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.
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.
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.