Change agent: Canning impacts

7th April 2014

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  • Food and drink ,
  • Engineering and metals ,
  • Manufacturing ,
  • Employee engagement ,
  • Stakeholder engagement


Rachel Barker

Matthew Rowland-Jones explains how he is helping Rexam's employees and clients to encourage consumers to recycle more cans

The odds are that, although you won’t have heard of my employer, Rexam, you will have used hundreds of its products. Rexam is a manufacturer of drinks cans with plants spread across North, Central and South America, Europe, Africa, Middle East and Asia, and a client roster that includes Coca-Cola, Carlsberg and SAB Miller. Rexam produces 60 billion metal cans each year and the company understands that the biggest thing it can do to reduce the carbon impacts of its products is to recycle them, which is where I come in.

I’ve been working as the environment affairs manager for the European division for three and a half years, and my role is quite unusual for a sustainability practitioner. While my colleagues in the engineering and manufacturing teams are doing great work to lower the impacts of the firm’s manufacturing operations – cutting energy use and making our cans lighter, for example – my job is to help spread the resource efficiency message beyond the walls of our factories.

My role is, on the whole, an externally facing one. I spend most of my days talking to customers and industry bodies about the sustainability work Rexam is doing and about promoting recycling to end consumers. On the surface, it might sound strange for a business-to-business company to concern itself with the public, but we’ve been doing a lot of carbon footprint work in recent years and we know that the environmental impact of our cans is ultimately controlled by the consumer.

Rexam has long been involved with recycling campaigns led by the packaging industry and helped to create several, including the “Every can counts” scheme. Every can counts was launched in the UK in 2009 to encourage consumers to recycle their cans when they are out. In recent years, Rexam has helped to rollout the campaign across Europe, but what I’m most proud of is that we have been really successful in involving our customers.

The UK drinks firms participating in the campaign – Carlsberg and AG Barr – are Rexam customers, and their brands access consumers in a way that the packaging industry can’t. Last year, for example, Carlsberg came on board and did some great activities at the music festivals they sponsor.

A big part of my role is about linking people and organisations. I take pride in the fact that Rexam has great relationships with its customers and can talk to them about the value of programmes like Every can counts. Similarly, I lead Rexam’s involvement in Carlsberg’s circular community project, including our certification to the cradle-to-cradle programme, which aims to improve the environmental performance of cans across their lifecycle.

One initiative I’m particularly proud of, is Rexam’s “Community can challenge”. This is a competition across 16 of our European plants to encourage staff to spread the word on the importance of recycling in their local community. The scheme has its origins in the “Great American round up”, an annual competition across the US and Canada to see which manufacturer can collect the most cans for recycling. Despite not being the biggest firm in the market, Rexam’s North American division has won the round-up five years running and, inspired by the success of our colleagues, we decided to launch a similar competition in Europe.

Designing the competition was my project and translating something that was designed to operate in one country, with similar attitudes and recycling infrastructure, to operate across multiple countries with very different cultures and recovery facilities was a challenge. I started by visiting the North American division to learn how it runs activities for the competition and how it inspires and motivate staff to get involved. Then it was a case of bringing that knowledge back to Europe and talking to people at our plants across the continent about the unique cultural and logistical issues posed in each country.

One difference I had to bear in mind, for example, is that levels of consumption differ dramatically. The average person in the UK, for example, consumes 100 cans of drink a year, whereas someone in Turkey drinks far fewer, closer to 10–20. This is why the project has two awards: the first recognises the plant that has collected the largest number of cans by weight, while the second is presented to the plant that does most to engage its community. Judging this second award is no easy task. We look at a range of things from the amount of press and publicity the plant has gained locally, to the approach the plant adopts and the audience it targets.

The competition is now in its fourth year and each cycle has seen our plants collect five tonnes of cans by engaging with their local communities. The feedback from the staff involved is also positive. Although working on the competition is in addition to their day job, staff say they enjoy engaging the community. It also helps to raise employee awareness of the importance of recycling and how it is crucial to Rexam’s sustainability aims. Seeing the challenge succeed has been a massive achievement and learning about the different nuances between how the different plants have gone about tackling the same project has been fascinating.

Matthew Rowland-Jones, AIEMA, is environment affairs manager at Rexam.

Carlsberg circular community

Rexam was one of the founding partners of Carlsberg’s group corporate social responsibility initiative, the Carlsberg circular community.

The initiative, which uses cradle-to-cradle design principles, sees Carlsberg working with its suppliers to encourage innovation and quality in the industry, in pursuit of zero-waste.

It aims to increase the creation of sustainable innovations, create clean materials streams that are optimised for reuse and recycling and support the sharing of knowledge between companies creating resource efficient products.

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