Can offices wave goodbye to single-use plastics?

With concerns about the use of plastics attracting public and media interest, tenants and landlords are increasingly considering their impact on the work environment.

August 29, 2019

From wrapping to take-away food containers, the single-use plastics commonly found in offices may be convenient but they’re far from sustainable.

It’s something environmentally-conscious companies know well – and they’re using their influence to build momentum to eliminate single-use plastics.

London’s Canary Wharf is the world’s first commercial centre to be declared a plastics free community by campaign group Surfers Against Sewage. Its landlord, The Canary Wharf Group, worked with tenants to eliminate over 2 million items of single-use plastic and the project has saved on the use of over 1 million plastic straws, with 83 retailers on the estate removing them entirely.

Such examples of tenants and landlords working together to achieve their own sustainability goals are likely to become more commonplace in future, says Aleksandra Smith-Kozlowska, senior consultant in JLL UK’s Upstream team.

“More companies want to lease buildings that have high sustainability standards,” she says. “They’re also putting more time and resource into developing their own corporate sustainability commitments. Increasingly, they will need landlord support to help achieve these, whether it’s providing plastic-free options in common areas, recycling facilities or running educational campaigns.”

Work in progress

Yet companies are at different stages. Leading the pack are the likes of media company Sky, which has pledged to remove single-use plastics from its products, operations and supply chain by 2020. Asset managers, Schroders, has replaced single-use plastics in its restaurants with Vegware, a plant-based material which can be recycled with food and turned into compost.

The UK’s public sector too is tackling the challenge. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office last year eliminated 97 percent of single-use plastics – equating to 1.56 million items from drinks bottles to food containers - from its premises.

Even small changes can have a big impact in helping to reduce the eight million tonnes of plastic that Plastic Oceans UK estimates enter the world’s oceans each year. “The key thing with single-use plastic is to try to irradiate its use. If we can all start to focus on using multi-use items like ceramic mugs, instead of throw-away plastic coffee cups, or bring our lunch to work in a re-useable container, the difference could be quite significant,” says Smith-Kozlowska.

Finding alternatives

Single-use plastics tend to be a low-quality material that can’t be recycled numerous times and so placing recycling bins around the offices – while being better than nothing at all - only goes so far.

“To me the solutions, like using metal cutlery instead of plastic teaspoons, or using a supplier that offers refills on cleaning products, are there, but it’s about encouraging people to change their behaviour and think about the bigger picture and apply this across the supply chain,” Smith-Kozlowska says.

In 2018, the UK government unveiled its waste strategy for England, which outlined ambitions to work towards all plastic packaging placed on the market being recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. It follows moves from the likes of California where restrictions have been placed on the use of plastic straws, bags and single-use plastic food containers.

“If you want to make a big difference and influence large numbers of people, the plastics-free option needs to be the easy and affordable option for businesses,” says Smith-Kozlowska.

Swapping plastic wrap for cardboard boxes, for example, could be an option as there’s a good market for recycled cardboard in the UK. Or, if you are fitting-out an office, could you talk to your suppliers about them taking back and re-using packaging?”

Ultimately, it comes down to a willingness to adapt. “If we can get to the point where sustainability is built into business thinking, then it becomes far easier to make the changes needed,” concludes Smith-Kozlowska.

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