What can retailers and local authorities achieve through collaboration to increase recycling? Sarah Wakefield, environmental planning improvement manager at The Co-operative Group Estates and an RWM ambassador, offers her thoughts on what can be achieved…
It’s the RWM show, and who are you going to pick to network with?
As a local authority (LA), what’s the chance that if you talk to a retailer they will bend your ear, asking “why can’t we just have unified collections as a country, surely that is the obvious solution to all our challenges?” As a retailer, I know I’m going to get some dirty looks from LAs for my black ready meal tray, which a well-meaning householder has placed in recycling, causing a series of downgraded recycling loads. Add to that tension around the PRN system and whether messaging on recycling should be sent by retailers to their customers or by LAs to their households, and you can see why those with an interest in waste can end up better segregated than a German recycling bin.
Despite these differences, at the core of waste and recycling we actually have more in common than meets the eye – and collaboration is already beginning to help us increase recycling rates.
The first thing which we have in common is that we have waste, which we – on the whole – employ a third party to dispose of on our behalf and that the constitution of waste is pretty similar. Compare kerbside collections to back of store waste – you’re looking at packaging, paper, card, food waste and general waste, with maybe a bit of WEEE which someone has tried to cheekily dispose of out of process. Therefore, it is in our collective interest to make sure that the facilities our contractors use have the best possible affordances and capacity.
Secondly, we all have targets around recycling levels. Of course, LAs have a legal obligation and retailers are bound by their CSR reports, but the level of transparency is pretty high in big retailers; moreover, no-one wants to go backwards, or be bottom of a league table.
Thirdly, LAs’ householders and my customers are the same people. Citizens. Notwithstanding that the mind-set is different in each setting, Retailers are becoming increasingly conscious of the impact of packaging up and down stream in supply chains.
A Different Language?
Finally, we share a greater understanding of waste than the citizens we are trying to influence to recycle more. What average person is going to understand “I had some contaminated DMR which ended up going through a dirty MRF, and 50% of it still had to go to RDF”?
In fact to anyone outside of the waste industry, we probably sound a bit like The Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea when we bicker over whether it is retailers or LAs who are the problem with the recycling system. The fact we have the ability to talk to each other in special coded language means that we are well placed to work together with waste providers to build the solutions we all need.
One example from The Co-operative has been our work on compostable carrier bags for food caddies which has been rolled out in 645 stores within 107 local authority areas and sell for 6p, with especially great collaboration from Oldham. Feedback has been that it can help increase food recycling levels as they are stronger and cheaper than a standard roll of compostable bags, and have the bunny ear handles available as a tie – making it more convenient when full. However, it takes a leap of faith from the LA that our customers are going to remember in their household context to not use a plastic bag.
It’s also great to have seen the news that Sainsbury’s and M&S are trialling infra-red technology for black ready meal trays with Kent Resource Partnership and other industry bodies. However, to see material change these technologies can only move on if we get away from fixating on who grabs the first headline on each sustainability subject and instead look at what’s right for the country.
This RWM it would be great to see more industry-wide conversations where we talk honestly about the common challenges we face, while accepting we will not get agreement on certain issues. Going forward we could do more to trial new recycling technologies and collections, but all sides sharing the burden and risk is key to these efforts working at scale.
Finally, we can join and continue to work together, through CIWM and our trade bodies, lobbying for the appropriate recycling facilities for the circular economy of tomorrow.
Do you have some more ideas of what we could be doing together? Get in touch and start the conversation.
Sarah Wakefield is an ambassador for RWM in partnership with CIWM www.rwmexhibition.com