Less is more – international perspectives on office recycling

Over the summer Carbon Smart has been working with a multi-national technology company, conducting waste audits at both their London and Zurich offices. Having analysed the waste management systems at these two different locations within the same company, it has been particularly interesting to observe the impact of national recycling policy and practices on office recycling rates.

Switzerland’s recycling policy focuses on the collection of aluminium cans and PET plastic bottles.  These materials are all collected as separate streams, and within the office each material has its own designated bin. All other materials are collected as general waste and sent for incineration. In the UK on the other hand recyclables include, on top of those listed above, tetra packs and cardboard packaging, and up to 7 types of plastics, from yogurt pots to film wrapping. In the London offices these are all collected together as mixed recycling in one single bin and separated at a recycling plant.

Initially it seemed surprising that Switzerland – a country with such a good reputation for environmental management – only recycled a comparatively limited set of materials. However, once we dug deeper into the make-up of the waste, it became apparent that the Swiss strategy is actually very effective. While you might assume that being able to recycle a wider range of materials, and the convenience of just one bin for placing all recycling, would result in higher recycling rates and less contamination, in practice the opposite was true. In London the recycling and general waste were at times almost indistinguishable with considerable amounts of recyclable material going to incineration and considerable amounts of non-recyclable material contaminating the recycling. In Zurich, however, there was hardly any plastic or aluminium in the general waste, and virtually no contamination of the recycling streams at all.

While providing one bin for all recycling makes life easy, it can also be confusing with users of the scheme unclear about what is actually recyclable and what is not. Having a mixed recycling approach may also promote an attitude of indifference. Providing separate bins for each material as they do in Zurich, communicates the message that separation is important and places the responsibility for good recycling with the person doing the throwing away.  Whereas with mixed recycling, because people know it will be sorted at a waste centre anyway, their part in the process is felt to be less significant and they may be more care less about what and where they throw their waste. In terms of designing both recycling policy and internal waste management systems it is great to be able to get these international perspectives and test our assumptions, as in practice with waste things are not always as you might expect.

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