What are Green Policies
Green Policies, also called Environmental Policies or Sustainability Policies, are written statements produced by organisations stating their position on environmental and sustainability issues. Being ‘sustainable’ means being committed to balancing economic and social aims with their environmental impact. To be effective, a Green Policy should include an action plan based on the following framework:
- Objectives that should be achievable and measurable.
- Action Points – the steps necessary to actually achieve the objectives.
- Indicators – which will be used to measure the effectiveness or otherwise of the policy.
- A Timetable to monitor and review the progress of the policy.
Why are Green Policies Necessary?
The resources of our planet are finite and it is vital that we meet our present needs without affecting the well being of future generations. A Green Policy not only demonstrates that an organisation is aware of this and takes it seriously, but can also save money.
Increasingly, a Green Policy is a necessary prerequisite for obtaining funding. However, it should be noted here that not all of the following meets with universal approval, particularly with regard to recycling, and there are some dissenting voices. These points will be discussed more fully later in this article.
Developing a Green Policy
Firstly, it is necessary to undertake a complete review of existing practices. How do they affect the environment? What are the aims of the organisation? This will help to provide a framework for the policy. To obtain the support of everyone involved, it is important to involve the organisation as a whole.
The policy will need to be tailored to the particular organisation; no single policy is right for all. It is a good plan to start with something small and achievable so that everyone can see its effectiveness, encouraging confidence and support.
What Should it Contain?
The following are suggestions as to what the sections of the policy might be:
This should show the aims of the policy and state why it is necessary. The detail of the policy will vary according to the type of organisation, but typically may fall under the following headings:
Before buying a product, think about its disposal. Reusable, refillable and recyclable products should be considered, rather than disposable items such as plastic crockery and cutlery. Using products made from recycled materials helps to secure the economic viability of recycling and the collection of recyclable materials. Purchasing – Rather than buying new, consider sharing or borrowing from another organisation. Use local suppliers where possible, and consider fair trade and eco-friendly products. Energy and Water Saving – The benefits of this are well documented and advertised, and involves using products such as green energy suppliers, energy efficient light bulbs, thermostatic controls etc. Also switching off lights and appliances where necessary and repairing leaks immediately. Travel – Where possible, use public transport, cycling or walking, and car sharing, encouraging this with extra allowances if necessary. Audio conferencing and working from home are other possibilities.
Hygiene, Health and Safety
The workplace should offer an acceptable working environment with, for example, a no smoking policy, adequate air circulation and where possible daylight lighting.
Each of the above sections should be considered with respect to the four headings in the framework outlined above, i.e. Objectives, Action Points, Indicators, and Timetable.
As noted above, recycling is an integral part of an effective Green Policy. Apart from the benefits associated with all recycling such as resource and energy saving, plus reduction of CO2 emissions, plastics recycling is preferable to disposal methods such as incineration or landfill since plastics contain many harmful chemicals which are released into the air by burning or seep into the ground from landfill runoff. However, as noted briefly above, reducing the need for plastics is more effective than recycling. Where possible, use should be made of refillable, rather than disposable, containers, bulk buying, purchasing items in recycled and recyclable packages or with no packaging at all. For the same reasons, manufacturers should try and use, or re-use, recycled materials in their products and endeavour to package their goods in recyclable materials, or avoid packaging individual items altogether. But again, specific organisations may find that some or all of these measures are not to their financial advantage, and their use or otherwise becomes a matter of conscience and moral judgement. Some of the possible economic drawbacks and other criticisms of recycling are discussed later in this article.
Bio-based and Degradable Plastics
These are of growing importance in waste management. Biodegradable plastics are available commercially but the effectiveness of their role is debatable. They are seen by some as an answer to the litter problem, but people, not plastic articles, cause litter. Treating them as a way to avoid landfill should not be seen as a substitute to the preferred approach of recycling, reuse and recovery of waste plastic as a better environmental solution. However, there may be specialised markets such as the packaging of organically grown fruit and vegetables. Composting has increased in importance in recent years, and this is a vital link in the waste management chain; however not all of these plastics will compost effectively, and even those that do can take from a few weeks to several months to break down.
For useful information on this and all aspects of plastics recycling visit the British Plastics Federation website at: http://www.bpf.co.uk/sustainability/plastics_recycling.aspx
Effects of Recycling on the Economy
Whether recycling is of benefit, and if so by how much, is not an easy question to answer. When trying to ascertain the effectiveness, or otherwise, of recycling one is faced with a variety of information sources offering conflicting views. Obviously, the ‘Green Lobby’ is full of enthusiasm for recycling in all its forms, whereas some other groups take a more pragmatic, possibly more realistic, view. As stated above, the raw material and energy savings, plus reduction in emissions, are valid points; in the case of plastics this means less oil is required, an obvious benefit to the economy, particularly under current economic circumstances. However, the recycling industry itself uses energy and raw materials, for example in the manufacture of machinery for processing material for recycling, manufacture of special vehicles and containers, transport costs etc., so the advantages are nowhere near as clear cut as they first appear.
The effect on employment is equally difficult to determine. Though figures are not easily obtainable, there must be a loss caused by using less of the original products in the first place, however against this there is an increase because of employment in the recycling industry. This is however, not easy to determine accurately: DTI figures obtained in 1997 suggest a figure of about 10,000 employed directly in recycling processes (there are now over 100 plastics recyclers in the UK), but there are many manufacturers and organisations which include recycling in their day to day business and the employment that this generates is impossible to ascertain with any certainty. But, given that recycling is now an established industry in its own right, it seems reasonable to assume that there is a net increase in employment.
A serious problem affecting the recycling industry is the amount of plastic and other recyclable materials sent to the Far East instead of being processed in the UK. Some two-thirds of reclaimed UK rubbish is sent abroad for recycling; China receives up to 70 percent of this for use in its expanding manufacturing economy, with the rest going to developing economies such as India and Indonesia. Government figures suggest that 200,000 tonnes of plastic rubbish and 500,000 tonnes of paper and cardboard a year is being sent to China. Much of this is packaging but agents for Chinese companies buy up and export thousands of tonnes of unwashed bottles, containers and other household waste. Cheap labour is used to sort this material and little attention is paid to quality or levels of contamination. As a result, Chinese company agents can offer £120 a tonne for mixed plastic bottles, whereas British companies can only pay £50 a tonne, and the domestic market is being starved of materials. Thus China drives this trade, but the situation is exacerbated by tough EU legislation forcing businesses and local authorities to recycle more; as landfill charges are rising steeply, it is relatively cheaper to send waste abroad, cheaper to send a container to China than to Scotland. The vast numbers of shipping containers arriving in Britain with Chinese imports further facilitates the trade. Although the quantities involved are much less, British household waste being sent to the Indian ‘rag-picking’ trade, where young children and the very poor are employed sorting rubbish in unsanitary conditions is equally damaging, not to say morally objectionable. No detailed studies have been done of the environmental costs of shipping vast quantities of waste abroad. Obviously, environmental groups are appalled, maintaining that Britain is merely exporting the problem, and more should be done to stimulate UK markets, and some recyclers agree. But, once again, there are dissenting voices. Other recyclers say that it is better to send rubbish to China than to put it in landfill, and the environmental cost is negligible compared with making ‘virgin’ plastic bottles from oil. It might be said that these firms would be biased, and adopt a view conforming to whatever section of the trade they are in, but WRAP (Waste Resource Action Programme) insist that sending recycled materials to China produces less CO2 than landfill or incineration or using brand new materials instead. Would this still apply if more recycling were done in the UK? Again, no studies seem to have been done, and presumably would be fraught with difficulties, so the true benefits or otherwise are difficult, if not impossible, to determine.
Recycling and the General Public
What do the public think of recycling? Talking to people generally, and discounting those who are really interested in ‘green’ issues, the average layman does not have a great interest in recycling and environmental issues generally. Although he or she may agree with some of the sentiments expressed in the media on this, and listen to dire warnings about global warming etc., in practice attitudes are more cynical and questioning. For example, when faced with an array of plastic recycling bins to fill with different types of waste, and wheel out to the front of their houses, idealistic thoughts about saving the planet tend to disappear from people’s minds. These bins are particularly annoying because their design renders them liable to blow over in high winds, leaving the street full of litter. They can also become dirty and smelly, hence the rash of small firms offering bin cleaning services. They also have to be collected by a huge (and ugly!) vehicle fitted with mechanical lifting and emptying machinery, in contrast to the simple ‘dust cart’ of years ago.
All this may seem reactionary to the ‘progressives’, but to many it seems like an inconvenience imposed on them by Whitehall bureaucrats and council apparatchiks. It would appear that the collection and recycling process of a typical plastic pop bottle goes like this:- The bottle is prepared for the bin, usually by washing in running tap water; this wastes water and uses energy and resources to supply this water. The bottle is then placed in a plastic recycling bin. The manufacture of these bins uses energy and resources, and causes pollution. Alternatively, the bottle can be taken to a recycling plant, which crushes it; this plant has consumed resources and materials to create it. A specially constructed vehicle collects the recycle bin. To build and operate these uses resources, and they emit toxic exhaust fumes. The material is delivered to a sorting plant. Building these also uses energy and resources. The material is sorted and processed, reducing it to more suitable sizes for transport and sale to factories. The material is transported, again using more vehicles, including trains and ships, to the various factories, which will use them to produce more goods. The cycle now starts again.
What is the average person to make of all this? He or she is bombarded with all of this conflicting information and trying to make a rational judgement about the virtues or otherwise of Green Policies and Recycling seems well nigh impossible. A typical dilemma is posed by the conflicting views concerning landfill. As mentioned above, these are seen by many as a disgrace, a blot on the landscape causing various forms of pollution. On the other hand, apparently some calculations have been done which suggest that a thousand years of rubbish generation would only fill an area 35 miles square by 100 yards deep; also recycling will not save trees as we are now replanting as many as we cut down. Furthermore, the same school of thought states that practically all recycling programs run at a loss. So in the end it seems that the individual’s judgement and conscience are as good a guide as any, and green policy and recycling are probably worth the benefit of the doubt because it is the right thing to do, and given the finite resources of our planet, it is no longer an option to simply sit back and carry on as we have always done, and possibly leave for future generations a polluted and barren world for them to live in.