Image: Is reusing in the supply chain the answer reducing waste? Photo: courtesy of FooTToo

Recycling is a contentious issue in the UK and industry heavyweights, such as WRAP, have made concerted efforts to change the way in which the British nation approach recycling and sustainability. However, despite best efforts, recycling is still underperforming in the sustainability arena.

In 2014, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee report An Environmental Scorecard rated the UK Government’s sustainability efforts three reds, seven ambers and no greens across ten environmental sectors. Perhaps the most striking was the bright amber that the UK received for their ‘resource efficiency and waste’ efforts. Despite this slap on the wrist, however, the UK has still not set numeric goals for the British recycling sector for 2016 with regards to the 2020 recycling target of 50%. A staggering blow to those who are actively striving towards a sustainable future.

Recycling not conducive to long term sustainability

"Recycling does not wipe the slate clean."

Whether this lack in established goals is indicative of where the UK’s recycling efforts are heading throughout 2016, it is unclear. Perhaps the argument that Madeleine Somerville of the Guardian put forward last week has good grounding – recycling is simply not enough to achieve notable sustainability levels.

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As Somerville stated, “recycling does not wipe the slate clean”. Recycling uses up a vast amount of resources due to non-recyclable material entering the recycling chain, recyclable goods being tainted through usage, and the stunted lifecycle of materials, such as plastic.

Recycling has for a long time been the ‘go-to’ for the larger British population when trying to keep a green household and business. Through repurposing waste into something usable, the amount of materials ending up in landfills is significantly reduced. However, the traditional recycling model has not been an altogether successful one both in the UK, and abroad. Recycling processes are energy intensive and can downgrade materials, leading to an increased demand for virgin materials. Furthermore, recycling streams are often contaminated through the misplacement of non-recycling materials into recycling streams. As Richard McIlwain illustrated in a round table debate hosted by MRW at the beginning of 2015, the British masses are confused over the guidelines of recycling. Not everyone is aware of what plastics can be recycled and more importantly which should not be. The tainting of recyclable materials is also common, for example the bits of hard cheese on a cardboard pizza box.

There is too much of an emphasis on the recyclability of materials and not on the overall resource efficiency of sustainability efforts. Jane Birckenstaffe states, “What I’m saying is you can’t let the tail wag the dog – the recyclability or otherwise of these sorts of packaging is not the whole picture.”

Perhaps the lack of measurable recycling goals for 2016 by the UK Government is a push towards a more nuanced way of thinking of sustainability and resource efficiency. British households and industries need to turn away from the ideology that placing that cardboard box in the recycling bin is enough to ensure that my great grandchildren enjoy the same earth that I do.

Reusing and resource efficiency in the circular model

"An emphasis needs to be placed on making the whole supply chain process as resource efficient as possible."

WRAP are champions of supply chain sustainability, with the Courtauld Commitment an active contributor to the betterment of resource efficiency. During phase three, the initiative has moved its focus onto supply chain waste in the food and drinks sector. By reducing food waste in the home, supply chain and through efficient packaging. WRAP has highlighted their hopes that the effects of phase 3 on the decline of CO2e emissions will be equivalent to permanently taking one million cars off the road.

In 2016, the UK’s sustainability goals should be focused on resource efficiency and overall reduction of energy usage rather than solely focused on waste redesign at the end of a products lifecycle. An emphasis needs to be placed on making the whole supply chain process as resource efficient as possible.

Somerville highlights the importance of reducing in her article, however, as she rightly emphasises the resistance to reducing the amount of packaging and goods that we buy is rife in the UK. Consumerism is such an entrenched part of our society that overhauling this is a daunting thought. Moreover, it does not tackle the issue of supply chain resource efficiency. Asking big companies to reduce in their packaging is not an easy thing to do, for the most part they physically can’t.

Bringing us down to the notion of reusing, not only in the common household but also for the supply chain at large. The use of returnable transit packaging (RTP) is one way in which waste can be prevented in the supply chain. Equipment is re-used on a cycle system, allowing transit packaging to bypass the recycle heap and be used on an ongoing basis. In addition, the packaging does not have to enter a processing plant where they are remanufactured and the integrity of the material is compromised.

Reusable packaging for UK Markets

"The focus should be on processors and manufacturers."

As found through the experience of the largest RTP supplier in the UK, PPS, the switch from single trip cardboard boxes to plastic crates produces an estimated 52% less carbon emissions, whereas the switch from polystyrene is even greater at 89%. Additionally, switching to sturdier packaging reduces the amount of food waste through preventing product damage.

Another topic that the director of FareShare, Mark Varney, recently highlighted in an interview with Edie is that the focus on food waste in supermarkets is an ‘unnecessary distraction’ from the bigger issue of larger volumes of food wastage in the supply chain.

“Let’s stop talking about supermarkets,” he said. “The focus should be on processors and manufacturers – there’s not enough research being done elsewhere in the supply chain.”

For businesses with a long and in-depth supply chain, becoming more resource efficient and adopting a circular business model would mean a drastic remodelling of their company structure and requires a cultural and organisational shift. Nevertheless, the gains are not only environmental for those companies that do move towards a circular business model. Financially, British companies could save up to £6.4bn per year whilst a more sustainable supply chain and product will also impacting positively on their brand identity and sentiment.

There are small steps that businesses can make towards becoming more resource efficient. At supply chain level, changes to returnable transit packaging, truck leasing or a simple reduction in product wastage can lead to a large reduction in energy usage. PPS has seen 95% of customers experience cost savings when they switch to returnable options. These smaller steps allow businesses to test a circular business model without adopting it completely. Reusing is a massive step in a more sustainable direction and is a step that can be undertaken in the home as well as throughout the supply chain. It is also a step that has promise for the UK and beyond.