There is often a feel good factor that comes with depositing material into a yellow-lidded recycling bin. But it does not mean it’s actually recycled.
This is what GPT discovered in 2013 when it tested the accuracy of the data used to measure the amount of waste supposedly being recycled from its assets.
GPT found the commonly-used ‘inputs-based’ data it had been using, which measured waste at the point of disposal, was wildly inaccurate.
The inputs-based reporting made assumptions on what each recycling bin weighed, irrespective whether it was filled with glass, paper or PET bottles.
The reports also assumed all material in a recycling bin was recyclable, even PET bottles that were still half-full of drink, takeaway containers still containing food and recyclable material co-mingled with other waste.
“The standard regime is if it goes into that bin it gets recorded as recycled. Even if it is rejected at the other end,’’ says Steve Ford, GPT’s National Manager – Sustainability Performance.
GPT investigated how much material was actually being recycled, by asking questions of its waste management service providers, weighing bins and actually looking at the contents of its recycling bins.
For a company, that has set itself the objective of diverting 98 per cent of all the operational waste from its tenants from landfill, the results showed many challenges. Real recycling rates were often far lower than the input-based reports suggested.
To improve decision-making, GPT adopted an outcomes-based system of reporting which sought to measure recycling not at the point of disposal but right down the line – from the so-called ‘cradle to the grave’.
Under the new system, GPT either installed scales across its assets to weigh recycling bins or had site weigh-offs on a seasonal basis. “We then looked at the contents that go into the bin to make sure that when we are talking about something being recycled, we weren’t just talking about something being thrown in a recycling bin. We ensured it was actually being generally recycled,” says Ford.
While the results generally look less impressive than the previously used inputs-based reporting, they have given GPT better insights into the waste that leaves its assets. For one, by getting more accurate weights on recycling bins, GPT has cut the cost of recycling material that was previously assumed to have weighed more.
“We now know the cost per tonne not an imaginary one of every stream,” says Ford. “We can then act on this information and choose the most cost effective solution for each recycling stream.”
By having better weight data, GPT’s Dandenong Plaza for example, focused its attention on recycling organic waste, which had previously ended up in landfill. This has resulted in the centre lifting its recycling rate from 20 to 50 per cent and actually managing to recycle organic waste at a cheaper price per tonne than it costs to send it to landfill.
“There is now a commercial imperative for us to get more out of landfill and put it into organics,’’ says Ford. By recycling organic waste, the centre has achieved GPT’s ultimate goal of achieving a ‘closed-loop’ outcome for its waste. This means it can be recycled again and again.
“If you don’t have good information about your waste streams you can’t make a good decision to get a good result,” says Ford.
“By sharing this knowledge, it’s one of those societal changes that companies like ours can have a big impact,’’ he says.
By having better information on what goes into its bins, GPT has also been able to adopt processes to reduce the likelihood of recyclable material being co-mingled. For instance, paper soiled with food material is rendered unrecyclable.
This has seen GPT introduce bins across its assets with different waste streams, from general waste, organics, paper and card, mixed containers and soft plastics.
GPT is also training cleaning staff to adopt strategies that encourage more waste to be separated at disposal to encourage higher recycling rates.
It comes down to whether organisations want to have a feel good factor about looking at recycling figures based on assumptions. Or if they want better quality information that actually allows them to find ways to achieve better outcomes.
It appears many organisations are motivated to achieve better outcomes. The outcomes-based reporting platform developed by GPT is being adopted by the Sydney Opera House.
It is also a fundamental element for new operational guidelines set by the Better Buildings Partnership and the new standards being developed by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.