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16 April 2018

Long term vs short term in Sustainability

In Sustainability, we talk a lot about lengthening our mental timescales – 'building cathedrals', making products longer lasting etc. And while this is great, we also have to be cognisant of the fast-moving world around us. Two of my clients have recently been blindsided by the sudden upsurge in public interest in plastic waste when they were focussed on building a low carbon/low waste legacy for future generations. Overnight, coffee cups have become THE measure of Sustainability performance in the public mind.

I'm a great fan of 'and' thinking rather than 'or' thinking. We need those long term strategies, planning and capital investment, but we also have to bear in mind that the perception of others can and does change rapidly and we need to keep abreast of that.

So what are our already overloaded Sustainability Managers to do? Well, if you have a champions' network – and most of them are under-utilised – challenge them to solve the short term stuff. They'll appreciate something positive to do!

If you don't have a network, you can spontaneously invent one by running a competition between sites/divisions/teams to tackle a short term problem – 'The Coffee Cup Challenge'?

The benefits of these approaches is that you can respond very quickly when the latest green thing comes flying over the horizon.



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19 January 2018

Is the circular economy at a tipping point?

As I look out over the white-coated river valley I live in, 'snowballing' is a very appropriate analogy for the revolution going on in public discourse over waste and plastic waste in particular. Bloomberg journo Jess Shankleman sums up nicely how that snowball is fast gathering momentum:

When you're making a snowman, that little snowball you start rolling round takes for ever to start to grow, but then suddenly it takes on snow at an ever faster rate and it's up to your waist. This kind of exponential growth happened with renewables largely for financial reasons – as demand increased, prices fell, fuelling further demand. Suddenly, from a tiny fraction of the UK's electricity supply, renewables are delivering huge chunks of our power.

Waste is quite a bit more complex than energy given the eco-system of players from product producers to retailers to consumers to collectors to reprocessors, and this complexity presents many more barriers to change. But you just have to read the newspapers – from across the political spectrum – to see the consensus that change must come.

Among politics geeks, this is called the 'Overton window' – the stuff you can freely debate in public without appearing like a crank. The window has shifted decisively towards the circular economy since the days when then Deputy PM Nick Clegg had to fight to bring in the plastic bag tax – the fist-sized snowball that started this all off. I have no doubt that the current Government sees plastic waste as a rare opportunity for good news amongst their many other struggles, but they seem serious about mining that seam of political goodwill, and I'm certainly not going to criticise them for it.

And, as Jess says, it's amazing what a little bit of proactive leadership can do.


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15 March 2017

Sustainability Masterminds on Waste

Baltic view

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

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20 August 2015

Waste is a verb, not a noun

waste is a verb not a nounJust saying...


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1 July 2015

Are millennials really that green?


I was very struck by the above photo showing the aftermath of the Glastonbury festival. Every year we hear how Glastonbury is more than just a big series of concerts, that it has a spiritual dimension, has a strong environmental message, is the crux of 'the new politics' etc, etc. But the picture suggests if you want a symbol of our consumerist, wasteful, throwaway society, you couldn't go to a better place.

Then I came across a stat on this morning that over-55s are much better at recycling than 18-25 year olds. This flies in the face of the assumption that the millennial generation is inherently green and 'gets it'.

The intention might be there – this is the age group most likely to vote Green – but when it comes to practice, it seems the younger generation isn't quite where they think they are. I wonder if that couple in the picture is saying a fond farewell or shedding a tear for the future.

I am turning into a grumpy old man!


Picture © EPA used under fair use.

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29 April 2015

I am a Wasteman

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.


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7 August 2013

The Fatberg is the Tip of the Iceberg

Imagine spending three weeks sluicing away 15 tonnes of congealed fat, wet wipes and 'sanitary items' from a London sewer. A Herculean task if there ever was one - give me the Aegean stables full of sweet smelling horse manure any day.

Most right thinking people's reaction to the 'fatberg' story would be "Urgh!", but us circular economy freaks' initial response is "what a waste!" All that good bio-sourced hydrocarbon could be used as an eco-friendly fuel rather than soaking up more energy to shift and treat. And it seems that London Mayor Boris Johnson, despite his somewhat singular attitude to climate change science, is with us - he wants to use the cooking fat being dumped in London's sewers to power buses.

The circular economy requires a complete shift in mindset. If you have an acidic waste, say, then the conventional wisdom is you must treat it with an alkali to make it safe. By contrast, the circular economist thinks "What a waste of acid and alkali - what can I use the acid for?"

One of my favourite sayings is "waste is a verb, not a noun." As soon as you start making that mental shift, all sorts of possibilities start opening up. These are starting to make an impact on the economy. For example, one of my clients tells me that you cannot buy virgin glycerin in bulk anymore as the market is now dominated by glycerin sourced as a byproduct of biodiesel - a classic industrial symbiosis.

But the fatberg shows we still have a long way to go before we start harnessing all the wasted resources in our economy.


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15 May 2013

The New Mindset




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5 December 2012

What We Can Learn from Wales' Waste Win

Last Thursday I went to the North East Recycling Forum Annual Conference - one of the few events I intend as a punter. This partly because I get to catch up with a lot of familiar faces and partly because the content is always better than all those identikit commercial green conferences in London.

To open, the Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Waste Management gave an overview of the UK's waste sector. It was very noticeable that Wales  is shooting ahead of the other regions of the UK and has hit a 53% household waste recycling rate, compared to 43% in England.

"Why was this?" came a question from the floor. The answer given was that the Welsh Assembly has signed up to the One Planet principles at the very highest level and they develop strategies and make decisions through that prism. By contrast, English waste policy is managed by 5 different Whitehall department and is treated with different priority in each (It has to be said that Eric Pickles came in for a bit of a hammering from speakers and delegates alike.)

Politics aside, we can take three lessons from this which can be applied to any sustainability strategy:

  • Have a clear vision;
  • Secure proper buy-in at the highest level (not just lip service);
  • Proactively pursue that vision with determination and drive.

In the meantime, well done Wales! (and despite the name, I'm not Welsh).


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11 June 2012

Compost, Natural Cycles and the Circular Economy

Here's a grubby little secret - shhh - don't tell anyone - but I'm a closet compost fanatic. At last count I operate at least nine compost bins of various shapes and sizes, plus a few pre-treatment buckets where I drown persistent weeds before adding them to the main process. I just love the way that the composting process makes a product out of 'waste' materials - all you have to do is provide the right ingredients and the right conditions and you're off.

Compost is amazing stuff - check out the picture of part of our allotment - the bed at the front has about three barrows of my home-made compost as a mulch whereas the one at the back is just natural soil. The crops in the compost are bigger and the weeds are fewer. The compost not only returns nutrients to the soil, but also provides soil structure, suppresses weeds and retains moisture.

What I am doing of course is harnessing the natural cycles of nature to work for me. The Earth has had about 4.5 billion years to work out a sustainable system and after about 1.5 bn years of chaos, it came up with natural solar powered cycles of substances which didn't systematically poison itself. The system is continuously evolving - adaptation and diversity making it ever more resilient.

We know from nature that this circular model works, so it is strange then that the main focus in sustainability is on pursuing a system which doesn't work very well - making our economy more efficient. You need massive gains in eco-efficiency (the amount of use we get out of each unit of natural resource) - and hefty resource prices/ecotaxes - to outstrip the 'rebound effect' - the tendency for efficient systems to simply consume resources faster. Anyway, Nature isn't efficient - how many seeds are released to produce just one tree?

There are some great examples of the circular economy in practice - whether the industrial symbiosis cluster at Kalundborg, Marks & Spencer making school uniforms and umbrellas out of recycled polyester, or Interface using old carpet as the raw material for making new carpet. This is about delivering on the oft-uttered but rarely implemented platitude of "treating waste as a resource" at scale. The biggest challenge is making the mental shift from trying to deal with a problem (waste) to trying to source sustainable raw materials. Once you make that mental leap, all sorts of opportunities open up.

One of the potential pitfalls is trying to design a circular economy - efforts to recreate, say, Kalundborg have largely failed, often at great expense. Going back to the natural cycles, this sort of economy has to evolve. It can be helped along by eco-taxes, research & development and information sharing, but like my compost, you have to create the right conditions, provide a helping hand when required, but ultimately you must let nature take its course.

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21 October 2011

Waste Is A Verb, Not A Noun

Here's the latest in my Green Business Confidential podcast series. It's called "Waste is a verb, not a noun" and it is all about the effect of the word 'waste' on us psychologically - but don't worry, I don't get too metaphysical on you all.

Audio MP3

Or, you can download it here and listen on your MP3 player:

GBC10 Waste Is A Verb, Not A Noun

You can get the whole podcast series here or subscribe on iTunes.


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14 February 2011

The value of stuff

"We want to treat waste as a resource." is a constant refrain from the great and the good, but how do we make that happen?

The obvious approach is to try and create robust markets in secondary (recycled, recovered, pre-loved?) materials. The problem is that all commodity prices vary massively and extremely rapidly in the modern global economy. My cousins are farmers and they have to buy their seed and fertiliser long before they have a clue what wheat prices will be like at harvest - this year they did OK because of the terrible problems that Russian farmers had, but next year - who knows?

Recyclate prices can vary even more as they can go from positive to negative. You can see this very visually with scrap metal - if the value drops too low, scrap yards put on a gate fee and you will start to see abandoned old cars dumped on the road. When the price soars, anything metal starts to go missing - a couple of months ago a van was stopped by police in a neighbouring street to mine - with a cargo of half-inched manhole covers in the back.

So how can we deal with this uncertainty?

1. Penalise the alternatives: taxes on the extraction of raw materials or the landfilling of waste level the playing field by internalising the costs to society of those activities.

2. Expand and broaden markets: a steady demand from a wide range of potential markets will even out the peaks and troughs. Organisations both public and private can use their buying power to boost these markets.

3. A realistic view of risk: I've seen far too many start ups build their business plans around unrealistic assumptions on material value/costs and then struggle when the real prices don't comply with their wishful thinking.

4. Use of trusted standards for the quality of materials - the UK Government and its WRAP quango have been working on a set of standards called PAS for some time - eg PAS 100 is the standard for soil conditioner/compost.

5. Use of trusted labels/certification schemes for recycled material - so the customer can make informed purchasing decisions without fear of greenwash.

Overall, though, we need a general change in attitude to 'waste'. As my own little aphorism has it, "Waste is a verb, not a noun".

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10 January 2011

Show, don't tell

There was an interesting story in the Daily Mail (yes, really) over the summer. Its science editor, a climate change sceptic, visited Greenland, saw the scale of the ice melt for himself, and there and then converted to a climate change "believer". To me, the interesting thing about this was that the conversion was just as irrational as his rejection of the scientific evidence in the first place. This part of Greenland could simply be experienced a localised bout of warmer weather, or it could be the result of a single warm year, yet it clearly left a deep and emotional impression on him.

My own change in attitude from armchair environmentalist to highly motivated man-on-a-mission came from a similar damascene moment - massive destruction in Arctic Russia by acid rain from a nickel smelter. I'd read all the stats, but it took the emotional experience of being there to tip the scales.

To change attitudes in an organisation, data will never be enough - you need to tap these emotions.

If you want to make a point about recycling waste, say, try demonstrating it instead of saying it - tip the bins or skips out in front of people and divide the contents into recyclables and residuals. If you want to improve the energy efficiency of a process, take people to a (safe) place where you can feel the heat losses on your faces. Run human interest stories in your green communications, persuade people to try cycling to work just one day a year, lead people on a river clean up. These experiences will last longer in people's memories and subconscious than any powerpoint slide.

As a million attendees of creative writing evening classes will tell you, the key rule is "show, don't tell."

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13 September 2010

Clipboards vs Flipcharts

Tomorrow I'm running a waste workshop for a small manufacturing company (you wouldn't know their name, but you'd know some of the brands they manufacture). The whole structure of the workshop is designed to embed the underlying principles into the thinking of the participants. In fact the reason for having a workshop rather than doing a "clipboard consulting" walkover review is to develop sustainable solutions owned by the company employees, not by me.

There is no Powerpoint (hurrah!) because I want them to come up with the answers rather than me preaching to them. So the technology comes down to the humble flipchart and pen. I will elicit the drivers for going green for them, because I want them to think about them rather than having to sell those drivers to them. We will be developing a model of their company and identifying where opportunities to make improvements lie.

This approach has three benefits:

  • We get to harness their brainpower, experience and knowledge to identify problems and solutions rather than just my expertise;
  • They own the solutions, making it far more likely they will be implemented effectively;
  • The enthusiasm generated by this approach can lead to further spontaneous solutions appearing in the future.

For these reasons, I'm increasingly finding that my consultancy, staff engagement and training projects are converging in an amorphous single beast. Training makes more sense if learning is applied to the organisation concerned and consultancy is much more likely to 'stick' if there is a capacity building/engagement element.

Whether or not you engage an outside provider to help you green your organisation, I thoroughly recommend going down the workshop approach. So put away those clipboards and get out those flipcharts!

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18 August 2010

The End of Recycling

I love my compost heap. I should say 'heaps' as I effectively have five - a two bay main heap, a plastic drum for food waste, a wormery and a dumpy bag for leaf mould. And three more at the allotment... but anyway, I turned the first full bay in the main heap the other week and marvelled as the hedge-clippings, grass cuttings, weeds and, ahem, 'nitrogen rich liquid' I had put in over the last year had been transformed to lovely, sweet smelling brown humus.

Of course this doesn't happen by magic - a whole eco-system of microfauna eats the different components and the compost I am so proud of is basically their waste. So they're using our waste, we're using their waste and the cycle continues.

So, from a philosophical point of view, which of these two processes is "recycling"? Both ecologists and economists like to construct rigid hierarchies where material and energy move from "primary" producers/industries up to top consumers. But in ecology these "top consumers" produce food for other organisms through their dung and eventually become food themselves. So in reality we end up with a messy 'food web' where there is no concept of 'waste'.

I believe that if we want to move to a sustainable society - ie one which mimics the natural cycles of nature - we have to get away from the concept of "recycling materials" as opposed to "cycling resources". We would then have a 'resource web' just like the 'food web' in nature (check out Kalundborg in Denmark). We hear endless calls to treat waste as a resource, but to really do that we have to stop thinking of it as waste in the first place, hence my aphorism "waste is a verb, not a noun.". If resources are no longer deemed waste then why do we want the "re-" in recycle or reuse?

So maybe it is time to say goodbye to "recycling".

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9 November 2009

Free waste consultancy for North East SMEs

If you're a small to medium sized business (<250 employees, not more than 25% owned by a bigger company) based in the North East of England and you'd like a couple of days free waste consultancy, then drop me a line in the next couple of weeks. There's a couple of forms to fill in, but that's all.

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25 March 2009

EEF Report Shows Manufacturing Still Not Proactive on the Environment

Interesting report on the manufacturing sector published by EEF and Envirowise last summer, but being publicised now. Some notable conclusions:

- 90% of respondents were doing something to improve their environmental performance;
- waste and energy are the key issues;
- key drivers are legislation and EMS requirements, rather than competitive advantage;
- preferred method of waste reduction is recycling (80% of respondents) rather than minimisation (18% of respondents);
- 70% of respondents felt Government should provide them more funds to tackle these problems.

Despite the fact that 90% of respondents were acting, the rest of this is rather disappointing. The respondents saw the green agenda as one to react to rather than get proactive on. The lack of interest in minimising waste reflects a lack of awareness of cost saving opportunities, and the expectation that this is the taxpayer's problem to sort out shows a lack of ownership.

The proactive business should acknowledge their environmental impacts and tackle them head-on to improve competitive advantage through reduced costs, better PR and happier staff (see 10 Reasons... for more on this). Looks like we still have a long way to go before a proactive attitude is prevalent.

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7 January 2009

Waste or food?

Over the holidays I've been reading David Archer's excellent book Tyne and Tide: A Celebration of the River Tyne about the legendary river which flows about a mile south of where I'm sitting.

However the following statement on river pollution made me stop and think:

"The generation of waste products is an attribute of all living creatures, and human beings are no exception. Most of the products decompose naturally in the environment and do not cause detriment to other organisms sharing their living space."

This encapsulates our short-sighted attitude to 'waste'. Contrary to popular opinion, organic wastes do not decompose in the environment, rather they are eaten. Horse manure is manna from heaven if you are a dung fly or one of many species of fungi or bacteria. That is their food source just as a shiny apple on a tree is food for humans. We're not immune from eating 'waste' products either, there are over 700 species of bacteria in our gut which metabolise various food elements, including some essential vitamins. Metabolise = eat and excrete! So rather than natural 'waste' materials not causing "detriment to other organisms", they are actually nourishing many of those organisms and form part of a continual cycle of nutrients.

So why am I being this pedantic so early in the New Year? Well we've got to start thinking about the materials in our economy in the same way. McDonogh and Braungart call these 'technical nutrients' to draw a comparison with 'biological nutrients'. If we start to think of a continual cycle of materials in the economy, and design materials and processes so the by-products of one process are always nourishing other processes in the system, then we are a long way towards sustainability.

Sound fanciful? Then check out the industrial symbiosis at Kalundborg.

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10 December 2008

Five stupid questions I get asked about environmental consultancy

1. Why would a hard pressed business be bothered with the environment?

I reviewed 26 environmental health checks I carried out over the last two years for companies whose activities range from catering to pharmaceuticals. The average financial saving identified from waste minimisation, water conservation and energy efficiency measures was £175 000 per annum. Next question.

2. Would your clients reduce waste if it didn't save them money?

Frankly, I don't care. My job is to improve my clients' business performance by addressing their waste, energy, raw material and water issues either for direct economic/legislative benefit or to improve their environmental reputation. I don't expect them to start hugging trees or wearing sandals.

3. Are you not rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

My priority as a consultant is to meet my clients' needs rather than save the planet, but from an environmental point of view, in my career I have diverted at least a half million tonnes of waste from landfill into further economic use. Energy/carbon-saving benefits have been delivered on a similar scale. And there are thousands of other environmental consultants out there…

4. Is this not just a fad?

No. Environmental legislation has been tightening since the Clean Air Acts of the 1950s. They said it was a fad in the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s and this decade too. It ain't going away.

5. Should you really be profiting from the environment?

Why not? I'd rather make profit from preventing damage to the environment than causing it.

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19 November 2008

The Green Business Bible

It is here!

At long last I have managed to distil 11 years of experience into 212 virtual pages of the Green Business Bible eBook. The eBook gives a strategic approach to greening a business and is packed with over 200 hints and tips to help you on your way.
It is available for download for £17.99 + VAT from the Green Business Bible website, but please note that if you subscribe to the Low Carbon Agenda, you'll get 25% off.

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