Completing a virtuous circle at John Lewis

9th August 2013


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  • Pollution & Waste Management



Turning packaging into building materials is helping the John Lewis Partnership close the loop on plastics

In the not too distant future, new John Lewis and Waitrose stores will be constructed in part from plastic planks and sheets made from packaging waste collected from across the group. This is the long-term aim of the John Lewis Partnership’s (JLP) closed-loop strategy on plastic, which guarantees thousands of tonnes of waste from its supermarkets and shops are recycled into usable products.

JLP is working with Liverpool-based recycler Centriforce to implement this pioneering closed-loop plan, which is part of the retailer’s strategy to streamline its waste contractors and keep complete control and responsibility for its waste flows – ensuring as much as possible is recycled.

As Mike Walters, recycling and waste operations manager for the partnership, says: “We’re on a mission to have ownership of our waste streams; most of our recycling used to leave our stores and it was impossible to retain responsibility for it. JLP wants to know what happens to the business waste it generates and to recycle as much as possible for future use. We are committed to keeping ownership of our waste all the way to its final destination.”

He also points out that the business case for reducing waste to landfill is getting stronger. “Commercially, there is a very straightforward way of thinking about this – every tonne of waste buried in landfill costs us more than £100, and this increases every year.”

Streamlining waste

Each year, JLP generates more than 60,000 tonnes of waste from its operations – which include 39 John Lewis stores and 293 Waitrose outlets – and places 130,000 tonnes of packaging on the market. By the end of this year, the group aims to be diverting 95% of its operational waste from landfill, having achieved a diversion rate of 92% in 2012, and recycling 74% of all its operational waste.

Plastic is not the first waste stream for which the retailer has adopted a “closed-loop” recycling approach: it has been recycling paper and cardboard for years, and has developed an innovative way of recycling problematic waste streams, such as the bulky polystyrene blocks used to protect electrical goods in transit.

JLP uses the available space in its delivery trucks on their return journeys to distribution centres to backhaul the polystyrene. This tricky waste stream is then fed into briquette machines and recycled into polystyrene chippings for use as packaging protection.

Since 2012, the partnership has worked with just five key waste companies, having previously used a large number of waste contractors to manage its waste streams. Walters says this more rationalised procurement approach is an integral part of the partnership’s commitment to retaining control over its waste streams.

“We even want to keep responsibility for the non-recyclable contamination element of our waste,” he says. “Working closely with a small number of UK-based contractors enables us to achieve real transparency over the waste and recycling process.”

From start to finish

Centriforce (see below) has the capacity to recycle more than 20,000 tonnes of plastic waste each year into plastic sheets, boards and other second-life products. It is one of the few UK recyclers to develop an in-house capability for sorting mixed plastics, recognising the need “to contribute to a more robust infrastructure for plastics recycling in the UK”.

JLP has eight collection points, including its four distribution centres, from which the waste plastic is transferred to Centriforce. Each year, the partnership backhauls around 3,000 tonnes of plastic waste, primarily from product deliveries, offices and secondary packaging, to these collection points from across the country. It has onsite bailers to crush the mixed plastic into bales before removal to Centriforce in 25-tonne batches on large, curtain-sided trailers.

“There is a high degree of transparency and I can visit the [Centriforce] plant in Liverpool and see our waste being sorted into soft and hard plastics recycling streams and know first hand that any contamination is being processed properly on the conveyer belt,” says Walters. “This means that I can have a high degree of confidence in the sorting process.

“I can then watch the plastic waste drop into huge vats and come off the other end in the form of reusable products, such as plastic planks – that is a satisfying and sustainable end to the process.”

Walters also has a high level of assurance in the transparency of the process when it comes to monitoring the recycling performance of Centriforce in relation to JLP’s waste plastic. Walters receives a monthly breakdown of the plastics collected from JLP outlets and recycled by the waste contractor.

The datasheets provide detailed calculations for each collection point, including the types of plastic sorted and the level of contamination. For example, from one depot in April 2013, Centriforce received 155 tonnes of plastic waste, of which 81.3% comprised plastic film, with the remainder being other plastics and miscellaneous contamination.

Sitting comfortably

Although the retailer’s closed-loop plastics recycling contract with Centriforce is relatively new, there are already imaginative examples of how John Lewis stores and Waitrose supermarkets are reusing the second-life products manufactured from the waste. One example is a new walkway at an ancient woodland in the middle of a 74 acre industrial site that was discovered by workers at the Waitrose head office in Bracknell.

Staff from the supermarket business volunteered to lay the 1,750 plastic planks produced by Centriforce through the protected Wild Riding copse to erect a 268 metre boardwalk. The planks in the raised walkway were manufactured from 20 tonnes of high-density polyethylene post-consumer waste and now allow the site’s 2,400 Waitrose workers to enjoy woodland walks all year round. Further work is planned to clear small parts of the woodland and build platform areas – using more recycled materials – with seating for picnics or meetings.

Another visible example of the closed-loop strategy can be seen outside many Waitrose stores across the country, in the form of the durable benches produced by Centriforce from the thousands of tonnes of plastics waste it recycles from JLP each year (pictured above). Having such a visible illustration of the partnership’s commitment to reusing as much as possible of its own waste sends a strong signal to customers and staff that it is serious about implementing its environmental principles, according to Walters.

He also argues that because JLP staff are “partners” – they all have a stake in the business and share in its profits – the organisation is effectively pushing at an open door when it comes to gaining employee buy-in for implementing such schemes, as well as for its overall sustainability strategy.

Despite the support the organisation has for its environmental initiatives from its 84,700 strong workforce, JLP has introduced a straightforward recycling policy across all of its stores and offices, with five recycling bins for different waste streams, including just one bin for all plastics.

“We can’t make it too onerous for the partners in JLP to recycle on a day-to-day basis or we risk a greater level of contamination at a later stage of the process,” comments Walters. “But we do rely on the commitment of every partner to feed the recycling process as responsibly as possible.”

JLP’s aim to reuse its waste plastic as second-life products in its business is a long-term one. The partnership is currently exploring further potential ways it can use Centriforce products made from its recycled waste. For example, Walters recently accompanied the architects responsible for designing new John Lewis and Waitrose stores on field trips, to assess ways of integrating second-generation plastic materials, such as planks and sheeting, into the retailer’s new store construction programmes.

The partnership’s ultimate goal is to reuse every scrap of its waste plastic, and Walters believes that JLP has the determination and the correct strategy in place to achieve that target.

Mike Walters (left), recycling and waste manager at JLP, with Simon Carroll, managing director at Centriforce

Plastics recycling at Centriforce

Centriforce is an independent producer of recycled plastic products, including sheeting and profiles. Established more than 35 years ago, the company has grown to become the UK’s largest independent recycler of plastic waste, using the material to create sustainable, second-life products.

Operating from a six acre recycling plant in Liverpool, Centriforce can process more than 20,000 tonnes of material a year. Its “closed-loop” recycling solutions are helping the John Lewis Partnership and other firms, including Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions, to manage waste plastic more effectively.

Plastics are largely derived from oil and so it is important to treat the material as a precious resource rather than a nuisance in the waste stream, according to Centriforce. Plastics can normally be recycled several times. According to the British Plastics Federation, the UK uses more than 5 million tonnes of plastic each year, of which an estimated 24% is currently being recovered or recycled.

Centriforce estimates that the UK currently exports an estimated 790,000 tonnes of plastics for recycling overseas. This equates to more than 70 containers of scrap plastic being shipped every day.

Some Centriforce recycled plastic products are used in the form they come off its production lines, while others are further processed or fabricated into a variety of end-use products. Most Centriforce products can be put to use in a similar way to traditional materials such as plywood, timber, steel and even aluminium.

For example, Centriforce has supplied the agriculture market for 30 years with recycled plastic sheeting for use as chicken coops, cattle feeders, pig housing and stables.

Other varied applications for Centriforce’s recycled plastic products include:

  • packaging – vegetable boxes made from recycled high-density polyethylene planks and recycled plastic timber profiles, which are widely used as protection strips within boxes to protect goods;
  • construction – recycled plastic sheeting is a durable alternative to plywood and timber and is widely use in the construction sector, for example as signage, ground protection boards and wall cladding;
  • utilities – recycled plastic sheeting is used as cable protection covers; and
  • land management – recycled plastic timber profiles are used extensively in land management projects, including by zoos and for river paths. Uses include recycled plastic decking and fencing and pond-dipping platforms.

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