The difference between ‘recyclable’ and ‘recycled’ is management not material

recycled coffee cupThe Times (paywall) has uncovered some pretty remarkable statistics about the way the British consume coffee. It appears that we now buy some 2.5 billion paper cups of coffee each year, primarily from the main High Street chains. That’s about 7 million cups a day. The good news for the environmentally conscious public would appear to be that all the chains ensure that each cup is fully recyclable and so prominently displays its green cred where the consumer can’t miss it. The problem is that just 1 in 400 of the cups are actually recycled with the rest going to landfill. The firms involved may include recycling bins in-store, but that accounts for just a fraction of the disposal of the cups. As The Times points out, the companies understand that consumers are more impressed by the claim that a product is 100 percent recyclable than 0.25 percent recycled. They are swayed by the material and ignorant of the management.

Of course, this is a problem we can spot across the economy. The office products market is one in which some manufacturers don’t mind a splash of green on product labels, especially when they can outsource the management of the actual recycling, regardless of the materials used in the products. You make your product recyclable but the recycling is somebody else’s problem and if it ends up in a hole in the ground, you won’t know about it. This doesn’t do the customer or the buyer any good and can breed cynicism in the market, undermining the efforts of those suppliers who actually take a sophisticated approach to the environmental performance of their products.

Ideally this should extend beyond the product itself to the systems and supply chain. For example, marketing an office chair as 98 percent recyclable or whatever is good in theory, but if there is no attached collection and disposal service, what is the likelihood that the chair will actually be recycled at the end of its useful life? Where is the know-how and inclination to dismantle a chair, separate its component parts and then send them off for processing? How can we ensure that a decision taken by one buyer will be followed through to its conclusion by those responsible for the latter stages of the product’s life-cycle five or ten years hence?

Perhaps we should take these factors out of the equation and we would all benefit from the introduction of some legislation similar to the rules that relate to electrical equipment in the Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. This would not only encourage the effective disposal and recycling of products  but also encourage the use of natural or recycled materials place products firmly within the context of their life cycle. The best suppliers already take this cradle-to-cradle approach and should be commended but maybe there should be no choice.

Organisations have a role to play too of course. In terms of the products they buy for their workplaces, companies can aim to lessen their environmental impact through careful selection of products. Similarly, it can pay to make informed decisions that may run counter to the prevailing wisdom. Even a material that seems like an environmental no-no such as chrome can prove to be a more sustainable choice if it offers a longer life cycle. Buyers should be able to make these kind of well informed choices but I fear they are not given the means to do so and even if they were, may ask the wrong questions when choosing.

More can be done to help buyers make better decisions,  particularly through legislation. But the onus should always be on suppliers to offer better products and better guidance that exceed and precede legislation. We’ve seen it with other industries. Some car manufacturers introduced catalytic converters early, and were ahead of the game when everyone was eventually required to do likewise legally. Why shouldn’t this also be the case with office products? When it comes to recycling office furniture, the important thing is to focus on the management of the product throughout its life rather than the choice of materials at its inception.