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Briana Whitlock

Our commitment to sending zero waste to landfill

20 October 2011 Posted by Briana Whitlock

A piece from the Guardian Sustainable Business (GSB) network (if you're interested in CR issues, I highly recommend their content) I was reading today reminded me of a conversation I had with a colleague about our Corporate Centre committing to ‘zero waste to landfill' at 16 of our UK sites by the end of  2012.

I recently met Tawny Clark, an Environmental Advisor for our Centrica and British Gas headquarters, for coffee to discuss this topic in more detail, as we had included a bit in the CR Report and I was intrigued to know more. Tawny and I are also both members of the Corporate Centre employee-led Green Team, and his is what she had to say about a recent Green Team ‘field trip' to the recycling centre where our waste from our office in Windsor is processed:

BW: Tell me more about this Green Team field trip! I was disappointed to have missed it. How did it come about?

TC:  We wanted to understand where our waste was being sent and how it was being processed, partly to give us assurance that the waste was being treated appropriately but also to raise understanding within Centrica on what was happening with the waste once it left site. So we contacted the waste contractor and asked if we could visit one of their Material Recycling Facilities (MRF's) to see the process first hand.

BW: What happens to our waste? Can you describe the process a bit more?

TC: Recyclable waste first gets put into the dry mixed recycling (DMR) bins on site by our employees. This waste is then transferred to external bins and is collected by a waste contractor and taken to a local transfer station / bulking facility, where it is added to recyclable waste from other companies. Once there is sufficient volume a large container load of waste is transported to a materials recycling facility (MRF) in Enfield. By bulking waste together, it cuts down the number of vehicles needed to transport recyclables further, thereby minimising the carbon footprint associated with transport.

At the MRF, the waste is segregated into the various types of recyclable materials by automated machinery and manually by employees. The MRF is essentially a giant warehouse with two huge conveyor belts - you start out with all of the recyclable waste placed onto the first belt, where it then goes through a number of separation processes. Cardboard and paper are separated first using large rollers that skim off the large, light cardboard and paper, and allow heavier metals and plastics to fall through. Magnets are used to grab cans and other metal, and computer laser scanners, able to recognise several different kinds of plastic, send air jets to shoot these plastics off into separate collection areas. In addition to using these innovative technologies, the conveyors pass through manned cabins, where staff help remove any items that have sneaked through the various stages, and put them back into the correct stream. Anything left at the end of the process is typically not recyclable and is currently sent to landfill. We were told during the visit that this typically equates to around 7% of materials. When we visited the site, the team were busy constructing a further part to the conveyor to try and reduce this figure further and rescue items such as clothes and rags that were put in the recycling bins.

BW: Didn't realise it was so complex - really interesting. I also hear a lot about recycling contamination - how are we avoiding this?

TC: Well, we try to do as much as we can in the offices to make recycling easy, through ensuring that there are sufficient bins everywhere and that the signage on the bins is really clear. We have also run several sessions and fun competitions showing employees what can and can't be recycled. Sometimes people don't realise that they can recycle wet paper towels and can rinse out takeaway food containers from our canteen and recycle those as well. So it's a lot about employee culture and behaviour, and that's where the Green Teams and internal communications come in.

BW: In our CR report we talk about how DMR helps us weigh our waste so that we can keep better track of it. I'm not sure if I understand how - can you tell me a bit more?

TC: Most companies are given industry average weights for the amount of waste they produce - in other words, they are estimates.  We felt that using estimated weights wasn't accurate enough because we feel it's important to report exact waste figures, so we're actually weighing our own waste on all of our major office sites so that we know what percentage of the total waste is actually being recycled and we can focus on tackling any issues where the amount of waste seems really high compared to other sites. There is a growing trend amongst some of the leading businesses to get actual weights and we feel that Centrica are clearly one of the companies at the forefront of this drive. By demanding more accuracy we are looking to influence waste companies to offer actual weights as standard to all companies in the future.

BW: Ok so what about waste that isn't recyclable - what are we doing with that?

TC: 25% of the residual waste across 20 of our largest office sites currently goes to an ‘Energy from Waste' (EfW) plant, where it is turned into electricity which feeds into the national grid. EfW is a better option environmentally than landfill, but it is typically not as environmentally beneficial as recycling (if the items are recyclable), as items still only go through a single lifecycle before they are turned into energy, so where products are recyclable we really need to encourage more recycling to cut down on our amount of residual waste. Every time an employee puts a paper coffee cup or plastic bottle into a residual waste bin, they're preventing it from getting recycled and causing more precious raw materials to be used needlessly. We're working to get this important message out across the business.

BW: Fair enough! So what does this mean for us going forward?

TC: Well we've already got zero waste to landfill in place at our corporate headquarters - our plan is to roll this out at 16 of our main UK office sites by the end of 2012. We are also hoping to introduce food waste collections in the near future to improve our recycling and composting rate even further. Watch this space!

For more on our approach to waste visit the Environmental practices section of our CR Report.

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