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.


4 thoughts on “Plant-tastic not plastic

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  1. Loved this post and challenge – especially because of your decision to look inward and close to home for an area that you could actually make real change within. It really highlights how we can do a lot with a few small, intial steps, and how it all starts with awareness.

    Interestingly, your approach demonstrated some good lessons for bringing about sustainability-related change in other spheres – be these big or small. For example, you managed to assemble a team from different ‘stakeholder’ groups to plan and implement the changes (i.e. facilities, catering teams), you started with some quick wins (plastic —> cans), you invested in education and behaviour change (posters, use of social media, nudging), and then you went from small to big by later changing up the infrastructure to support the earlier changes.

    I’m sure a lot of thought and planning went into these initiatives, but it feels like you wanted to make it really easy for your workplace personnel to make the transition and then to maintain it. Amazing work, and thanks for sharing!


    1. It’s great to hear about what a great start you’ve got off to with your challenge, and highly motivating to read about what progress you’ve made in a short space of time. I agree that it absolutely highlights best practice leadership and working within a team.

      I love the focus on education around behaviour change. We have new recycling bins in one of our offices in London. However, with no corresponding signage, people are confused and frustrated as to what goes where. I’ve been given numerous disapproving glances by colleagues when I throw plastics away that I know can’t be recycled. There still seems to be a prevailing sense that if in doubt its always better to chuck everything in to the recycling bin!

      It sounds like you’ve created a strategic and well-planned campaign, with a depth that takes you into the heart of the catering supply chain. I also love your use of visual communications combined with hard-hitting facts. The increase in the ‘cup tax’ made me reflect on the need to monitor and evaluate initiatives. As you say, it was long-standing but not very effective; and a quick and easy change to a 20p ‘tax’ produced immediate results.

      It would be interesting to understand more about where this initiative sits within your business. Does it have a senior level ‘owner’ and/or champions? How did the team secure budget (if you have one) and the use of people’s time? Were there any challenges that stood in your way? So many of these changes sound somewhat easy and obvious, but there are often significant cultural and institutional barriers at play. Have you drawn on any related initiatives in other companies to help shape the scope and level of ambition of your plans? Going further, could you use the workforce’s support of this agenda to galvanize awareness/support for any trickier sustainability-related issues that the business faces?

      I look forward to hearing about your progress over the coming year, Great work!


  2. Substitution may very well be a great solution to sustainability problems. Almost everything we do is learned behaviour and this means that we can unlearn it. As we see from the article, we have our coffee religiously every morning without a thought to how it was sourced, produced or who produced it. It is an automator’s dream. Our coffee doesn’t taste different when it comes in paper cups instead of plastic one, nor do our drinks offer a remarkably adjusted culinary experience when consumed via cans as opposed to plastic bottles.

    Such small changes for big impact are effective when it is a concerted effort of decision makers, consumers, disposers, and recyclers. Awareness campaigns like placing posters above bins and posting information on the internal social media channel is a great enabler because sometimes people simply do not know how their actions affect the environment. It is bad enough that the decision makers buy plastic, which is in itself a subconscious endorsement of the companies that produce it and their ethos, but even more complex problems emerge at consumption and disposal level. Questions have been raised about the contents of plastic seeping into the food that is packaged in them, and throwing used plastic in the next available bin seems to be the most responsible way people know how to dispose of it.

    This is why I love the term coined, ‘binfrastructure’. Put workable processes in place that enable people to be environmentally responsible without thinking about it. Eliminate the decision fatigue because people have so much to think about already. And while you are at it, make them feel good about themselves that they are playing their ethical part to create a sustainable world, one which even their children will enjoy. In the process, build companies whose success is assured because of sustainable supply and demand value chains.

    Substitution. Because Habits are not needs.


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