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Does workplace recycling deserve to be binned?

29 November 2019. Published by Hannah Ridzuan-Allen, Trainee Solicitor

It has been a big year for action on climate change - from Greta Thunberg's impassioned speech at the UN, to the Extinction Rebellion's pink yacht, which blockaded Oxford Circus. In a number of ways the British public are making greater efforts to reduce their carbon footprint. Over the past two decades, the rate of household recycling has risen from 11% in 2000 to 45.2% in 2017/18.

However, in the UK at least a fifth of all waste is generated by businesses (excluding construction). Reflecting the change in public mood, workplaces have begun to implement their own recycling facilities, with 20% having installed recycling bins and implemented green policies by the end of 2018. 

Does recycling make a difference?

Effective recycling can do a lot to mitigate human impact on the environment. The energy required to make one aluminium can from raw materials could produce up to twenty recycled cans. Glass placed in landfill will never biodegrade, and yet when recycled the same glass can be used repeatedly to make new bottles. Paper recycling emits 70% less carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses than the process of making paper from scratch. 

Why should businesses be interested in recycling?

Whilst many businesses have a "profit is king" outlook, corporate culture is increasingly engaging in topics that its shareholders and employees consider important. The revised UK Stewardship Code, updated in October of this year, sets out good practice on how institutional investors should engage with companies and specifically highlights environmental issues as a focus. A business which has a plan to control its environmental footprint will be more attractive to a socially-conscious shareholder or an eco-friendly fund. It may also impress the prospective millennial workforce, a generation that increasingly seeks to work within businesses that reflect their values.  

Eco-friendly initiatives can also align with the desire to bolster the bottom line, not only from the perspective of brand impact, but also in terms of cost. Under the Landfill Tax scheme it can cost considerably more to dispose of a bag of landfill than a bag of recycling. Certain local authorities accept separated recycling free of charge to encourage the practice.   

What can be done better? 

A series of recent news articles focused on the fact that the UK ships as much as two thirds of its plastic waste overseas, where a proportion of it may be burned, rather than recycled. This is often as a result of the expense of dealing with contaminated recycling. Malaysia has announced that it will no longer be accepting recycling from other countries, having faced problems with the toxic smoke produced from the illegal burning of plastic. China has also begun to reject certain types of waste, potentially causing the costs of recycling to rocket.

So called 'dirty recycling' (where materials are contaminated with food or other substances) is the cause of a great deal of the expense associated with recycling. In order to minimise this, employees need to be more careful with what they put into the recycling bin. A dirty food container can ruin a whole batch of recycling. A plastic bag, can and often will clog up the machines which do the sorting, requiring time consuming and expensive human intervention. 

Where businesses have recycling initiatives, it may be worth holding training, or at least having clear and easily legible guidelines next to the various bins. It could also be worth using statistics to make it clear that unless everyone follows the rules, co-workers could be frustrating one another's efforts. There is evidence that increasing the convenience of office recycling (for example by installing more bins) can increase rates by around 20%

Arguably there is probably a lot more that businesses can do to reduce and reuse (remember that old gem of a catchy slogan?). This might mean having printers set up to print double-sided or ensuring that the café minimises food waste and provides reusable cutlery, cups and plates.

Whilst recycling might not be a panacea for our environmental woes – there are plenty of ways that offices can do more to make a difference. If your business can boost its image at the same time, what is there to lose?