Until now, the global economy has largely depended on a linear ‘make-use-dispose’ system in which valuable natural resources are extracted and turned into products, which are discarded at the end of their service life. As the damaging consequences of this become glaringly apparent, particularly with respect to single-use plastics, we need to urgently rethink. Our economy must meet the needs of a growing population with diminishing resources, climate change, tightening environmental regulation and the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero.
A Circular Economy
We urgently need to start moving to a circular economy, where we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them, and then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of their service life.
The office contains a vast range of resources from the building fabric, to the fittings and fixtures, and the consumable items used on a daily basis, such as paper, food, drinks and uniforms. Our decision-making should aim to design out waste and pollutants entirely and retain the maximum value from resources for as long as possible. We need to create more efficient, resilient spaces which contribute to the long term sustainability of the business and the wider economy, and the wellbeing of occupants.
To achieve this we will need to completely rethink demand and procurement, optimise the lifecycle of the products in use and maximise the value from eventual disposal, be that by reselling, giving away or recycling. It has been estimated that the cost of office waste to UK businesses is £15 billion per year, with waste costs typically one percent of turnover in well-managed offices, increasing to four percent in those that are poorly managed. Using resources efficiently will reduce procurement costs as well as reducing waste management fees. With the additional revenue from turning products at the end of their service life into income streams there is an accompanying financial driver for change.
Additionally, as the workforce demographic changes, the much more environmentally sensitive millennials will evaluate their prospective employers more favourably when they are committed to a circular economic model.
The ultimate waste strategy is not to need the resource, but this is clearly a long term goal and every organisation should have a current waste strategy, based on the waste hierarchy. The approach must accommodate the physical limitations of the facilities, particularly around available storage, which has a direct impact on collection frequencies and hence costs.
Typical waste objectives may include:
This approach is driven by general waste being the most expensive stream to process and conversion to DMR offering substantial cost reductions or reinvestment opportunities. Further segregation into waste streams offers the opportunities to create commodity streams where income is generated.
Introducing circularity into offices requires bringing together a range of stakeholders, including senior management, procurement professionals, employees and suppliers. From developing a common purpose and initial buy-in, we need to understand the current resources we use and where the greatest opportunities lie, together with where we want to get to and how we will measure success.
Finding out where our waste comes from and how it is generated is a first stage. The waste management provider should be able to provide information on the weights, volumes and costs of all the current waste streams collected from an office, which in large offices can be split by the individual tenants or teams. As the cleaning company will usually collect the waste from the individual tenants or office floors, they can provide a great deal of insight into waste production.
A waste audit will then identify what is being thrown away, which items have the widest sustainability impact, whether alternative processes or products can reduce waste and whether there are increased re-use/ recycling opportunities. Ensuring that waste is disposed of in the correct bins needs to be a given to maximise recycling and the cleaning company’s waste operatives will also check for any contamination issues, and photograph these for education purposes. Collective goals of zero waste to landfill/ incineration and a reduction in overall waste can introduce friendly competitiveness between teams or building tenants, which can be gamified to increase engagement.
To maximise the level of initial engagement it is useful to target the resources that employees interact with most often and where the organisation has direct control. Ensuring a plentiful supply of filtered water in the office, together with tea and coffee making facilities can considerably reduce the reliance on single-use plastic water bottles and brought in, non-recyclable coffee cups. Reusable beverage cups and metal cutlery can be collected and washed by the cleaning team at the end of each day, removing a considerable amount of waste. Reusable plastic drinks cups are being used at a growing number of sports and leisure venues, with cups being recycled, washed and re-used, and this may be appropriate at other large sites.
Step changes can be made by challenging why resources are used and whether they are needed. Paper is an obvious example, and with so many simple to use, cloud based processes available, it is surprising that many offices create so much waste paper. Moving to electronic processes not only reduces waste and saves on consumables cost, through less paper and ink, but requires less transport of materials and storage space in the office.
Challenging suppliers to join the journey will increase impact. As an example, innovations in cleaning methods mean that chemicals can be removed from most processes, being replaced by stabilised aqueous ozone, an infusion of ozone into tap water. This extremely effective cleaning agent is produced on-site, removing the needs for large numbers of plastic containers of cleaning products.
A long-term goal
Environmental awareness has increased but proactive implementation of change, and communication and education of our work colleagues will be needed to ensure significant steps forward. Behavioural change needs buy-in and often takes time, and sharing successes and agreeing next stages can help to get everyone on board.
Challenging ‘why’ the things that end up in the waste are actually needed, and whether an alternative process or product can be used is key. With a global crisis upon us we all need to focus on the ultimate goal of the circular economy.