it wouldn't be sustainable without industrial demand for the material.
Andrew reiterated his position that quality standards were necessary to unlock demand, but a representative from a major waste company waded in on my side, saying "We could produce much higher quality material than current standards – if somebody wanted to buy it."
Interestingly, the next speaker, Jenny Robinson from WRAP, put up a graph showing the decline in recycling of newsprint due to falling newspaper readership, which she said would cause problems for hitting UK recycling targets.
"Do the recyclers in the room want more newsprint?" asked the Chair.
"No." came a firm voice from the back "Supply and demand."
And that, to me, sums up the challenge for the circular economy. We can set all the targets, action plans and quality standards we want, but the basic economic principle of supply and demand will make or break it. Demand will increase volumes, drive efficiencies, improve quality, cut costs and spur innovation – as it does in every other industrial supply chain. Focussing solely on the supply side – the default approach of most public servants and quangocrats – is doomed to failure.
In the circular economy we cannot ignore basic economics.
I haven't been watching much scheduled TV recently, but I wasn't going to miss the Wastemen documentary on the BBC last night. Not just because it was an insight into the sharp end of sustainability, or that it was set in my town; rather it's because (with my political hat on) I was part of the team who set up Newcastle's two bin waste collections, opened the Sita Materials Recycling Facility at Byker which featured and gave the mixed recyclables contract to O'Brien's. I have skin in this game!
It was a very entertaining programme with the various crews and operatives clearly enjoying having the cameras on them. Of course I was grumbling a bit about some of the impressions it gave, particularly about the level of public recycling (sampling has shown that 64% of recyclable material is recovered in Newcastle – good but with room for improvement.) Green pressure groups berated us when we introduced the semi-mixed recyclate bin, but participation shot up afterwards because we made recycling easy – which was a big lesson for me.
But the overall impression was the incredulity of the bin crews of how much decent resource goes to waste. Unlike us individuals chucking a bin bag in the wheelie bin every day or two, these guys see the big picture – both in sheer quantity of waste and also what does get chucked – day in day out. Unused electrical items, bikes with one flat tyre, wide screen TVs left the waste men scratching their heads.
You can get told these statistics and examples time after time, but to understand it properly, you have to experience it. I don't have the depth of experience of the bin crews, but I've been around enough recycling/incineration and disposal sites to get a real feel for what we do throw away.
If you want to engage people in sustainability, giving them first hand experience is often the best way to drive the message home. That could be a visit to a landfill, or it could be a drive in an electric car. But experience always trumps advice.
So, the UK election rumbles on and this week we had the Party manifestos. So what do the parties offer on sustainability? Trying to be as objective as I can*, here's my quick and dirty review of the five national parties, in order of current number of seats in Parliament:
Big Headlines (ie mentions in key pledges):
Reaffirmation to meet international commitments on climate change.
Investment in renewables but with an emphasis on 'cost effectiveness'. Halting 'spread of onshore wind farms'.
Every vehicle to be zero emissions by 2050, double cycling, investment in railways.
'Blue Belt' of marine reserves.
My verdict: Token effort – and a mixed bag at that.
Yesterday I went to the North East Recycling Forum (NERF) Annual Conference, which as usual, punched way above its weight when it comes to speakers. We had Steve Lee, CEO of CIWM, David Palmer-Jones, CEO of SITA, Roland Arnison of AEA Ricardo and Mark Shayler of Ape giving a wide range of views from the waste industry through to the whole nature of consumption.
The broad theme of the morning was the circular economy and Steve and David started with the EU circular economy package which was adopted this year. What bothered me though, and I said so, is the provisions in the package revolve predominantly around the waste end of the linear economy - with the headline target of a recycle rate of 70%.
As Dwight D. Eisenhower put it:
Pull the string, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.
The one factor which will make or break the circular economy is demand or pull. Without demand, you can try and push as much stuff into the recycling pipe as you want, but it'll be like trying to push string - or a shop full of unwanted and unsold toys. And, even indirectly, recycling target based on quantity, not quality, is unlikely to attract much enthusiasm from the manufacturing industry - the cart is being put before the horse.
If the EU changed their focus to setting standards for recycled material in products then it would create demand for high quality secondary materials. This demand, and only this, is essential to create the pull which would bend our linear economy into a circular one, driving up quality and pushing down cost. It's that simple.
I get a little frustrated with the obsession with the little stuff. People fretting over the best time of day to charge their mobile phone, or, like Dilbert, whether polystyrene or paper cups are better, or calling for a ban on plastic bags. Some of this navel gazing gives counter-intuitive results like when people buy a smoothie rather than bottled water when the latter has a lower carbon footprint, but social stigma forces their hand.
This is all displacement activity and won't make a damn difference to the state of the planet.
If you are serious about cutting your personal impact, then insulate your loft, cycle/walk to work and holiday at home. If you are serious about the impacts of your organisation, then identify the big impacts and tackle them. P&G famously did this with Ariel Excel Gel where their biggest impact by far was heating water in washing machines, so they developed a low temperature washing product.
We only have a certain amount of time, energy and goodwill to act. Wasting that limited resource on activity for activity's sake is a crying shame.
I try and avoid the nitty-gritty of environmental legislation if I can help it, but occasionally I dip my toe in the water to keep up with broad principles. For the latest on waste/resource I head to the North East Recycling Forum which really punches above its weight - one of the few events I attend as an audience member only. At the meeting last Thursday I noticed a worrying theme in the discussion - legislation which is trying to be helpful but ends up being prescriptive.
Exhibit 1: the waste hierarchy is actually written into some European legislation. While the hierarchy is a useful rule of thumb, it is just that and not a rule of Nature. For example, it is almost always better to recycle 100% of a waste stream than to reduce it by 20% and have to landfill the other 80% because it is not economically viable to recycle. The hierarchy cannot help you here.
Exhibit 2: the next update of the Waste Directive requires Councils to implement source segregation of recycles rather than co-mingled collection unless they can prove the latter is better. I know from my own experience as a Councillor that when we shifted from source segregation to semi-co-mingled, the amount collection collected shot up by over 50% as the system was much, much easier to use - it also cut litter, traffic congestion during collection and operative injuries. So why put the onus of proof on what is for many the obvious solution?
But this is not just about legislation - as human beings we have a terrible tendency to constrain ourselves by sometimes completely arbitrary mental rules. The green movement has its own shibboleths where, to take five examples, nuclear energy, biodiesel, GMOs, markets and carbon-offsetting are all clearly the work of the devil. This fundamentalism is not helpful when we face the scale of the challenge we face - we might just need some of these tools in our toolbox in some form or other. So it is important to challenge our own assumptions, listen to well reasoned dissenting voices and not jump to conclusions.
The answer is they have all been, or still are, used as a resource.
Once upon a time, dog faeces were collected as 'pure' and used to tan leather. And if I haven't already put you off your lunch, it seems that it was not just random poop-scooping, which apparently meant the pure-finders had a pretty good income:
The 'dry limy–looking sort' fetches the highest price at some yards as it is found to possess more of the alkaline or purifying properties; but others are found to prefer the dark moist quality.
Human urine was used as a colour fixer for fabrics, to kill lice in clothing and, believe it or not, as an ingredient in cheese- and bread making. It is still used, um, informally by gardeners as a compost accelerant. If you want more uses for pee, check out the amusing book Liquid Gold by Carol Steinfeld.
Worms have great digestive juices and earthworm enzymes have been used to dissolve blood clots and prevent cardiovascular disease in Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and China. The Zero Emissions Research Initiative (ZERI) harvests them to make detergents.
Feel yourself going 'ugh' yet? Well it is the very properties of these substances that make you recoil that make them useful in the first place. Back in pre-industrial days, you didn't have much choice but to use what was to hand and there was no place for squeamishness.
This mentality - of seeing 'problem' qualities as opportunities - is essential for the uptake of industrial symbiosis (one company's waste becoming another's raw material) and to develop a circular economy. If you have, say, an acidic waste stream, the question you should be asking is not "how do we neutralise this?", but "who needs an acid?"
If I told you about a country where, last quarter, more than a third of all electricity was generated from low carbon sources, which one do you think I'd be talking about?
Well I'm sat in it, and so are many of you: dear old Blighty.
Household recycling rates are nudging the 45-50% mark, depending on where you are in the country.
All this from what was 'the dirty man of Europe'? The one where renewable sources barely registered on energy statistics just a couple of years ago? The one with the throw-away culture?
As Fat Boy Slim would say, we've come a long way, baby.
What's interesting is that nobody has really noticed. Green is becoming the new normal. So much so that some organic food/drink producers now don't label their product as such in case consumers assume it's a niche product at a premium price. They just want it to be seen as a great product in a normal way.
And that's a good thing.
Some green ideologues may cry foul, saying that that this isn't deep green enough, but asking people to live in tie-dyed yurts, meditating on ley lines and knitting yoghurt, will get you nowhere.
Normal, everyday, mundane even - that's the ultimate green goal.
I often see it said in sustainability/corporate social responsibility circles that the terms 'sustainability' and 'CSR' have become diluted and devalued through use/misuse until they are almost meaningless. While I agree that there is some truth in this - particularly with the ambiguous word 'sustainability' - I can't help thinking that too many practitioners and 'thought leaders' resent the world catching up with them and, instead of rejoicing, feel they have to be derogatory. It's like those music fans who only like bands before they are famous and resent the popularity of their once-obscure favourites when they hit the big time.
In fact there is a counter-argument - that the bar is rising on sustainability, not falling. A decade ago, CSR meant sponsoring the local kids' football team, not the big chewy issues it covers like wage differentials, tax avoidance and working conditions in the supply chain today. A decade ago, retailers only put their own fossil fuel and electricity use in their carbon footprints. Today they are driving sustainability down through their supply chains (WalMart) or building circular supply chains (Marks & Spencer). In the UK, household recycling used to be a minority pursuit, now it has tipped 40% of domestic waste - and domestic energy use has fallen.
That's not to say all is rosy, quite the contrary, there's a colossal amount to be done as the IPCC will tell us next week, but we are moving in the right direction. To achieve anything close to sustainability, we've got to lower the barriers to participation to get as many people on board as possible - it has to be a mass movement, not the preserve of a select few. Resenting progress is an incredibly shortsighted, damaging and frankly self indulgent perspective. To accelerate, we need to build on momentum, help people succeed, celebrate, AND then encourage them to go further.
Last week I had one of the more exacting challenges of my professional career - explaining the circular economy (but not using that phrase, natch) to about 100 5-8 year olds at my eldest boy Harry's school. That's a tough gig - especially when you can't work out whether that look on your son's face is pride or mortification.
I went for the green jujitsu principle of 'show don't tell', taking a crate of recycled products, plastic bags of compost and the 'waste' those things were produced from. My pièce de résistance was talking about where a plastic juice bottle came from, then whipping off my Marks & Spencer's fleece to show them the big 'made from recycled plastic bottles' label inside. But the kids really went mad for stroking the sheep's wool insulation, poking at the undressed edge of chipboard and sniffing compost - I nearly had a riot on my hands.
But what really struck me is that these kids just get it. They love recycling a) because it's obviously the right thing to do and b) because they've grown up with it. They were born into a world where the domestic recycling bin was as common as the residual waste bin. They don't know a world where you dumped everything into one bin, or even one where you had to make the long slog to the bottle bank in some distant supermarket car park. It was harder to explain landfill to them than recycling.
Which made me wonder how much of the resistance to green behaviour is simply the baggage of having grown up without all this new-fangled renewable energy and closed-loop business models and seeing it as some esoteric novelty that we're not quite sure about? And how will we persuade people clinging to the sinking wreckage of the old, fossil fuel-driven economy to swim off boldly towards the green rescue boat on the horizon? Or do we have to wait for the natural cycle of the grim reaper and the stork to do that job for us?
"Re-shoring" is a growing business trend - bringing offshore manufacturing and services back from low wage "developing countries" to so-called "developed countries". According to the Guardian, businesses as disparate as Aston Martin, Pot Noodle and kiddy-suitcase maker Trunki are re-relocating their manufacturing back in Blighty driven by rising wages in the Far East and rocketing shipping costs (presumably a result of stubbornly high oil prices).
This is clearly a good thing for the Circular Economy as goods will be consumed and 'disposed of' closer to the site of their manufacture, shrinking material loops. Quality of materials can also be better managed if the purchaser of the materials can intervene easily in the supply chain. Circular business models including leasing, remanufacturing and industrial symbiosis (one person's waste = another's raw material) all work better when manufacturers are located closer together.
There are clear CSR benefits too - we have seen in the recent horse meat scandal how difficult it is to manage complex international supply chains. Shorter supply chains mean more transparency, less opportunity for criminality and, for the EU at least, better working conditions.
And there are economic benefits to boot - an opportunity for unbalanced economies like the UK to rebalance away from the debt-driven financial and construction sectors that gave us the colossal boom and bust that we still haven't escaped.
Reshoring - a boring sounding word that I'm growing rather fond of!
Home cleaning products company Method has announced new packaging made from recycled plastic. So what? Well the plastic comes from the ocean, not only saving resources but protecting wildlife and the ocean ecosystem to boot. That's cool.
Waste company Veolia processes road sweepings to recover precious metals like platinum, palladium and rhodium - mining the urban environment rather than the earth's core. That's pretty cool too.
A project at my old group CLEMANCE found that it was technically possible to recover iron oxide pollution from streams and convert it into rewritable CDs and DVDs. How cool would that be?
And another CLEMANCE project led to 300,000 tomato plants growing under glass using waste heat and carbon dioxide from a chemical plant to accelerate growth. I think that's pretty damn cool.
The solar hot water panel on my roof pre-heats the water going into my combo-boiler so we get low carbon hot water without losing the on-demand convenience. Again, cool.
If I cycle rather than taking the car then I get my exercise as well as transport. If I work from home, I get to see my young family grow up and avoid the nightmare of commuting. If I use local services, I see much more of my friends and neighbours. All of this is very cool.
Smart grid technology creates the possibility of opening up the energy production and storage system to everybody buying and selling to the grid and breaking the economic and political grip of Big Oil. To me, my friend, that would be very cool indeed.
Green is cool.
So why do we persist in presenting it as hairshirt, pious asceticism - and wonder why people won't embrace it?
One of the speakers at last week's North East Recycling Forum (NERF) Conference was Vikki Jackson-Smith of J&B Recycling. I was delighted to hear how Vikki and J&B are getting along as I clearly remember the day about 12 years ago when Vikki and I sat in a Portacabin in the corner of a damp Hartlepool coal yard and she told me her plans.
She had inherited the family coal business, J&B Fuels, which was in decline as fewer people had coal fires and demand had slumped. She said:
I realised we don't have to sell coal. What we actually do is import material in bulk, sort it, process it, bag it and sell it on. We've got all the kit - a yard with a weighbridge, trucks and front loaders - and employees who know what they're doing. It doesn't matter whether it is coal or something else, we can do it.
What "it" was, originally, was glass collected from pubs and clubs, but since then J&B Recycling has diversified over a very wide range of materials, invested many millions in facilities and grown from 20 employees in the coal business to 140 today.
What I like about Vikki's story is that it is a shining example of someone breaking into the green sector by:
Identifying the strengths J&B could bring to the sector: materials handling, logistics, customer service;
Identifying a profitable first niche in the sector to exploit those strengths, then expanding through diversification to reduce exposure to risks (in this case recyclate prices);
Getting the business side of things right: customer service, risk management, quality control.
In my first book The 3 Secrets of Green Business, the first 'Secret' was "Treat the environmental agenda as an opportunity, not a threat. Grasp it with both hands but, whatever you do, don't forget you are still running a business." Vikki is a great example of someone who has got it right.