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Focus on waste - retail’s role in a greener, more sustainable Britain

By Dan Teuton
15 June 2018

Mick Gumble, regional general manager – South Central at Biffa, discusses how retailers in the region can help achieve the aims set out in the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan – and lifts the lid on the untapped potential for plastic recyclables and energy from waste.Earlier this year, Prime Minister Theresa May set out her 25-year Environment Plan, with a target to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. Retailers and grocers were called upon to reduce plastic packaging and introduce ‘plastics-free’ aisles, alongside other proposals designed to help preserve and improve the environment.

But what is retailers’ role in achieving these targets - and are they even achievable? Will they really help alleviate the many million tonnes of waste we need to manage in the UK, or do we need to look at the bigger picture?

Currently, the UK will not meet its target of 50% recycling of household waste by 2020. Rates have plateaued at around 43-45% since 2011.

The Government has proposed several potential measures to reduce plastics, including a tax or levy system to address single-use plastics; making packaging easier to recycle; and potential reforms of Producer Responsibility systems. This would bring England and Northern Ireland more in line with the approach in Scotland and Wales, where separate collection compliance responsibilities fall on the waste producer, rather than the collector. Service providers like Biffa then collect and sort the materials.

Innovations such as polymer recycling facilities help ensure plastics are diverted from landfill and upgraded. Our highly advanced polymers facility has reprocessed more than 3 billion plastic bottles – so the potential here is huge.

Retailers can help by pushing consumer demand for reduced plastic packaging. Many already have their own-brand products made from sustainable materials with packaging using recycled (and recyclable) content. However, this approach really needs to extend throughout the supply chain.

Of course, retail waste isn’t just plastics. Inedible food waste is another untapped resource when it comes to diverting waste from landfill. Our recent ‘Food for Fuel’ campaign was launched following research revealing that inedible food waste makes up 40% of the UK’s total food wastage, yet one-third of food businesses admit to doing nothing to recycle it.

There are many initiatives in place to re-use edible food, with supermarkets including Sainsbury’s and Tesco donating it to local charities and community groups, but inedible food waste often falls off the is the kind of food which may be left by café and restaurant diners such as plate scrapings, or food past its sell-by date. Much of this food waste is not disposed of effectively, resulting in a massive percentage of potential energy being thrown away. However, a process called anaerobic digestion can convert inedible food waste into a form of green energy which can be exported to the National Grid.Surprisingly, there is currently no legislation in England and Wales that makes recycling food waste mandatory for businesses[i], meaning huge volumes are treated as general waste, with much going to landfill.

Our campaign encourages businesses to pledge to segregate all inedible food waste, irrespective of weight, so this can be used to generate energy, rather than going to landfill.

Surprisingly, our research found businesses often do not realise that general waste is more expensive to dispose of - and that separating food waste will help to lower waste disposal costs. Food waste disposal can cost up to 70% less than residual waste and so it makes economic sense to segregate it and arrange separate collection.

These are just a handful of the issues mentioned in the Environment Plan, but there is still much detail needed in the more comprehensive resource and waste strategy being produced by DEFRA, to be released later this year.

Retailers will undoubtedly be affected by this report, which will include a detailed analysis of the current waste landscape and outline legislative commitment to improvement, particularly in the post-Brexit era from March 2019.

We look forward to working with our retail partners to continue to help shape the UK waste agenda, to continue to innovate and maximise recycling in this sector, with a view to diverting more waste from landfill and striving for the vision of a circular economy. 

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