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Zero waste – the new retailing mantra?

As a result of an aggressive recycling programme, Tesco announced earlier this year that it has diverted 100% of its waste from landfill. Equally, Marks & Spencer’s Plan A states that by 2012 all waste will be recycled, composted or reused. The repercussions of these bold statements are being felt further down the high street, with the competition hot on their heels.

It’s all very well making these ambitious claims, but what is zero waste? And is it really something that smaller retailers could ever hope to achieve?

While many retailers claim to have environmental issues at the top of their business agendas, the reality is that the recession has forced many to abandon this laudable ethos. But actually, retailers need to get back on track with their green credentials, if only because it can help save money and improve internal efficiency. Some are already doing this and the ‘leaders’ who have the power to influence the rest of the high street have achieved great things over the past 12 months. It’s now time for the rest to follow.

There seems to be an inherent problem with the word ‘waste’, which eludes to something that can be thrown away and that no longer has a value. Those operating in the waste sector know that this is not the case and that rubbish is indeed a resource. It is only recently been appreciated that wider businesses are coming round to this same way of thinking. But to really achieve zero waste, retailers need to not only to look at how waste is disposed, but look at how it is generated and really embrace the waste hierarchy of firstly reducing the amount of waste arising in the first place before looking at reuse and recycling options.

Achieving zero waste really begins at the design process. This means retailers bringing together their procurement and waste management teams from the outset. This will allow consultations to be undertaken into the waste that packaging can generate to ensure the most sustainable or easily recyclable options are procured. It sounds simple, but it’s a practice that is yet to see widespread uptake, not just in the retail sector, but across business as a whole. But by bringing the two together, the waste management team’s knowledge and expertise on the current and upcoming recycling technologies could prove invaluable when it comes to selecting materials used around the stores and in own-brand packaging.

Retailers have already achieved significant success in this area, with the retailers involved in the Courtauld Commitment eliminating packaging growth in the UK, according to WRAP. Such innovations include lightweight wine bottles, shrink-wrapped meat goods and cutting carrier bag use. But there is still more that can be done if retailers are to achieve zero waste and there are a number of challenges in the way - from segregating waste, dealing with smaller waste streams and the national infrastructure to provide secure efficient and long-term sustainable options. If we look at organic waste, for example, it’s only in the last 12 months that real investment has been committed for facilities that can handle the millions of tonnes of this waste we generate each year.

From a waste management perspective, how retailers procure waste management services also needs to change. Real achievements on the road to zero waste will only be seen if service providers are judged on value and how they engineer the end goal. For example, waste management companies can advise on how best to handle waste, segregation and landfill alternatives. But, as mixed waste collections become a thing of the past, comparing companies on a unit price basis will not give accurate representation of the added value now offered, and it is this that retailers really need.

The idea that we can design, produce, consume and recycle products without throwing anything away may seem challenging right now, but in the long run, the costs of sending waste to landfill will increase, as will environmental expense of using new resources. When it is recognised as being an economically viable option, zero waste won’t just be the latest buzz word, it will be an industry standard.

Matthew Prosser is commercial director at Severnside Recycling

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