Sharing sustainable ideas

20th of December 2019
Sharing sustainable ideas

Cleaning company Portfolio hosted a round table discussion for its customers on the theme of sustainability issues in the facilities management sector. Antony Law, its managing director, writes for ECJ.

Recently The Churchill Group’s high-specification cleaning service, Portfolio, hosted a round table for its customers on sustainability issues in the facilities management (FM) sector. A selection of clients from a range of industries within the sector attended and were joined by Amy Meek from the charity Kids Against Plastic (KAP). Churchill has been working with KAP throughout this year.

Meek, who set up KAP with her younger sister Ella as a means of addressing plastic pollution,started proceedings by introducing KAP’s main campaign, ‘Plastic Clever’. This aims to address the issue of the four biggest plastic polluters: bottles, straws, coffee cups and lids, and plastic bags. Plastic Clever is applicable across numerous sectors and while going plastic free is near impossible as things stand, Meek stressed there are many realistic changes which can make a big impact. With Generation Z playing a huge role in current environmental campaigns, it is becoming clear to many organisations with younger workforces that sustainable practices are the way forward.

Plastic pollution

With a diverse array of industries present, it quickly became apparent each faces similar but unique challenges. In catering and food delivery, for example, single-use plastics abound and the challenge has been to encourage end users to use alternatives, such as crockery in cafes.

A number of attendees mentioned the fact David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series had stirred their own and the public’s consciousness on environmental issues. With the rapid growth of the environmental movement, attendees considered whether failing to meet high environmental standards will soon become socially unacceptable.

The vast amount of single-use plastic we dispose of may become a part of the past, looked back on in much the same way as smoking indoors. This possibility is an incentive for businesses to stay ahead of the curve and lead the way in creating sustainable initiatives.

One attendee observed many individuals find it more challenging to behave in a sustainable way and minimise plastic waste in the workplace than they do at home. This was generally agreed upon and a number of others shared changes they had successfully implemented in the workplace, particularly reducing plastic cutlery and cups. While there is greater awareness of these issues and many businesses are adapting, there are still challenges in getting buy-in from senior staff.

Starting to educate staff at all levels is vital. Disincentivising the use of disposable plastics in the workplace, for example by charging for cups and not having plastic options on display, is only a small step that doesn’t necessarily lead to staff making similar choices elsewhere. Education is a key aspect in making long-term change. Changing practices in the workplace also places pressure on suppliers, increasing the influence an organisation has.

The discussion did touch on the role of recycling. Meek commented that to be truly effective, recycling must be a closed loop, which the sector is yet to achieve. Even in cases where the technology is available to fully recycle materials, this may not happen for a number of reasons.

Separating materials before collection is notoriously unclear since different companies and councils have the capability to recycle different materials – there are 39 different UK council rules for what can be put in plastic recycling collections. Labelling recycling bins clearly will aid this but mixed-material packaging such as card sandwich boxes with a plastic film may need to be separated into their constituent parts, something which can easily be forgotten or disregarded. The consensus among attendees was that while recycling and waste management is incredibly important, it will be more effective at present to focus on waste reduction.

Circular economy

Churchill’s own standpoint on the case for a circular economy encompassed these opinions well. A circular economy is not ‘just’ about recycling; it is about operating within a regenerative system that focuses on all stages of a product’s life cycle including its production, maintenance, its potential re-use or re-manufacture. Resource use should be minimised, and products should be kept in productive loops as long as possible, including their waste. But how can this be achieved?

There was discussion over whether the transition to minimal or zero waste would be led by a slow change in outlook and behaviour or an overnight change in legislation. One attendee pointed out plastic bags use in shops changed virtually overnight and speculated this could be replicated with other polluters. She referred back to the previously mentioned issues on packaging food products, acknowledging there are changes which will take much longer such as finding alternative means of packing food.

The discussion moved on to the cleaning industry. Churchill uses a chemical-free cleaning product and each client at the round table has at least one building which had adopted the product. There are naturally challenges which arise when working practices change. Despite this, each client is delighted with its transition to the new product. The main challenge many voiced was convincing the cleaning staff that chemical-free cleaning is equally as effective as traditional products. This highlights the need for better education and training, as well as better practices.

Attendees agreed they would be more likely to buy from a company with demonstrable ecological credentials, which is a consumer trend we are seeing throughout the UK. One client noted that Churchill’s push for more sustainable practices was a large part of the reason they entered into the partnership. Despite this, clients found communicating success stories on sustainable initiatives was a challenge. Many had no clear communication channel. Getting involved in volunteering projects such as partnerships with KAP and staff litter picks offered platforms through which companies could communicate the importance of their goals and draw awareness to sustainability issues.

No one-size-fits-all solution

When asked for their main takeaways, it was clear that different sectors, and even different groups within organisations, have different cultures. In a diverse workforce, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to sustainability. However, there are plenty of great initiatives already in place as well as room for further improvement. Any catalyst for change, such as an office refurbishment or digital transformation, is a potential starting point to overhaul a company approach to the environment.

Better communication

Regardless of the approach, communication is key. Many attendees noted in their takeaways they don’t feel they communicate the work they do and the importance of it enough. By sharing methods and successes, a sustainable approach will spread through the industry. In turn, recognising these successes will aid internal buy-in and encourage contractors, suppliers and other partners to make better choices.

Churchill recognised the power of bringing together like-minded organisations in the process of creating a more environmentally responsible world. There have been suggestions of hosting similar events more regularly in order to keep the momentum going. Transformation and innovation are clearly vital, but small continuous steps are what maintains progress. Internal education of staff will change the sector’s mindset and create the step-change necessary.

The insight from a diverse group representing a number of industries in the FM sector gave Churchill a base from which to further develop its sustainable practises and understand how best to engage clients and stakeholders with the issue. FM, as a sector that is so integral to the functioning of other sectors, has real potential to take the lead in creating sustainable practices and influence others to adopt them.


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