Agency creates its own better place

13th February 2012


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the environmentalist reports on sustainability initiatives that are saving the Environment Agency more than £6 million a year

You could be forgiven for thinking that the Environment Agency (EA), as the environmental regulator in England and Wales, is seeking to improve its environmental performance solely because it should be seen to practise what it preaches. Of course the EA wants to help create a better environment, but there are also significant economic benefits from increasing energy efficiency, travelling fewer miles, and reducing water use, waste to landfill and carbon emissions.

These five areas are the main focus of the EA’s activities to reduce its environmental footprint. Targets were set in 2006/07 in each area, so that by March 2015 the agency aims to have reduced its CO2 emissions and buildings’ energy consumption by at least 33%, cut its mileage and water use by 25%, and sent zero waste to landfill. Four years into the journey, the EA is already close to achieving several of its goals. Operational office energy consumption has fallen by 21%, water use has declined by 18%, while the amount of waste to landfill is down by 66%. Furthermore, carbon emissions have been cut by 17% and mileage is already down by 33%.

These achievements are excellent results for the environment and are saving the regulator more than £6 million annually in operating costs – a significant saving for an organisation with an energy bill of £7 million each year and reduced funding.

“Effectively managing our energy, transport, waste and water helps address our environmental footprint and also helps reduce our running costs. It makes both environmental and financial sense,” explains Julian Feasby, head of internal environment management at the EA.

Staff appeal

A key factor in helping to progress the agency towards its 2015 targets is changing the behaviour of its 12,000-strong workforce. While it includes environmental specialists, the EA also employs a wide range of people who are not necessarily environmentally aware because it is irrelevant to their day-to-day activities.

“There is an expectation externally that everyone at the agency is knowledgeable about the environment, but that is not always the reality,” says Feasby. “We’re like many other workplaces. Sometimes you can find waste in the wrong bins. Why? Because we are 12,000 people, and these things happen.”

Focusing on the five key areas highlighted earlier is seen as the best way to engage the whole workforce. “We track 12 measures annually, but set formal, public targets for these five. We focus on these because staff can easily relate to them. Also, other companies generally measure these things, so it’s also about being in line with what others are doing,” explains Feasby.

“If we started to say we’re going to report on how much timber we use is from sustainable resources, there are not many other organisations doing that, so it’s harder for some staff to relate to it. It is more helpful to focus on issues that others are also disclosing information on.”

He says the key to helping staff adopt the “right” behaviour is to keep both the message and the process simple. “We keep it straightforward. My own test is that if my grandmother can’t understand the language then others won’t.”

One example of this approach is the “efficiency” stickers in operational vehicles, which are similar to the energy rating stickers found on white goods. So the most efficient vehicles, those emitting less than 140g of CO2 per kilometre (CO2km), get an “A” rating, while those emitting more than 270gCO2km are rated “D”. The stickers also provide further advice. For example, the stickers in A-rated vehicles also include the message: “This is one of our most fuel-efficient vehicles. But you can still reduce our carbon footprint by sharing it.”

Feasby explains that on some issues, particularly waste, the message needs to be constant. “Dealing with waste is very much behaviour-based. We’ve taken away all bins except for collective ones on each floor, and introduced clear signage,” he comments. “The two biggest wastes arising in an office environment are paper and food. You set a target, but after a while improvement tails off. So, it’s about relentless messaging.”

The EA’s top tip for reducing an organisation’s environmental footprint (see table below) is to get senior management directly involved. On one occasion, Feasby invited the agency’s directors to go through the waste bins. “They were horrified by some of things they found, but it gets them involved and sends a message to staff that the organisation is serious about its targets.”

An everyday activity

Ensuring a relatively large organisation such as the agency, with operations spread across England and Wales (280 depots and 2,500 other sites), remains on track to achieve its 2015 targets requires the constant attention of senior managers. Feasby says that the key to retaining that focus has been to make the targets part of normal business life. “One of the best things we’ve done is to create a corporate scorecard that also contains our targets, so we’ve made our environmental indicators just one more business target alongside all our other corporate aspirations,” he comments.

Another innovation to help managers concentrate on the targets has been the introduction for regional directors of a tool similar to the star chart often used to monitor the progress of children. There is a chart for each of the five targets and they illustrate how well each of the eight regional directors is performing against the baseline. It is colour-coded, so if they hit their target it’s green; amber signals that they did well but didn’t quite achieve the target; while red means they are off target. “Everyone gets to see this, so they can see how they are doing compared with colleagues in other parts of England and Wales,” says Feasby. “Data really help to focus attention on the key issues. We try not to overcomplicate the performance management process.”

Feasby is an advocate of using data to show where activity could be most effective. He compiled a pie chart of the EA’s carbon footprint in 2010/11 to illustrate the proportion of emissions from different parts of the organisation. The chart reveals that one-third of its 55,800 tonnes of carbon emissions was from the electricity consumed by its operations. “It’s essentially the electricity consumed by pumping water. If it rains a lot we pump lots of water to try to prevent flooding, and if it’s really dry we have to pump water out of the ground to prevent rivers from running dry.

“I started using the pie chart detailing our carbon footprint everywhere and at every opportunity. I used it as my email footer. I asked other managers to take it into meetings and leave it out so others would see it and talk about it. Nobody could ignore it,” explains Feasby.

“We’ve now run several surveys and have developed plans to deal with operational electricity. It’s a long-term thing, we’re not going to change overnight. It’s about altering how you operate your pumps, turning them off when they are not required. And, when a decision on building a new pumping station is considered, we now ask if it is really necessary or is there some other way of doing this. And if it does get the green light we work [so as not to] over-engineer it, and consider installing efficient pumps, powered by renewables if possible.”

As the EA has already surpassed its 2015 commitment to reduce mileage by 25%, Feasby is confident that it will achieve its other targets, but concedes: “Most of the low-hanging fruit has been picked, so reaching our targets is now more stretching.”

Feasby advises environment managers to try not to do too much at one time. “Pick, say, 10 things and focus on them. Do one, then move on to the next. You can’t do everything at once.”

The Agency in action

Carbon and energy – “First of all it’s about insulation and getting your building maintained correctly,” says Julian Feasby, head of internal environment management. “There’s no point spending money on a solar panel if the energy is just going to leak away.” The Environment Agency (EA) does not own all its buildings, so works with landlords to improve efficiency. It uses automatic meter reading equipment (installed at 500 sites) to identify “hot spots” of big energy use. The installation of equipment to reduce energy use and improve efficiency ranges from sun pipes to voltage optimisation – which as been installed at 40 sites so far and cut energy use on average by 8%.

The EA installed its first direct-drive wind pump at the Red Bridge pumping station near Blackpool. The pump replaced an energy-intensive one. It was a member of staff who came up with the idea of using a traditional windmill-powered pump, and the installation was financed from the EA’s carbon-reduction fund – money set aside for low-carbon investment and allocated to ideas from staff. The wind pump operates more slowly than the previous electric-powered one, so the water trickles continuously to maintain a constant level. The agency is now installing wind pumps at another nine sites. The reduction fund financed 15 projects in 2011, ranging from voltage optimisation and sheep-wool insulation in a building in Wales to using new types of batteries in remote sites.

Mileage – “Mileage is probably our biggest success,” says Feasby. “In the past, it was a bit of an ‘untouchable’. But sometimes you have to go for the things that are really hard.” The EA has now reduced its mileage by more than 19 million miles a year. A clear travel hierarchy has been built into the agency’s policies: don’t have the meeting at all; go by public transport; or hire a car. Technology has also helped, with widespread adoption of teleconferencing. The EA has also installed webcams at some monitoring sites, enabling officers to check remotely whether weed screens are clear and visit a location only if something needs removing. Operations teams also now plan their routes better, so if they are going to 10 different sites in a day, they use a map or a satellite navigation system to plot the most efficient route. The agency’s switch to risk-based regulation has assisted in reducing mileage, as it no longer visits good performers as regularly as in the past.

Water – “The best thing to do is leak detection,” remarks Feasby. “So, in October each year we send an email to our facilities teams reminding them to check water meters every day during cold snaps, when pipes are more likely to burst. That enables us to capture a leak the day it happens.” In addition to better monitoring of water use, the EA’s new head office, Horizon House in Bristol, uses 69% less mains water than the previous main office building. A rainwater harvesting system collects and stores water for use in toilet flushing, for example. Harvesting equipment has been installed at other selected agency sites but the number is limited because, as it involves retrofitting, it is a fairly expensive measure. Reducing water is a key focus for activity when buildings are refurbished, so most EA buildings now boast waterless urinals, spray taps (which use much less water than normal “free-flow” taps) and sensor controls so taps switch off quickly.

10 Tips on reducing a firm's footprint

  1. Gain the express support of senior managers. Their engagement will send a clear message to staff and lay a good foundation for making difficult decisions.
  2. Set easily measurable targets that form part of your corporate performance. This will help ensure that focus is not lost.
  3. Be prepared to invest in technology. Some outcomes are only likely to be deliverable through investment in your buildings or systems – but it doesn’t have to cost much.
  4. Gather good data on all your utilities and travel. Knowing what you use, and where, will help you manage those resources and report accurately on performance. Consider using automatic meter readings to give online reports.
  5. Dedicate some people resource to delivering your outcomes. While delivering your environmental objectives needs to be part of everyone’s job, having a dedicated person or team to provide advice and direction will reap rewards.
  6. Do the simple things on energy. Insulate your buildings to a high standard; fit low-energy lighting; control building temperature to an agreed standard; fit voltage optimisation.
  7. Do the simple things on waste and water. Remove desk-side bins; have clearly labelled recycling points; and conduct bin audits and publicise your findings to staff. Fit low-flush toilets and infra-red-controlled spray taps.
  8. Don’t offset! Instead of paying money to an offset company, internalise that expenditure and invest the money in directly reducing your own emissions.
  9. Think about your procurement. Making sure you consider sustainability issues can deliver big benefits throughout your supply chain – don’t buy what you don’t need and will then dispose of.
  10. Engage your staff and help them help you. The behaviour of staff can be crucial in delivering your outcomes. Listening to their ideas will help them to feel more involved and make lasting changes.

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