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The property sector and the war on waste

Maybe it’s more a quiet revolution, rather than a war, moving through the industry as the property titans take up the issue of waste and turn it into the opportunity of recovered, valuable materials.

Recent developments out of NABERS, GECA and the Better Buildings Partnership have created new ways to account accurately for waste from office buildings and shopping centres – but the job isn’t complete until we know when we’re buying recycled material.

Property owners are confronted with waste from two dominant sources: construction waste from building refurbishment and refits of tenant space; and operational waste that includes waste arising from the tenant operations (like paper from an office or milk bottles from the coffee shop) or public disposal of items like food containers.

While there’s been some noise from a rowdy minority in eastern states about the single use shopping bag phase out, there is enormous public recognition of the problems that waste causes, and that corporations should take appropriate steps to deal with it.

Best practice steps for handling operational waste include understanding the sources of waste and what might be done with it. Sydney’s Better Buildings Partnership produced guidelines that include tips for best practice that are focused on understanding the sources of operational waste and how they can be separated for effective streaming to recycling facilities.

This focus on measurement is critical and has been taken up by NABERS in the recently revised NABERS Waste tool released just last month. With NABERS providing a portal to make data collection easy, owner’s can simply make it a requirement for their waste companies to regularly upload data on every waste load they take from a property. Add the rigour of measurement and audit techniques that NABERS requires and there is a robust, industry-wide method for recording waste volumes and the recycling rate at the building level.

Greater clarity will now be expected of the waste services or material recovery businesses so that users understand how and where recovered materials are used. Unexpected results can occur when the recycling truck leaves a building and on inspection at the waste transfer station is found to breach contamination standards – resulting in the entire load being redirected, unbeknownst to the building owner, to landfill.

Also, the recent surprises that waste materials were being sold into China or transported interstate to end up in landfill highlight the opaqueness of some waste collection companies. While individual corporates can make it a condition of contract that destinations and actual recovery rates are reported, there is a public good that would come from waste companies publicly reporting where the material they pick up ends up.

Browse the websites of any of the large waste companies and there’s very little information available. In April Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) released a new standard for certification of waste services that will serve to identify those waste service providers that can provide reliable information on the true destination of materials.

Similarly, as many others have pointed out in waste discussions, it is difficult to know when recycled products are available and how genuine the claims are. While Green Star has rewarded the reuse of verified recycled content in construction for a long time, it isn’t a practice common in other forms of procurement. Whether it’s a corporation wanting to buy furniture that includes recycled content or an individual purchaser hoping for a drink that comes in a bottle made from recycled glass, it hasn’t been common to buy based on recycled content. A common labelling system would prove useful in these decisions. GECA’s Recycled Product’s standard provides a starting point for glass, plastic, rubber, timber and fill products, while Planet Ark released new packaging labels in February this year that will further serve to inform buyers.

Any plan to deal with waste should start at the top of the hierarchy with “reduce”, but there’s little evidence that gains are being made on this strategy, even with plenty of office building tenants introducing paperless offices.

GPT is one owner that publishes waste collection intensity rates (kg/square metre) over an extended period (see their Environmental Data Pack) and their overall collection rates have varied only slightly around 16-17kg/sq m over the past 10 years, and some of the variation could be due to improvements in data collection. So, either those paper reduction efforts aren’t effective or there are other streams of waste that are growing as quickly as the reduction in paper.

Reduction in operational waste from property is best achieved through behaviour change at the tenant and occupant level. Whether it’s coffee cups, paper, food or containers, it isn’t about technology. It’s changing the way we do things. Behaviour change programs are notoriously difficult to run successfully and many have floundered at the end of stage 1: awareness raising.

With the second series of ABC’s War on Waste having started this week, awareness is likely to be as high as ever. The time is ripe for waste programs in property to roll out now. At the simplest, ramping up feedback to tenants on the type of waste that is commonly identified in collection, talking about contamination rates and information on the real destination of materials will help tenants to understand the actions they can take.

Keep the conversation going to enable meaningful action.

Bruce Precious is principal consultant at Six Capitals Consulting.

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