Waste Hierarchy

OK, if asked to state what the waste hierarchy is then I guess a lot of people would be stumped.  However, most people have heard of reduce, reuse recycle – a lot of waste collection vehicles have it plastered all over their sides.  This has become an easily repeated mantra, but, what does it mean in practice and why is it important, particularly for business?

Taking the latter question first, a recent change to the waste regulations (2011) states that:

‘ businesses who import or produce, collect, transport, recover or dispose of waste, or who operate as dealers and brokers, must take all reasonable measures to apply the waste hierarchy when the waste is transferred’ (taken from the environment agency website).

The waste hierarchy also has recover and dispose – this means that where possible a company should consider energy recovery through either combustion or anaerobic digestion.  Any waste transfer notes and consignment notes will, from the end of September 2011, include a declaration that the waste hierarchy has been considered in the disposal of the waste.

To me, this poses a question – if I can have my waste collected by two companies, one of which takes any unrecyclable waste to an energy recovery facility and one that sends to landfill, do I have to go with the first company if I am to comply with regulations?  Do I need to check whether there is methane recovery from the landfill?  Does that count in the same way as the energy recovery?  So far, I have not been able to definitively answer that question.  The fact that some companies still send to landfill (and therefore charge the landfill tax and its associated escalator) makes me think that there is a loophole somewhere.  From an economic point of view, my research to date has shown that removing landfill tax by sending product to energy recovery saves a considerable amount of money – by 2014 the cost will be £80 per tonne and most standard skips hold around half a tonne each time they are emptied.  (The rights and wrongs of burning potentially valuable resources is a topic for another blog post.)

One of the other major changes in the regulations doesn’t come into effect for another four years, but concerns the collection of recycling and will affect quite a number of companies.  At the moment companies can salve their conscience and save making too much effort by having what is called Dry Mixed Recycling (DMR).  This means that cardboard, paper, office waste, bottles, cans, plastic etc., can all be put in one container which is later sorted by the waste company (who charge a little more for this as well).  I have also heard of some companies that collect separated waste in one vehicle – thus begging the question as to why separate in the first place.  I have two problems with this practice.  The first is purely practical.  The value and usefulness of these recyclates is lowered because they are contaminated – this is particularly true of the cardboard and paper.  The second is a matter of perception.  If someone has to make more of an effort and think about what they are recycling because they have to consider and separate the different types, does the importance of recycling increase in their mind.

From 2015 anyone who produces paper, glass, plastic or metal waste streams will have to ensure they have taken all practicable steps to ensure they are separated.  This will mean a change in collection facilities for many companies and therefore a change in culture.  My team and I instigated a separated recycling system on one of our sites a few years ago.  We did encounter some resistance at first, but eventually most people did come on board.  The main problems result from lorry drivers throwing anything they can in the recycling skip.

In later posts I will go through some of the things that can be put in place to reduce your waste to landfill as well as taking you along the journey I am starting as I attempt to instigate a waste management practice at work.


Too cute to kill?

Some friends of ours have a house in France and last year were bemoaning the fact that edible dormice (glis glis) had taken up residence.  To someone who rarely sets foot outside of the UK, the thought of little, shy dormice being considered a pest seemed a little strange to me.  However, it seems that these are not the small brown fellows much beloved of Autumnwatch (native hazel dormice), but bigger, greyer beasties.

So, why a blog post about these creatures?  It is inspired by an article in the excellent, if somewhat scholarly, British Wildlife Magazine.  What I didn’t realise was that there is a colony (or maybe more) of the creatures in Tring (Hertfordshire).  They are also known as the fat dormouse – both names arising from the fact that they were kept as food by the Romans and were even carried in jars by Roman soldiers when on marches.

So, how did they get here?  Well it certainly wasn’t under their own steam as studies on the Tring population have shown that they have really not extended their range very far at all.  As in most cases it was human intervention that has resulted in the UK colonies.  In this case, Lord Rothschild and an ‘accidental’ release at the beginning of the twentieth century.

So, the lowdown on edible dormice:

  • They are quite a lot bigger than their native relatives and live for about seven years
  • Whereas UK natives are brown, edible dormice are grey and about the size of a small squirrel
  • They are nocturnal
  • They hibernate underground from about the end of October to May
  • They nest in holes in trees and are thought to form creches with the offspring of more than one female found in some nests
  • The young aren’t born until July / August which gives them only two or three months to gain enough weight to hibernate
  • Their favourite food is Beech mast – in years where it is likely that there will be a poor crop of Beech mast the dormice don’t breed
  • It is thought that when there is a poor yield of Beech mast then the dormice are more likely to be found in nearby houses

So, why are they considered a pest?  They do apparently strip bark from trees, however, the main problem with them seems to be the fact that they are often found in houses where they chew through wires and eat food stores.  They are also doing rather well despite their limited range (mainly within 25 miles of Tring) – Natural England estimate that there are at least 10,000 of the animals in the UK.

They were recently listed as one of the top 10 problem invaders alongside mink and grey squirrels.  There are certain methods that can legally be used for ‘dealing’ with these large eyed furry creatures, but it is also an offence to release these animals into the wild now, which is exactly what is thought to be behind their appearance outside of Tring.  People had a problem with them, but couldn’t bring themselves to kill them, so took them far, far away and released them.

But, could you resist those big black eyes and grey coat – perhaps there are things that are too cute to kill?  Still, that argument has never worked for seal pups though, has it?

Packaging Issues

OK, to some of you this may not seem like a big deal, but I am increasingly paying more attention to packaging and am trying to buy products with less packaging.  Where packaging is essential, then recyclable or recycled packaging is the preferred option.  I recently had cause to change my brand of porridge oats (mainly because Waitrose have a habit of putting  them on offer and running out of stock) so, my environmentalist head thought that it would try Jordans who are seem to be doing quite a lot for wildlife and sustainability.

All appeared to be OK, there are notes on the back of the packet about their work with farmers and nature-friendly methods.  However, when I opened the box I was hugely disappointed to see that there was a bag inside the cardboard (unlike my usual brand) – do porridge oats really need to havetwo layers of packaging – they are not very likely to go off?  What was even more disappointing though was that they did not respond to my email asking why they felt the need to add in the extraneous bag.  This is not to say that I will not buy their product again, because now I have done some digging I have discovered that unlike Jordans, my usual brand does not state the origin of their oats.  (I have therefore sent an email asking for their oaty origin, but usually, if they are not shouting about it they are not sourcing from the UK.)

My search for packaging information has also resulted in the discovery of a symbol on the cereal box that I had never noticed before – the orange and white arrows in the bottom right corner of the box shown in the picture above.  Whilst this is obviously not a recycling symbol, it does look as though it is related – one could maybe assume that the packaging was made from recycled materials.  Unfortunately this is not the case as a quick search around the Jordans website revealed.  The intertwined arrows merely show that the Company is complying with European regulations.  Companies over a certain size (turnover) or who buy above a threshold of packaging must ‘recover’ that packaging.  In practice this means that the Company pays a certain amount into a scheme which then recovers / recycles a certain proportion of packaging material.  So, in reality the intertwined arrows just mean that Jordans are not breaking the law on packaging waste regulations – not that they are doing anything special to help the environment.

Whilst Jordans are not the only company to put this symbol on their cartons I think that it is certainly misleading – I didn’t know what the symbol meant and I am responsible for ensuring that our company pays a sufficient amount into one of these schemes!

Low Carbon Event

Northamptonshire Enterprise recently held a low carbon event over at the University – a morning of short talks by local businesses and organisations aimed at helping to promote low carbon growth in the county.  I heard about it through the Daventry Environment Business Network and thought it would be good for my colleague and I to attend.

So, was it useful?  Yes and no.  As with all such events, speakers are there to make money and to advertise their wares  – who can blame them, their time is valuable.  However, I do believe that if you are going to speak at one of these events, you should have a worthwhile message to get across even if the audience is not in the market for whatever you are selling.

A lot of it was not new, it is already out there and it was not presented in a new way.  However, it is easy to forget that long list of things that you had intended to do and never got round to.  I also came across a couple of new ideas that I had not really considered before.

The first couple of speakers were very good and mainly spoke about waste minimisation, cleaner processes etc without too much of a sales pitch.  Later talks were more about particular products – biomass and wood burning boilers, LED lights or services – water leak detection.  I think I would have liked to have heard more about successes and efficiencies that local companies had achieved though, as this would probably have given me more ideas.  However, I do not know where most of the other delegates were from, so maybe it was more applicable to them.

So, apart from completely unrelated things that occurred to me, what else have I thought about following this?

Firstly is an idea that has also featured in an environmental course I am doing – the idea that what is one person’s waste is someone else’s input stream and that recycling should be a last resort.  I need to review all of our waste and see how much is avoidable and whether any other waste streams can be sold or given away.  This points me towards some very interesting projects at one of our other sites.

Secondly, we really need to be more imaginative in order to change the hearts and minds of those around (and above us).

Thirdly was the saying from one of the speakers – do what you do, but do it better – that is – increase efficiency – this, I think, is the key to being more environmentally sound.

What will I be doing next?  Waste audits, awareness campaigns (waste and energy), increased recycling and checking out renewable heat incentives and other available grants.

Continuing the recycling theme from previous posts I note that there were some rather fancy recycling bins inside the building – although, unlike us they do not have any facilities (yet) for crisp packet recycling!  Perhaps I should send them a memo!

Recycling – the next step.

One of the things that I think that we have in common with many companies is that we had a big cupboard (or in our case an area on top of the locker room) which we used to store our waste electrical items.  The WEEE  (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directive states that all waste electrical product made after a certain time should be taken back by the manufacturer – I think that most of our stuff was too old for that and as most of it is bought through our IT department it is probably difficult to find the original producer, much less make them take it back – it would just end up in a cupboard at a different site!

A recent visit to a centre that takes in WEEE waste provided sufficient momentum to get the process started – at least for our site although heaven only knows how much there is to sort out at the rest of the other sites.  All in all the process is quite simple.  They sent us a list of hazardous waste which we would have to pay an additional charge for as well as a charge for a consignment note.  Once the order was raised we had a pallet box on site for a week and then it was collected – as it was not far away we went to watch it being disposed of and had a great tour round the site.  I even took some pictures to prove to our IT department that they would not be usable afterwards.

The bits of equipment are bashed to smaller bits by huge whirling chains, then the ferrous metals are pulled out by magnets and other metals separated from the plastics.  The separate components are then bagged up and sold.  In addition the company operates in conjunction with some retailers to operate a scheme whereby products that are rejected (if, for example they have a scratch) are tested and sold at a cheaper price.  Certain products sent from the council recycling centre are also sold on to vetted buyers.

My colleague was a little concerned about the huge amount of stuff that is unthinkingly thrown away, something that worries me constantly.  However, in this case, the alternative is that they continue to sit up on top of lockers and under shelves etc (although I believe the WEEE directive states that they should be disposed of within 12 months).  At least now the plastic has been separated and will be recycled, as will the metals and the bits that make up the circuit boards.  However, it does raise the question as to how do we make more use of our electrical products and stop just throwing them away because a newer, faster model has just been released on the market.

First Steps

Just like everyone else I have a long list of things to do / organise / put in place which really do not take much effort or time at all.  One of these things is to increase the recycling that we do at work.  I have now taken the first step and we have installed a textile bin on site to collect old textiles on behalf of the firefighters charity.  The main idea behind having the recycling bin is to give us somewhere to put old uniforms and gloves, but it is also obviously available for people to bring their old clothes etc in from home.

As well as reducing the waste going to landfill, we will be donating to a worthwhile charity and raising awareness of the amount of things that can be recycled rather than wasted.  In many ways however, this is more a case of reusing rather than recycling.  Any useful items of clothing are sent to poorer nations in Africa, and any textiles that are beyond use are reused as industrial rags etc.  It was really easy to set up and the next step is to put these bins on the rest of our UK sites.

In a separate project, a colleague of mine has found a way to recycle (or upcycle as it is more correctly known) crisp packets – which is a pretty good idea considering that an average of 5 or 6 packets are eaten per day in the office (and there are only 8 people in the office!)  They are now collected up and sent to a PO Box for the Philippine Community Fund.  They are shipped on a boat that is already going to the Philippines and there they are made into bags and purses – about thirty crisp packets making a bag (or one per week for the office).  This is intended to reduce child labour in the Philippines as it means that the children of these ladies can then go to school.

Carbon Taxes and Cap and Trade

I recently completed an Economics Diploma for which I had to choose a topic for a research project.  Bearing in mind my interest in most things environmental I stupidly supposed that this would be a good subject area and decided to look at the effectiveness of government policy in reducing carbon emissions from business.

Now this was a more tricksy issue than originally expected.  I quickly decided to avoid anything relating to transportation for two reasons.  Firstly I am a little biased about car, plane etc usage, and, more importantly, it is difficult to differentiate business and private travel in government figures.  After a short time I decided that there was no point looking at the CRC scheme or the Feed In Tariffs even though I had gathered a lot of information about them – the problem is they are just too new and therefore data relating to their effectiveness (or not) will not be available for some time.

So I concentrated on the Climate Change Levy, Renewables Obligation Certificates and the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.

The Climate Change Levy is a tax on energy use by business and was introduced in 20o1.  From what I could see, probably due to its relatively low level, the fact that it didn’t change in level for 6 years and came in just after the price of electricity dropped dramatically, it has had no perceivable effect – after all it is just another number on the bottom of a utility bill (a quick calculation gives it a price of around £9 per tonne of carbon).

The renewables obligation certificate was meant to encourage energy suppliers to invest in renewables by obliging them (wonder where they got the name from?) to either obtain a specified amount of energy from renewables or to pay a fine which was then distributed to those that did comply.  It seems to have increased the amount of renewable energy generated, but the costs are passed onto customers (business and domestic) and government targets (10% by 2010) are nowhere near being met.  An improvement was made when they changed the level of certification for different types of renewables so that newer technology was worth more than established sources such as wind.  I think that the renewables obligation has also helped reduce methane emissions from landfill as the majority of these are now capped and used as an energy source.

The final scheme is the fabled EUETS – a cap and trade scheme.  This hasn’t worked to reduce emissions either.  It was aimed at power suppliers and high energy users such as cement manufacturers.  However, initial allocations appear to have been higher than business as usual scenarios – perhaps they were optimistic about growth prospects, more likely the government had no way to check the figures and did not want to ‘impair competitiveness’ – it was not just the UK government that was guilty of over and free allocations.  The first phase of the scheme has passed and the second and third do not look any more promising.  No minimum price has been established for carbon and probably never will as there are too few participants and the cap on emissions is not low enough meaning the true value of carbon is not seen.

So, overall I found that when I looked at emissions figures from 1997 (the year of the mythical Kyoto treaty) although emissions had dropped in some cases, it was not by much and did not seem to have been as a direct result of policy.  The only thing that did seem to have occurred, particularly with the EU ETS (and I think is the saving grace of the CRC) is that the issue of energy usage has become a talking point in the board room.  A favourite quote that I found was that for business to change their energy use they needed not only a carrot and stick approach but a tambourine as well.  As usual I think that government was too afraid to annoy business, energy companies and voters to do anything radical or useful – I came away from the project feeling more than a little demoralised.

Where Costa Rica goes can we follow?

I noted a news item in a magazine this week that was highlighting the environmental credentials of Costa Rica – not a country that particularly springs to mind when thinking of environmental achievements.  They have been awarded the 2010 Future Policy Award in recognition of their Biodiversity Law ‘as a milestone of excellence in meeting the goals of the UN convention on Biological Diversity’.

It would appear that Costa Rica, which is rich in flora and fauna, has developed policies designed to safeguard these habitats recognising their importance as an ecosystem and for bringing in ecotourism revenue (a topic I am not overly comfortable with).  The part of the policy that particularly got my attention was that at a time when it is rumoured that the UK coalition ‘greenest’ government is contemplating selling large tracts of forest and national parks, the Costa Rican government is channeling revenue from fuel tax, energy fees and car stamp duty to pay for the management of nature reserves and environmental services.

The immediate question is, if Costa Rica, a so-called developing country, can take such a stance to protect its habitats, why, when we are so wealthy, can we not afford to do the same?  Why do we not value what we have, whilst pointing the finger at developing countries for destroying their habitat.

Climate Change Scepticism

I was struck at work this week at the mountain still to be climbed with regard to energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions.  For some reason the conversation came round to company cars and tax, and the comment that there are two hybrid cars in the Company – the belief was that there is a good chance that they were bought purely for tax reasons.  There then came the comment that the emissions from a Prius included a high degree of smugness.  This was  followed by a general level of guffawing from the self-proclaimed climate change sceptics in the room.  In fact, they seemed rather smug about the fact that they were sceptical about climate change.

I tried to point out that climate change is not necessarily the issue, that wastefulness, loss of resources and biodiversity is the issue – particularly for those in the room with young children.  The answer was that they would be able to watch the now extinct butterflies on a lovely big flat screen television.  Apart from thinking that was a pretty pathetic and blinkered response (not to mention that televisions require resources to make and run), I started to imagine a world where the only interaction we had with nature was through videos of long dead species and then I shuddered.

The real problem is that in addition to the lack of  appreciation of the effect we are having on our environment, I am not sure we have it in our power to change these attitudes.

Waste – who is responsible?

There was an article in Business Green today which stated that leading retailers have grouped together to ask the government for new policy to ‘encourage firms to design out packaging’.

This raised a number of questions in my mind.  Firstly, who holds the key to the use of packaging?  Is it government – I don’t think so.  It is consumers, and, as we only buy what is available, then, surely retailers hold the trump card – reduce the packaging or we won’t stock your product.  Waitrose have recently moved to biodegradeable and recycled packaging, Amazon publicly stated it was going to reduce its packaging, so, surely there is good publicity to be had if these retailers move to reduce packaging rather than asking the government to make it happen.

Secondly, where do the Government’s priorities lie?  They have recently announced a review of the UK waste policy, details of the remit are yet to be announced, but they are concentrating on increasing recycling rates – because they look good, and have scrapped ideas about a pay as you throw tax, because that would be unpopular.  After all, who benefits economically from reducing waste – no one makes anything in this country, but recycling, well, that creates good headlines and, jobs in this country.  Or am I getting more cynical in my old age?

The obvious answer is to reduce packaging as it uses precious resources, including water, but the initiative should come from retailers and consumers, not from government.  This would also have the added benefit of reducing litter – a huge bugbear of mine which I think we need to tackle, not just ignore.