Plant-tastic not plastic

I’m halfway through my masters in Sustainability Leadership at Cambridge University. Working for a company that provides essential water and wastewater services for 25% of the population of England and Wales and has over 6000 direct employees provides a fantastic opportunity to bring about actual positive change for sustainability.

My personal leadership opportunity started by understanding waste in the business, identifying how waste is measured and recorded, mapping waste streams and using this to help the business become more sustainable. Here’s a win I’ve helped deliver as senior advisor in the sustainability team – tackling single use plastics in the business.

A key group of people from the facilities, catering and sustainability teams met to explore what we might do to remove single use plastic packaging in the business and our cafeterias became an obvious choice. Our aim was to explore and deliver opportunities to remove single use plastics from cafeterias at multiple sites with a longer term aspiration to reduce disposable packaging use. Despite having no budget, we found innovative ways to make this happen.

Plastic to cans

The first positive change we achieved was a simple format switch from plastic bottles to aluminium cans sold from the cafeterias and vending machines. This hasn’t reduced the choice of products, just the format in which it is delivered. Cans are able to be recycled over and over again, saving energy and raw materials and reducing waste. They can also be recovered even if they enter the wrong waste stream.

Making people aware

Alongside the work we were doing with our catering and vending providers, I was raising awareness about the amount of plastic waste produced, specifically coffee cups, to stimulate interest, conversations and debate. This included placing posters above bins and posting on our internal social media channel, with posts reaching around 700 employees. For example, in one of our offices, we threw away a staggering 13,000 coffee cups in just one month – poster below.

Coffee cup poster

Plant-tastic not plastic

We worked closely with facilities and our caterers to explore what plastic packaging could be substituted and how quickly it could be done, and in May, we switched to Vegware compostable packaging and cutlery, made from plants not plastic. We also aligned this with the catering refresh that was already being planned.

Apart from bought in items, such as the refreshed sandwich range and Sushi packing, the business has significantly replaced conventional plastics made out of oil, a non-renewable and finite resource, with various plant-based materials from responsible sources. The production of these renewable plant-based materials emits less carbon than making most plastics.

Composting isn’t rubbish

Making the change to plastic free compostable packaging material was a big win, but it was not enough, as we wanted to make sure it was composted. We explored the potential of composting food and Vegware ourselves, but this has currently stalled due to technology reliability. The waste contract has been modified to make sure that used Vegware products were composted together with food waste. Although no waste from Thames Water’s office buildings goes to landfill (with any non-recyclable waste being used to generate community energy), the shift to Vegware products has provided an opportunity to enhance the benefit received from the disposal of food packaging.

Upgrading the binfrastructure

Because we had a larger waste stream for food and compostable waste due to Vegware products, we needed to upgrade our ‘binfrastructure’. The existing bins that were located in the middle of each office floor have been repurposed and placed in a dedicated bin area at the end of each floor. With all bins in one area, this helps to reduce confusion of which bin to use, reduce the likelihood of bins being contaminated with incorrect disposal of waste, and therefore increase the amount of waste we can recycle and compost.

Repurposing bins also helps reduce unnecessary spending and reduces carbon emissions associated with the creation and transportation of new (plastic) bins. I identified the items most frequently used and thrown away (with the occasional ‘bin-dive’) and improved the bin signage to make it as easy and simple as possible to identify what waste goes where. I also posted this on social media so people can ask questions if they’re confused about what you can and can’t compost or recycle.

Bin poster post


Substitution to reduction

Alongside the compostable packaging, we continued to promote the use of reusable cups. We already had a long-standing but poorly understood 5p ‘cup tax’, but as part of the catering refresh we replaced this and introduced a 20p per beverage incentive for people to use their own cups. We saw positive results straight away.

For one building alone, in the first week of introducing Vegware and the introduction of the 20p re-usable cup incentive, a third less disposable coffee cups were used alongside an increase in coffee sales. In the following months, of the beverages bought, around 60% of customers have used their own cups compared to 20% before May. This has not only saved around 14,000 cups a month but also saved staff in one office about £3,000 a month. So we have already moved from substitution to reduction.

Myths and reality

Unfortunately, the project received a few comments from employees in the office and on internal social media posts because there was some confusion due to a lot of changes happening at once – the catering refresh, the change to Vegware packaging, sugar tax and price changes due to new and improved products. Even this process of correcting these misunderstandings in the end proved to be a positive reinforcement. This is an important piece of learning that messages must be clear and visible. I’ve found that our internal social media has been very useful in high lighting, explaining and encouraging this change.

We are now working with our procurement team to influence future contracts to encourage and make it a requirement for our suppliers to reduce plastic packaging and/or make packing re-usable. This is a long-term project as it could take several years to cycle through all the contracts.

Reflection on leadership

The project has raised awareness and inspired others to work to reduce plastic and other types of waste, for instance, in our central laboratory. I’m committed to helping the business become more sustainable and responsible by identifying opportunities and supporting individuals and teams who also want to make a difference. However, leadership isn’t about making a difference on your own. This is a great example of how working with, encouraging and supporting our facilities and catering teams can significantly reduce single-use plastics, as changes like this can have a huge effect. However, everyone has an individual part to play in reducing the amount of waste produced, and with this project we’re making progress.


Transition to a sustainable economy to help to protect your water and wastewater services

Climate has changed naturally in the past but there’s evidence that humans are also having a significant effect. By releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through activities such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation, this is causing the Earth to warm up leading to long-term changes in weather conditions – also known as climate change.

Why does it matter?

We may think the impacts of climate change will be seen far into the future, however, we’re already seeing the effects of more variable weather. These are three recent examples of how weather can threaten your water supply and wastewater services:

  1. A prolonged period of below average rainfall from 2010 to early 2012 resulted in one of the ten most significant droughts of one to two years duration in the last 100 years for England and Wales. This resulted in low reservoir levels and hosepipe bans affecting six million consumers. This also threatened the water supply to the Olympic Games in London, which saw a hosepipe ban being introduced in early April. But shortly after, the potential significant drought impacts were avoided due to exceptional rainfall from April to July. It turned out to be ‘the wettest drought on record’ and made communications on water efficiency challenging (and interesting) for Thames Water.
  2. The UK experienced a succession of major storms through the winter of 2013/2014. The severe conditions broke a number of weather records and it became the wettest winter in the UK since records began. Large parts of the UK were affected by surface water flooding which threatened water and wastewater treatment works and other vital assets, and also caused flooding to properties from overloaded sewers.
  3. A few months ago, the UK was affected by a cold spell nicknamed “the Beast from the East” which brought unseasonably low temperatures and heavy snowfall from Scandinavia. The freezing conditions and a sudden thaw left water pipes badly damaged across the country and disrupted water supply to thousands of homes and businesses.

Examples like these demonstrate that severe weather and climate change will have serious implications for the long-term sustainability of essential water and wastewater services.

Weather and climate change impacts

So how are we responding?

The UK aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 (based on 1990 baseline) and should progress towards a low-carbon economy. However, a transition to a low (or no) carbon economy is not enough to address the challenges of climate change. Therefore, what we need to do is transition to a climate-resilient economy which can withstand or recover quickly from the unavoidable climate impacts in the short and long-term.

Thames Water is using twin track approach to address the challenges of climate change and become more climate-resilient. This includes managing the unavoidable impacts of climate change (‘adaptation’) combined with a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (‘mitigation’).

Adaptation increases business resilience by being able to respond or recover while continuing to operate with limited impact on the business. Action has already been taken to improve resilience to risks, one example includes:

  • The Old Ford treatment plant on the Olympic Park turns sewage into non-drinkable water for gardens and flushing toilets. It provides enough water for up to 80,000 toilet flushes a day which helped to reduce reliance on tap water during the 2012 drought and the Olympics. This plant continues to help research into reclaimed water and securing future water supplies.

Mitigation contributes towards a low carbon economy by reducing GHG emissions. Thames Water already generates some of its own electricity renewably from sewage, solar panels and wind turbines. But there are further opportunities such as reducing embodied carbon. Instead of constructing new equipment, infrastructure and renewables to help treat water and wastewater, what opportunity is there, for example, to use natural systems?

  • Catchment management approaches could help improve water quality, reducing the need for intensive treatment processes which are carbon intensive and expensive to build and operate.
  • Sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) and reedbeds can be used to collect, store and clean wastewater before releasing it back into the environment, avoiding the need to dig up roads and build new, large sewer systems and treatment plants.

Thames Water has focused on reducing emissions directly associated with treating and transporting water and wastewater and also continues to work with suppliers to reduce the carbon intensity of the services provided to help significantly reduce emissions further.

The need for a shift to a climate-resilient economy is compelling, not just for water and wastewater services but for the economy as a whole many other social, economic and environmental reasons. The transition though will be challenging and will require involvement of a number of local and global actors and throughout the supply chain, and with a fair contribution from all of them. Raising awareness of these issues and other businesses’ approaches to a climate-resilient economy is a first step to helping your own business transition by finding ways to take action.

Waste – what is it and how can we reduce it?

I’ve always had an interest in the environment, how we use, interact with it, and depend on it to live. This is what led me towards ‘sustainability’. I started a masters in Sustainability Leadership at Cambridge University to bring about a positive change for sustainability during my two years on the programme (and beyond). As part of this, I’ve identified a ‘personal leadership opportunity’:

to understand and reduce waste in my business.

When I’ve asked my friends, family and colleagues what they think sustainability is, they usually refer to recycling, thinking about and reducing how much they buy, and being more efficient with water and energy. This all links back to a common theme – waste.

It also seems that the world is finally waking up to the horror that waste, specifically plastic, is waging on the environment. Since 2015:

  • the UK introduced a 5p charge for all single-use plastic carrier bags from large shops;
  • Sir David Attenborough brought the threat of marine plastic pollution into the nation’s living rooms with the Blue Planet II series;
  • China banned imports of “foreign garbage” this year, putting the UK under significant pressure to find new ways to deal with its mountains of (recycling) waste produced each year;
  • a ban was introduced on the manufacture of products containing microbeads;
  • MPs turned their attention to disposable coffee cups and demanded a new 25p tax on every one used;
  • the UK Government released its 25 year environmental strategy which aims to “eliminate avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042”;
  • Britain’s 10 biggest supermarkets announced what they were doing to combat plastics; and
  • in the past week, a deposit return scheme for drinks bottles and cans has been proposed for the UK.

As a responsible consumer and aiming to become more sustainable, I already minimise the amount of waste I produce including recycling as much as possible, using reusable bottles, only getting the things I need and trying to buy items with the least amount of packaging. However, I want to be able to make a bigger difference. As well as consumers, encouraging industries and businesses to recycle and reduce waste is equally important.

So how do I make a positive change for sustainability with and for my business?

Personal leadership opportunity

Understanding how the business manages its waste and the attitudes of employees towards waste and recycling is essential in determining how to reduce the large volumes of waste produced. Being able to promote these actions with employees will also help motivate and improve behaviours in managing waste at home.

Since my first workshop in Cambridge, I’ve started on my leadership opportunity by trying to understand what waste is, our waste streams, identify how we measure all our waste, where we record this data, how we collate, present and examine it, and ultimately how we can use this data to help the business become more sustainable. Lets see how I can help my business become more sustainable and positively contribute towards the Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production.

Have I got brews for you

Do you know how many litres of water you use a day?

When I was asked this for the first time, I immediately thought: “Well, I have at least five cups of tea a day, drink some water, brush teeth, shower, flush the toilet, wash the dishes etc. Hmmm, probably around 80 litres?”

No. My guess was way off. In the UK, every person uses around 150 litres of water a day and this number has been increasing every year by 1% since 1930, according to Waterwise. Although I was aware of the activities that used water, I didn’t realise how much water IS used. If you take a 5 min shower for example, this uses 45 litres of water. If you think about it, this is like tipping more than 20 big bottles of water over your head!

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 16.23.24

I then started to wonder about the water that’s used in other daily activities and the products that I use and consume. This is known as embodied water or virtual water. If you take this into account, you actually consume around 3,400 litres of water per day.

Have I got brews for you…

I’m typing this post as I’m drinking my 4th cup of tea of the day. But how much water goes into making this cup of tea?

Around 40 litres of water is needed to make a smashing cup of tea. Approximately 30 litres of water is needed for the tea itself and 10 litres for a dash of milk (and for the sugar drinkers it would be another 6 litres per teaspoon of sugar).

It all adds up when you think about how much water is used in each stage of the production, use and disposal of a product. In this instance, water is needed:

  • to grow the tea leaves and food for the dairy cows;
  • in the manufacturing process including their packaging;
  • to generate the energy to boil the kettle;
  • to brew the tea in your cup;
  • to clean the cup; and
  • even to flush the toilet an hour later!

You can have even more fun thinking about how much water is needed to make the kettle or the cup you brew your tea in.

Why is this important?

Our water supplies are under increasing threat from climate change, rapid population growth and environmental pressures. Freshwater is a scarce resource and its availability is becoming more and more limited. However, demand for water is increasing and is currently unsustainable.

We will need to develop new sources (production) of water. There are several ways we can boost our water supplies. For instance, recycled water is becoming an increasingly important source and we could transfer water from areas with plentiful supplies, storing water in reservoirs or desalination. However, managing demand for water is absolutely key and the foundation of more sustainable water use.

Most of us don’t think about our water supply and use – we just turn on the tap and clean, fresh water pours out. This is what makes it easy to take water for granted and use as much as we can and want. That’s why it’s important to think about where our water comes from, how much water we consume daily, understand the challenges that threaten our water supply and consider the amount of water used to create the products we use. We’ve all heard about carbon footprint, but what about your water footprint?

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

For individuals, I agree that water footprinting every single product you use or consume isn’t easy, but there are good reasons to do so. Awareness is the first step in becoming more sustainable with water use and this may even lead to you comparing different products and choosing the one with least impact on water. Water efficiency is also something everyone should do – it’s about reducing the amount of water you waste on a daily basis (becoming more sustainable with your water use), not restricting what you use. You can do this by making small behavioural changes. Simple things will help cut down on wasting water, for instance:

  • Turning off the tap while brushing your teeth;
  • Having a water efficient shower head and a tap aerator;
  • Always having a full load in the washing machine or dishwasher; and
  • Filling up a glass bottle with tap water and keeping it in the fridge so the tap doesn’t  need to be run for ages to cool it down.

Both ourselves, larger communities, businesses and Governments need to focus on understanding and reducing water consumption. Currently, companies consume and waste a huge amount of water. However, when they do understand how much water is consumed by their products and the impact this can have, they can hopefully focus their efforts and make improvements. Businesses need to reduce their consumption of water while fully understanding the impact of water across each stage of their operations.

Something to think about when you’re next having a cup of tea…