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Posts Tagged ‘waste’

And that’s the point, if you don’t know, you are better to find out in advance and like any good boy scout, ‘be prepared’. 

Adapting to Climate Change: A Guide for Businesses in Scotland, was launched last month by the Scottish Climate Change Impacts Partnership (SCCIP) and is a good starting point if you would like to learn more about the risks and opportunities that climate change may pose to your business.  SCCIP also have a dedicated Private Sector Officer who can offer free guidance and support if you would like some more in depth advice.

Being prepared for climate change can mean anything from assessing the current situation and gaining reassurance that no action is needed, to changing location of your store room to prevent stock from becoming flooded and damaged, to more long term changes like looking at new markets for your goods and services. 

We all contribute to climate change, but we can also all do our bit to try and reduce by how much.  One of our main messages, that everyone can get involved with, is that by reducing the amount of waste you send to landfill, you can reduce the amount of methane gas that is created, which is a major contributor to climate change.

As we all play a part in creating climate change we will all have to deal with the consequences, and warmer, drier summers and milder, wetter winters will affect us all in some way (and not just in terms of how many times you get chance to use the BBQ in one summer!), but only you can tell and plan for the extent of which climate change will influence the future of your business.

A lot less of this...

......could also mean a lot more of this

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Being eco is nothing new. And I don’t mean because of the bearded forefathers of green proclaiming impending doom in the 1970s. It really isn’t new. Since the dawn of time, survival has depended on careful use of available resources. Our evolutionary ancestors had to learn this the hard way (with the ultimate price for failure) and we, in most developed countries, are in the uniquely fortunate position of having far more than we need at very little cost.

The reason for this is very simple: cheap oil.

Without a plentiful supply of black gold the industrial revolution would have never happened and our lives would be unfathomably different, akin to the dwindling number of people still living in untouched, pre-industrial societies around the world. You wouldn’t be reading this because, along with every other blog post, article, website or book published with the help of electricity, it wouldn’t have been written. You wouldn’t be worried about the amount of plastic packaging waste you put in your bin each week because you wouldn’t have any plastic.

Do you think these people have a problem with waste?

So, oil has led us down an exciting yet slippery path. At the beginning of our energy-intense journey we rejoiced in the availability of this seemingly endless source of energy which revolutionised so many aspects of our lives. Yet, before long, we began to take it for granted and assumed cheap and plentiful oil was the status quo. This shows how short-sighted we can be: oil was first drilled on a commercial scale just 160 years ago, a mere fibre in the tapestry of time. Even so, we now find it difficult to grasp the fact that much of modern life, including all capitalist economic systems, rely on this once abundant energy source to exist. It is so entwined in our everyday that, for most of us, the idea of it not being available as and when we want it is unthinkable. After all we use it in so many ways: to extract the materials which become the products we consume so hungrily; to produce the products, package the products and within the products; to travel, to work, to light up our lives and to lift us above the apparent boredom of an otherwise oil-less existence.

But an oil-less existence is precisely what we are going to have, in a very short space of time. It is generally agreed that we have reached the peak of oil discovery (places we can extract it) so it is only a matter of time before we reach a peak in production. Add to that an increase in demand from countries that previously didn’t rely on oil so much and it is easy to see that oil is about to become a precious commodity affordable only by the extremely rich. We may be 5 years away from that point, or we may be 40, but either way our children will be affected massively by the changes they will need to make to the way they live.

However, becoming oil-less may be precisely what we need to solve some of the most pressing problems we face on the planet. Take global warming. Without oil we won’t produce anything like the amount of CO2 we do at present. So, if oil does peak and becomes something that most people can’t afford, we will have solved one of the biggest challenges we face without even doing anything about it. Also, take population growth. Without oil we will be unable to indefinitely sustain a planet with a growing population. The number of people will adjust to the amount of food we can produce, just like in the animal kingdom.

So we may be forced to make changes, but some of those changes may be for the better. They may allow us to break free of the shackles of an energy intense, consumerist lifestyle in the knowledge that we are doing it as a whole society – not just as “worthy” individuals. We may face a different future, but that doesn’t mean it will be worse.

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A recurring piece of advice about waste that I give to businesses and members of the public is that “the waste you can’t see often has a greater impact than the waste you can”. It’s a message that needs explaining (so bear with me) but it’s important because it helps to show the true nature of things, and how often do we get to see that? The phenomenon is known by waste experts as “the iceberg effect”, which is an obvious analogy: more of an iceberg lurks ominously beneath the water’s surface than sits proudly above it.

Watch out for the hidden impacts...

But what do we mean by “waste you can’t see?” The answer, as with most things, depends on your perspective about what matters. This is because disposing of waste encompasses a huge number of environmental, social and other factors and any or all of these could be perceived as negative depending on who’s involved. I told you it needed explaining.

Let’s look at some of the main factors:

Environmental / Social

Energy – it’s obvious but well worth stating that disposing of materials as waste involves huge amounts of energy. Mining the earth to extract materials; producing and transporting materials and their packaging; storing them and finally transporting the unused or leftover materials to landfill (or for that matter a recycling plant) all takes energy. When you see the carbon footprint on the label of a product in the supermarket, which is increasingly common, it generally looks at the embodied energy of an item (i.e. the energy required over its lifetime) which is the main reason why fresh orange juice has a higher overall footprint impact than ambient (aka long-life) – put simply the former requires a fridge. Here is an example of the footprint of a bag of crisps, showing the various stages of production and consumption. The key point with regards waste is that it is clearly more of a problem if we waste materials that could have been used (or reused) because the embodied energy to make new items is proportionally massive.

Water – An amazing amount of water is used in every single item we use. Again, the term “embodied” crops up because we need to consider the water involved throughout a product’s life-cycle, not just in its end use. Embodied water is also commonly referred to as “virtual water” although it is, of course, very real and has to come from somewhere. A fascinating water calculator of common items was produced by the BBC recently which shows, for example, that a chicken breast contains 683 litres of embodied water! So, if you don’t finish your dinner tonight and throw some chicken away, the waste also contains a proportion of this embodied water. I dread to think how much embodied water is connected to everything deposited in an average landfill site, but it’s safe to say that the volumes involved would be far greater than the waste itself. It’s just that we can’t see it. Other examples include nearly 11,000 litres of water for a pair of jeans.

The Natural Environment – In other words, the nice bits of where we live like forests, green areas, natural habitats etc. These are areas we lose whenever a landfill site or quarry is put there or when a river is polluted or trees chopped down. Equally, we lose part of our natural environment whenever someone decides to put, for example, a bauxite quarry nearby. Admittedly this is more likely to happen if we live in Vietnam or Guinea than Scotland, but you get the idea.

Quality of Life – This is a difficult one to quantify but there is a certain sense of pride for a clean and tidy area which we lose when waste is scattered about. For some people, litter and waste regularly tops the list of things that bother them. So their life is genuinely affected by other people’s waste.

Other Hidden Impacts – A hidden effect of landfilled organic waste is that it will emit methane as it breaks down in landfill which is a highly potent greenhouse gas. It’s a big reason for trying to avoid organic waste in landfill and supports the argument for composting waste. Another hidden impact is the potential for pollution when chemicals from products and packaging escape into the surrounding environment.

Businesses
If you own or manage a business what matters most is likely to be money, so wasting money is something you would most try to avoid. Coupled with this is wasted time because for most businesses the old adage holds true that time equals money. Disposing of waste has many costs associated with it over and above the invoice you receive from your waste service provider. In fact, it is estimated that the actual cost is 10 times higher than these upfront, obvious costs! Here are just some of the reasons for this:

  1. Over-buying – the cost of buying too many materials in the first place is wasted money. A lot of what businesses throw out is actually unused or poorly used materials, particularly in some industries, like retail or catering.
  2. Time – the staff time involved with emptying bins is a significant factor for some industries.

The Solution

So what can be done to minimise these impacts? Fortunately, quite a lot. If you buy recycled products or products with recycled packaging then you minimise the embodied impacts because you remove the need to mine the earth for materials, which is one of the most energy intensive parts of producing materials. If you buy products produced locally then you help to remove even more of the energy involved (transportation) and also the amount of water used (stats show that local products tend to involve less water than those imported, for a variety of reasons.

Above all, if you can reduce the amount you buy you will necessarily reduce the waste created as well as minimise all the impacts mentioned above.

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Environmental management provides the means to achieve humankind’s ambitions in a way that also allows our long term survival. Through it we learn both about the environment and our effect on it. We can then put in place policies, regulations, laws and guidance relating to society’s activities. It really is a vital part of our future as, without effective environmental management, businesses and society would be unable to address the challenges we face as we move into a low-carbon era. We would have no tools with which to measure our impact, no means of working out what we can and can’t do and, perhaps worst of all, no means by which to communicate this to the people who most need the information. It would be like trying to win the Premier League without a manager or trying to build a flatpack wardrobe without a manual.

But Environmental Management is also a bit like Subbuteo: it’s easy enough to dip into but incredibly difficult to master. You don’t need a pre-frontal cortex the size of Manhattan to understand the basic principles: use less, waste less. But getting to the point where you can accurately state the correct course of action in any given situation? That takes ages. It also takes copious amounts of energy, dedication and, yes, an enormous brain. Fortunately most of us aren’t burdened with huge brainpower and therefore don’t have to deal with things like existential angst or logarithmic equations. We are instead lucky enough to exist in a state of blissful ignorance, plodding gently through life and carrying out our work dutifully without need to question its deeper meaning.

But how can we, the befuddled majority, master the complexities of environmental management sufficiently to make a difference to the world? How can we access the deeper truths for long enough to change our actions and feel confident that we are protecting the planet for our children?

Take carbon. We generally understand that reducing our use of carbon is both inevitable (carbon fuels will run out) and important (continuing to use them until they run out may cause irreversible warming). Yet the process of working out which activities are most carbon-intensive and, even more difficult, comparing very different activities in a meaningful way is incredibly challenging. For example: holidays. How can you know whether it is better to:

  1. fly to Spain and spend your time lying on a beach, eating locally caught fish and cycling around your small fishing village to collect your seasonal shopping in the morning or
  2. get a train to Salzberg and spend your time eating and drinking in an International hotel chain which gets its food from all over the world and getting taxis around the place?

How can we even start to compare these two holidays? Should we even bother?

Carbon footprinting is a complex subject requiring a large brain. Just look at this list of conversion factors from DEFRA to see how many calculations are required to work out the carbon consumed by a business. Fortunately the calculations themselves have already been done: it’s only the conversions that the business has to carry out. This “footprint calculator” is one example of how the kind of knowledge involved with environmental management has become more accessible. There are carbon footprint calculators all over the internet and many are simple to use. Unfortunately none yet offer holiday comparisons in any meaningful way.

So that’s carbon. What about waste? What can the environmental management boffins teach us about waste and how can we know the best thing to do with our waste? Interestingly enough, waste has its own secret, shadowy world just like carbon. From the calorific value of residual municipal waste to the current market price of materials there are behind-the-scene calculations going on around the clock. Fortunately for us it matters little to the end user (business or household). All we need to remember are three key things:

1. Landfill is bad.

Landfill is a dead zone for materials that could otherwise have remained in use. Landfill generates methane, only some of which is recovered (have you ever seen the massive yellow flames next to m0st landfill sites? That’s methane being burned off, producing CO2 – which is considered the lesser of two evils).

2. Reduce, reuse and recycle (in that order).

Reducing waste eliminates the need to find a disposal option and reduces the materials being used in the first place. This saves you time and money. Reusing waste also avoids disp0sal. Recycling allows a material to live again.

3. Listen to your mother.

She’s probably right.

This final point is optional by the way.

So, can the environmental management of waste really be summed up in two short points and one piece of nonsense? Actually, yes it can but to implement these points and actually make a difference to the waste we produce in Scotland will take another kind of intelligence altogether: the intelligence to realise that we all have to get involved and that only together can we make Scotland a zero waste society.

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Will Mixed Paints All Be Brown?

Will Mixed Paints All Be Brown?

Until very recently it has been illegal to mix leftover paint for reuse without applying and paying for a special license from SEPA. At first glance this might seem a reasonable precaution (after all most conventional paints are pretty nasty) but it has in fact been hampering the efforts of community recycling organisations. Some of these organisations specialise in paint reuse and have had to sell or give away used tins/pots of paint on an individual basis. These organisations can now mix, store and distribute suitable paints in a single container which will allow them to better plan their reuse activities and presumably offer their services on a much larger scale than was previously possible.

Prior to this change young families might have picked up half a tin of “Dorset Cream

dorset-cream

But, if it didn’t cover the walls of their nursery, they might have to paint the other half “Sudbury Yellow“.

sudbury-yellow

Just imagine the scene.

The organisation most affected by the change is RePaint Scotland which has, unsurprisingly, welcomed the move. Their spokesperson Maureen Menzies said:

“This is welcome news indeed. It is not only a tremendous cost saving for RePaint Scotland but means we can go ahead and bulk up our recycled paint, as can those other organisations who want to top up half full tins, knowing that we are all compliant with SEPA regulations.”

In case you were thinking this is all a bit of fuss over nothing, take a look at the figures:

In 2007 the Community RePaint national network:

  • collected 450,000 litres of paint from householders and businesses (which otherwise would have ended up going to waste)
  • with a market value of over £1.75 million
  • redistributed over 250,000 litres of paint to community groups, charities, voluntary organisations and people in social need.

I think the amounts involved are pretty impressive and really help justify the change in the regulatory stance.

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It now costs an additional £40 per tonne to send most types of waste to landfill.

Landfill Site in UK

Landfill Site in UK

The total costs are actually much higher than £40 as most businesses will pay a company or local authority to collect their waste and will be charged for the other elements, over and above the tax. Whoever does the collection has to pay for:

  • Transport to Collect the Rubbish.
  • Guys to Pick up the Rubbish.
  • A Plant or Depot to Process/Separate/Crush the Waste.
  • Transport to the Landfill Site.
  • Landfill Gate Fees.

So the real cost of waste to landfill is much higher than just the £40 tax.

But, I hear you say, most of those costs are the same for recycling so it doesn’t really matter!

Well yes, it is true that recycling carries a cost. But the development of recycling infrastructure, coupled with the inevitable increase in the cost of raw materials as we literally use them up, means that the business model for recycling services has started to look very robust.

Also, consider why the Government imposed the landfill tax in the first place. It’s not just about helping the environment but also the fact that we are running out of space for landfill sites. Current sites are reaching capacity and new landfill sites are pretty much the least popular choice, apart from Nuclear Waste Dumps, for ways to use land in the UK, particularly for those living nearby!

We all have to make a decision about our waste, and the knowledge that landfill tax is likely to rise year-on-year (by £8 a tonne until 2011 at least) might make a difference to what you decide is best for your business.

As always, if you’re looking for an alternative to landfill in Scotland please visit our Business Recycling Directory.

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sepa_logo_small

I spent a drizzly, cold and grey day (up here they call it “dreich”) in Glengarnock, on the West side of Scotland, yesterday. The purpose of the trip was to attend a Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) training day at the Envirowise offices.

All in all it was a fascinating insight into the complex world of environment regulation. As it happens I used to work in regulation myself, in both the advertising and energy industry, and was already aware of the minefield that is compliance. But it must be said, SEPA take that to a whole new level. Their Environmental Protection Officers (EPOs) – the guys and gals who carry out the investigative work – mostly have two degrees. They then train for two years both in the field and in sessions a bit like the one we sat through before being classed as qualified for the tasks they take on. And what tasks they are! Once trained, the EPOs basically become a bit like an environmental police officer. Our trainer, a very knowledgeable SEPA representative called Simon, described some of the powers SEPA have. These include the right to force entry, the right to obtain mobile phone records and many other things that allow them to ensure they can find out who’s doing the bad stuff and stop them in their tracks.

Before I paint the wrong impression of the way they approach their work, Simon made it very clear that SEPA always at least try to follow the path of least resistance. So, where businesses are prepared to work with them, they will work with businesses. In fact I think they offer a really useful service, because they digest the technical and legal legislative issues and translate them for us mere mortals so we know, in practical terms, what we should and shouldn’t do.

Apparently the training day we had was an amalgamation of several training elements that EPOs would sit through but was not as detailed as the real training. I can’t help but feel slightly relieved about that!

It was a lot of fun as we worked in groups looking at real life issues that SEPA EPOs might face. For example we had to consider a garden shed manufacturer and decide what potential environmental hazards might be caused by their activities. As it turned out there were quite a few: the lorries turning up to drop off the wood; the chemicals used (and how they were stored – it’s all about bunds apparently); the way the waste wood was handled (was it being illegally burned); the way the chemicals and wood preservatives were applied; the noise on the site; the dust and sawdust (different things apparently); the potential run-off to a nearby watercourse. The list goes on.

The next activity involved a simulated emergency where fish from the watercourse (the one near the shed factory) started dying. What would we do? Who would we inform first? All issues a SEPA EPO would have to address. We were advised how SEPA are a “category one” agency in situations like that which means they have the same authority to resolve the situation and investigate the problems (and prosecute the offenders) as the Police. So they really are the environment police, but with a friendly face.

I can’t say I envy the people working for SEPA, but I do have a lot of respect for them.

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