June 15th, 2018

Taking the wrap: edging towards 100% recycling

7 minute read

by Adrian Gibbs


What should a company do if it is consistently achieving an office recycling rate of over 95%? Is this the cue for back patting and laurel resting? On the contrary, for Eunomia it simply prompts the question “What can be done with the remaining 5%?”

Thanks to Bristol Waste, Eunomia has been able to obtain source separated collections of a wide range of everyday materials – paper, card, cartons, glass, rigid plastic, plastic film and cans. Separating these fractions and having them collected as independent streams helps preserve the quality of the secondary raw materials, thereby minimising losses across the various stages of recycling. Food waste is separated into two fractions: that which is suitable for our wormery, and the rest for collection to go to an anaerobic digestion facility. Occasional wastes such as electronic waste and confidential paper shredding are recovered through specialist contractors.

Reuse is promoted within the company, with staff having organised swapping and swishing events to exchange unwanted clothing, CDs, books, tools and the like. Our purchasing policies are also geared for the avoidance of waste, such as doorstep milk deliveries in returnable glass bottles and coffee provided by a local roaster in biodegradable bags which are then composted. Despite all these efforts, though, we have not yet been able to shake off our dependency on regular visits from the bin lorry.

A few weeks ago, I decided to review what is ending up in our residual waste at the Bristol Head Office. A careful sort yielded numerous curiosities including wax packaging, PAT testing waste, and broken durables (or should that be injurables?). But the great majority of our bin contents, revealed in an explosion of guilty pleasure when the bin bags were split, were crisp and snack packets. Made from complex laminated plastics or metallised films, these are items which normal plastic recyclers won’t touch. Clearly, some of our dietary bad habits were also hurting our recycling performance.


Sack the snacks

What to do? Well, we could have banned these types of snacks from the building, but that seemed a bit extreme. Instead, we’ve sourced a  “Zero Waste Box” from TerraCycle, a global specialist in providing recycling solutions for hard-to-recycle waste. Boxes are available for the collection of an extraordinarily wide range of items, and one option available is a crisp and snack wrapper recycling service.


Terracycle Boxes

Snack Packaging Zero Waste Boxes, one of the many ‘difficult-to-recycle’ recycling programmes offered by TerraCycle. Image: Terracycle.


Materials targeted by the snack packaging box include all crisp bags, biscuit wrappers, chocolate wrappers, and individual sweet wrappers. Once our box is full, it will be sent back to TerraCycle UK, where its contents will undergo a fastidious set of processes. After being weighed in and sorted (including by hand), the snack packaging will make its way to partner material recycling sites in the UK or France for washing, shredding, agglomeration and reforming. It will end up in one of a range of finished products, including plas-wood type items such as outdoor furniture, picnic tables, boards or decking – all with the addition of some distinctive sparkly bits from the aluminium in the snack wrappers.


Putting on the £s

Recycling this material isn’t cheap: the largest of the boxes available costs £173 (including VAT), which covers the supply of the box, its return once full to Terracycle via UPS and the treatment of its contents. We are yet to discover how many wrappers fit into a 144 litre box (though perhaps we should be just as concerned about the litres of snacks we will have munched through, once the box is full).

At £1.20 per litre, however, we are aware it would be many times cheaper to send it for incineration as part of our small residual waste stream. Indeed, the fact that recycling this material is so expensive helps explain why it isn’t widely recycled. TerraCycle point out that pretty much anything can be recycled, it is just a matter of making the economics work. In the case of the Zero Waste Box, the high costs of recycling are born by us as consumers. It is worth noting, however, that TerraCycle also provide a number of free recycling programmes where brand sponsors bear the costs for difficult-to-recycle wastes including baby food pouches, cigarette waste, pens and others beside.

If you’ve ever wondered about the “not currently recycled” logo on certain packaging, this generally means that the overall costs of recycling exceed the costs of disposal. If the balance of costs is relatively close then, as environmental economists, we can look to justify the additional spend on recycling through monetising of the environmental benefits – perhaps through taxation, which will address imbalances or prompt a shift to more sustainable alternatives. But, all too often, manufacturer decisions on packaging lead to waste which is simply uneconomic to recycle.


Litter picker picked a pack of perma-plastic

Despite the unfavourable economics of recycling snack wrappers, once one adopts a zero-waste philosophy it is important to follow it through. Wrappers are one of the biggest components of our residual stream, and we need to address them. It’s not just about recycling them – it’s about highlighting to our staff what a problematic material they are. The recovery of a 1967 Golden Wonder crisp packet during a beach clean in East Lothian earlier this year dramatically demonstrates that snack packets can have litter lifecycles that far exceed the shelf lives of the products they are manufactured to protect.

I’m hoping that source segregating snack wrappers will lead to some behaviour change on the part of my colleagues. I’ve challenged staff to consider whether we can reduce our production of snack wrappers so that we don’t fill up the container too quickly. Though I can’t claim this has helped me reduce my own sugar or carb intake as yet, it has at least brought to my attention alternative chocolate in paper and card wrapping, as well as savoury snacks in packets that Bristol Waste accept in their regular recycling collections. It has also rekindled a passion for old fashioned sweet shops, where all manner of sugary delight is popped into a simple paper bag.


Sweet Shop

Can Eunomia’s sweet eaters be jarred out of their wrapper-intensive habits? Photo: Anguskirk (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), via Flickr.


Because wrappers were such a big part of our residual waste stream, we’ve taken the opportunity to remove two of the three residual waste bins in the building, replacing them with zero waste posters. The one remaining bin is closely supervised, and staff can seek advice before throwing anything away.

With so little material now going to residual disposal, it enables us to change the way in which we think about the residual bin. Rather than being a bin for “everything else”, the next step is to create a list of specific things permitted to be thrown away. This allows us to consider how we can ensure we are creating as few of these items as possible. We also hope this list provides the best visibility yet of what is going into the bin, which will allow further strategic thinking on these wastes.

Our experience demonstrates that almost all of the waste we produce in an office building can be reused or recycled, most of it reasonably economically. We’ve tried to make our systems clear for staff and, thanks to their commitment, the quality of source separation is generally high. But improving performance still further requires shaking things up to change the habits which result in hard-to-recycle waste.

I hope that the addition of the TerraCycle bin will act as a disrupter, nudging people to change their snack packaging purchasing habits for the better, as much as it is a facility for recycling these problematic items. I am not certain we’ve reached the point where throwing an item in the residual bin prompts a fundamental introspection on the choices made that have led to the creation of waste. Nonetheless, it is hopeful to think there is no such thing as residual waste – just stuff we haven’t worked out what to do with yet.


Adrian Gibbs


Dr Adrian Gibbs


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