How businesses can turn waste into wealth

Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg
Promoted by Business In The Community Scotland

Businesses of all sizes are being urged to heed young Greta Thunberg and get wise about waste. Sandra Dick finds out about a Scottish initiative to tackle the problem

Though she is but little, Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish activist who has captured the mood of a generation with her outspoken views on climate change and school strikes, is undoubtedly fierce. Hair tied in pigtails, with remarkable poise and eloquence, she offered last December’s UN climate change summit in Katowice, Poland, a piece of her 15-year-old mind.

“Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago,” she declared to the assembled, adding: “I will not beg the world leaders to care for our future. I will instead let them know change is coming whether they like it or not.”

And then, in a wake-up call that has inspired more school pupils to leave their desks to protest for climate change action, she implored: “We cannot solve the crisis without treating it as a crisis.”

Her remarkable speech – followed by another equally unsparing address in February to global business leaders in Davos – has captured a fresh mood for action. Fuelled by the BBC television nature series Blue Planet’s harrowing images of oceans of plastic and distressed creatures choked by litter, stoked by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s stark warning last October that we have just 12 years to stem rising temperatures or face a future of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty, the sense that time is rapidly running out is growing.

“Greta Thunberg really brings it home,” says Alan Thornburrow, Scotland Director of Business in the Community (BITC), which is currently calling on Scottish companies to join its groundbreaking Waste to Wealth initiative. “We have kids out of school demanding change,” he adds. “Why the inertia? What is holding us back? We are the first generation and the last that can do something about the waste we produce. It’s critical.”

The clock is certainly ticking loudly. Waste to Wealth aims to seize the momentum by gathering businesses to commit to taking action to break the chain of waste, to sign up to the creation of a “circular economy” and – crucially – to investigate working together to find innovative ways of repurposing unavoidable waste.

The ambitious programme of research, learning and practical action is intended to gather together business, government, academia and civil society to unlock opportunities to double the nation’s resource productivity and eliminate avoidable waste by 2030.

But what – other than helping to save the planet – might businesses gain from signing up? For a start, there are hopes that bringing diverse businesses together in a shared commitment to control waste streams – companies which might never have crossed paths otherwise – could spark innovative ideas and solve problems.

Then comes the estimated £3 billion potential boost to the Scottish economy from a well-run circular economy. For every job created in recycling, it’s estimated another eight are created in returning those materials back to the economy – bringing a potential 5,000 new jobs.

Finally, there’s the possibility that businesses which simply do nothing, could see their lack of action seriously backfire.

“Investors care and customers care about sustainability and environmental impact,” says Thornburrow. “Businesses are fast seeing they have to be quite visible and engaged on this.”

Gudrun Cartwright, BITC’s Environment Director, agrees that businesses which fail to act may on one hand face a customer backlash and on the other miss out on exciting new opportunities.

“People are making more informed choices,” she says. “They are becoming more active with their expenditure. You can see the rise of concern around plastics and how public opinion on that is driving a new set of behaviour. They expect companies to be doing the right thing and if they aren’t, they punish them.”

Launched at a BITC summit in November that was attended by its founding patron, the Prince of Wales, Waste to Wealth has already harnessed the power of some of the UK’s best-known businesses to act as its “champions” across five sectors.

They include Nestlé, Burger King, Sainsbury’s and Sodexo representing the food sector, European Metal Recycling and Liberty House from the metals arena, and property specialists JLL and flooring experts Interface from the built environment.

So far around 100 businesses across the UK have signed up to Waste to Wealth’s 12-year commitment to tackle their waste. The target is for 400 to be signed up by the end of this year, and to have 5,000 on the books by 2025.

For those who commit, less waste doesn’t have to involve dramatic switches in production or ripping up working practices.

At a recent BITC Waste to Wealth gathering in Glasgow, business representatives heard from Sky chief executive and BITC Chairman Jeremy Darroch about the effectiveness of simply removing single-use plastic coffee cups from its offices.

He told the gathering: “When you look back at the sweep of your career, you’ll forget about the numbers but remember the things you feel made a change.

“We are in a period where action has to happen; time for talking and theory is behind us. You have to place your bets: is climate change happening or are you a denier?”

The strength of public feeling – and the push among a younger generation for action – has meant that business has had to change, Darroch added.

“We wake every day to hear about declining trust. Look at any businesses that have lasted the test of time; the relationship with communities they service is integral to success.”

Meanwhile, Cartwright points to the success of professional services firm PwC, which has adopted a circular office approach. It achieved a 77 per cent reduction in emissions over a ten-year period by working with visionary companies to spot new ways of working.

PwC switched to renewable energy sources, contained business travel, introduced “environmentally-friendly” office chairs, and reduced its use of materials. Along with a programme to refurbish and resell laptops and smartphones, PwC has recovered more than £500,000 per annum.

Collaboration is key to tackling waste and bringing change, says Iain Gulland, Chief Executive of Zero Waste Scotland, which has partnered with BITC along with Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Forum on Natural Capital.

“The real impact can be where businesses collaborate either locally or up and down their supply chain to address more challenging opportunities and design waste out of the system,” he says.

“Businesses that engage with initiatives to reduce waste resulting from their operations do so because of the great opportunities.”

Gulland adds: “They see the value and benefit in pursuing zero waste activities because they can make savings on their bottom line and do their bit for the environment.”

“People are at the heart of the circular economy and it will only be a success if we continue to share and collaborate in the fight against unnecessary waste.”

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Shellfish acts

Lanarkshire-based biotechnology firm CuanTec is a remarkable example of how waste can be reinvented, with collaboration between businesses inspiring a raft of ideas which could radically change the waste landscape.

CuanTec, with its Chief Scientific Officer Dr Ryan Taylor, pictured, has devised a method to remove chitin, a substance found in the shells of langoustines, crabs and other shellfish which is used to control cholesterol levels and body weight in humans.

The CuanTec extraction process is less polluting and more environmentally friendly compared to chemical-based methods

As well as diverting the waste shells from landfill, the firm’s plastic-style end product has the potential to be used by other companies as a particularly effective food wrapping, to replace single-use carrier bags, milk bottle containers and even plastic beer can holders.

The latter are particularly emotive, as it appears to be these forms of plastic that so often seem to find their way around the necks of sea creatures.

CuanTec’s innovatory offering represents the kind of collaboration that BITC’s Waste to Wealth is keen to encourage.

Andrew King, the MediCity Scotland-based life science company’s head of marketing, agrees: “Programmes like Blue Planet have made the general public very aware of what is going on. People are almost demanding that business responds to the problem and fixes it.

“There’s a want to do something and if we are all doing our bit we have to make a difference.”