Finding alternatives to landfill for many kinds of waste is far from a pipe dream. Manufacturers, retail chains and local councils frequently wax lyrical about their ‘zero waste to landfill’ achievements. But are these feel good stories simply obscuring the fact that recycling potential for many reusable materials is far from being met for UK manufacturers? Tim Brown investigates.
If you look at the organisations proudly waving the zero waste to landfill (ZWTL) flag, one thing stands out – the vast majority are in the food industry. At the end of February this year, United Biscuits announced that it had become the first major food manufacturer in the UK to achieve ZWTL across all of its 16 UK sites including its UK factories, distribution centre and administrative offices.
The company, which produces much loved brands such as McVitie’s, McCoy’s, Jacob’s, Carr’s, and KP Nuts, accomplished ZWTL in December. At the time the chair of United Biscuits Sustainability Committee, COO Jeff van der Eems, described the achievement as a “fantastic milestone” with the company saving 9,000 tonnes of waste being sent to landfill in six years.
“We do find that we deal with quite a few waste sources that people have thought in the past they weren’t able to do anything with” – Terry Burton, Technical Manager, Luxus
Food glorious food
While United Biscuits is the first to claim the zero waste goal across such a large number of sites, other manufacturing companies including Kraft, Pepsi and Birdseye along with retailer Sainsbury’s all have significant drives in process to reduce or eliminate the amount of waste being sent to landfill. But why is it that, largely, only members of the food industry have been able meet this milestone, and why now?
The obvious reason is that food waste is much easier to deal with than many other forms of rubbish and that, contrary to common belief, sending food to landfill is incredibly damaging to the environment. According to Tristram Stuart, author of the book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, rotting food waste in landfill releases methane which is more than 20 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide.
Under the EU landfill directive, Britain is obliged to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste going to landfill to 50% of 1995 levels by 2013. The National Audit Office has warned that Britain is at risk of failing to meet its target, which would result in crippling fines, passed on to local councils, of up to a staggering £1m a day.
As a result government has been steadily increasing landfill tax and so, in turn, waste producers are willing to pay for alternative disposal routes. Tens of millions of pounds have been dished out to help build anaerobic digestion plants for example.
Too hard basket
So, while higher landfill taxes have driven food waste in the direction of biomass, manufacturers of other goods are left with the options of incineration, recycling or, where applicable, re-manufacturing.
Often companies, including United Biscuits, choose to send materials to incineration when they cannot find another solution. The heat from this is used in the manufacture of cement or the generation of electricity.
Disposing of materials in incinerators still qualifies a company to claim it is reducing its landfill waste. However, rather than being a long-term solution, the process of incineration is considered by many to be only marginally better than landfill dumping and carries its own environmental problems, including the release of dioxins, acid gases, nitrogen oxide, heavy metals and particulates. When it comes to recycling, improvements in technology now mean that many mixed waste streams are much easier to sort and recycle. Separated using magnetic, optical or infrared sorting processes, the number of materials that can be successfully recycled is on the up.
Yet ask a manufacturer how easy it would be for them to find a waste solutions provider to recycle every waste stream they have and they would likely compare it to climbing Mount Everest. The fact of the matter is that industrial waste streams are often too complex for a single recycler who may be reticent to take on the challenge.
Barry Cole, general manager at car seat maker CAB Automotive (see company profile on page 134), says his company finds it difficult to find someone to deal with their waste when a single waste stream might combine foam, metal, leather, vinyl and chemicals. “We’ve been dealing with recycling agents, council departments and you would be amazed how many people are involved but have restrictions on what they can and cannot take.”
So where does a company such as CAB Automotive turn? Not so surprisingly in today’s world, Google. With a lot of leg work, the company has had some small wins and uncovered some waste solutions that match perfectly with its waste output.
Terry Burton, technical manager at plastic recycling company Luxus, says that Cole’s experience is not unusual but that just because something was historically difficult to deal with it doesn’t mean it still is now. “All you can do is investigate each waste source and you have to spend a little time and effort and probably a little money to see what can be done with it. We do find that we deal with quite a few waste sources that people have thought in the past they weren’t able to do anything with.”
A new waste solution
A new website which launched this month, aptly named Zero Waste to Landfill (www.zwtl.net), is aiming to simplify how industrial companies deal with waste and reduce the amount of time required to find suitable, cost effective disposal solutions. Offering the service free of charge, the website has a database of waste disposers and matches enquiries made by waste producers (such as manufacturers) based on the location of the waste, the material type and the quantity being produced. If matches are found, the www.zwtl.net provides obligation-free quotes directly to the waste producer.
“One of the most difficult things many companies find is when a waste stream they produce is not made from a single material but is combined with several different materials” – Frank Stevenson, Marketing Director, www.zwtl.net
Marketing director for www.zwtl.net, Frank Stevenson, says the company hopes to find solutions for companies looking to more effectively manage their waste streams. But also looks to help companies deal with waste that, up until now they have had little choice but to send to landfill.
“One of the most difficult things many companies find is when a waste stream they produce is not made from a single material but is combined with several different materials,” says Stevenson. “In many of these cases, the individual materials are perfectly able to be recycled but it is a matter of finding someone that can split them and deal with each separately. What we hope to offer is a one-stop shop for companies looking to eliminate waste issues.”
Off the floor and out of the loop
Multinational carpet maker, Interface Floors, took a different route to managing its most complex waste stream, its finished carpet. Ramon Arratia, sustainability director InterfaceFLOR EMEAI, says that companies shouldn’t just look at how they get rid of their own manufacturing waste but also look at the big picture of how you design your product so that it can be easily dismantled and recycled.
Last year the company decided to bring recycling in-house and invested in a new machine that separates the various materials in carpet.
“We installed it in Europe in 2011 and it has a capacity to recycle 600,000m2 per year and maybe we could get it to 2,000,000m2 in the next two years,” says Mr Arratia. “We sell around 10,000,000m2 per year so we could have, in the near future, the capacity to recycle about 20% of our own carpet.”
“Companies shouldn’t just look at how they get rid of their own manufacturing waste but also look at how to design your product so that it can be easily dismantled and recycled by anyone” – Ramon Arratia, Sustainability Director, InterfaceFLOR EMEAI
Carpet is typically made up of nylon yarn which is tufted and then the backing of carpet, which is mainly a limestone and polymer modified bitumen. The purpose-built machine separates these parts. “Not only does this machine allow us to offer our customers a recycling service,” says Arratia, “but it also allows us to deal with our most complex manufacturing waste, which is when the carpet is completed and we have off-cuts or rejects.”
Interface sells the yarn back to its supplier to be recycled into new product and uses the backing of the carpet as raw material when making the backing for new carpets. The material therefore stays in the production process but while Arratia says that the closed loop idea is commendable he admits that it is quite constraining. “It locks you so that you can only make new products from your own old products,” he observes.
To overcome this constraint and because Interface’s recycling machine is able to take material from other carpet makers as well Interfaceflor is promoting the concept of an open loop which is designed to allow other companies to recycle both their own old products as well as those of other people.
“Companies shouldn’t just look at how they get rid of their own manufacturing waste but also look at how to design your product so that it can be easily dismantled and recycled by anyone,” says Arratia.
For a column documenting the variety of legislation your business must contend with related to waste management, read Steve Lee’s column in this month’s online edition of The Manufacturer.