The final episode of the BBC series Blue Planet II highlighted the impact that human society is having on the world’s oceans, with pitiful scenes of albatrosses feeding chicks plastic and a pilot whale calf, presumed dead from drinking mother’s milk contaminated by plastic waste and other pollutants.
In the ensuing public outcry, shocked viewers have rallied around efforts to stem the plastic tide that include a tax on single use plastics and pressure on retailers to use fewer types of plastic packaging for products and more that are recyclable by councils.
This groundswell provides impetus to all those pushing for change. Not just the environmentalists who’ve spent decades warning us about the planetary mess we’re making by pursuing infinite wants and needs on a finite planet, but governments and policy makers too, meeting year after year to thrash out targets on greenhouse gas emissions and carve out marine and land reserves to protect biodiversity.
And businesses like ours, looking for cleaner and greener ways to do business that offer a better deal for the environment, farmers, workers and consumers.
At Out of Eden, better business often boils down to "just doing what we think is common sense..." (Janet Hartley, co-founder of Out of Eden). From the early days of the business, this has included the simple things, from turning off any lights that aren’t needed to watching how much we do or don’t throw away.
In our offices, we think hard before bringing in any new equipment to first ascertain whether it is really needed and we situate our bins far away enough from desks to make us aware of what we’re throwing away.
Our printers are loaded with paper that has already been used on one side – that is, at least, when we’re printing out material for internal communications.
Our three kitchens sport multiple bins, for separating plastics, compostable material such as food waste and general waste for recycling or disposal.
We practice the 3R's – reduce, reuse and recycle – in the warehouse as well as the offices, and when we can’t find a use for something, we’re happy for others to try.
We’ve put wooden pallets that have served their time outside for collection by DIY enthusiasts or local people wanting fuel for wood-burning stoves and felt thrilled when a staff member’s father was able to restore a cast iron bench we hadn’t been able to find a use for.
More recently, we worked with local charity Age Concern in Kirkby Stephen to find a new lease of life for a dual consignment of faulty blankets from a Chinese supplier, by using them to make knee rugs for the elderly.
Although, as Janet says, "There wasn’t much science to how we did things in the past", our operations these days are increasingly systematic thanks to the guidance of a passionate group of environmental support experts at the Cumbria Business Environment Network (CBEN), which runs a Green at Heart scheme for smaller businesses keen to understand their impacts on environment and work with auditors to develop a simple system to identify and implement environmental improvement and cost saving schemes.
On joining up to the scheme, new members receive a full environmental audit, including advice on a range of environment and resource efficiency issues and their first certificate.
Thereafter businesses are expected to build action plans around measurable targets for appraisal by CBEN each year as part of an annual audit. Mapping and minimising energy, water, transportation and resource use as a business takes time, particularly at the outset, but CBEN auditor David Prentice assured us we would be supported every step of the way.
After some initial hesitation, Janet was prompted to bring us into the scheme by a combination of David’s enthusiasm and a request for a bigger bin – anathema for Janet – from the warehouse team.
We haven’t looked back since. Awarded Bronze in 2003 after our first audit, we received our fourth Gold Green at Heart award in 2017 ‘in recognition of achieving excellence in environmental practice’ – a reflection of our long-term commitment to greening operations.
So just what is it we’ve been doing? We’ve been careful to ‘power down’ energy demand on site, even as our workforce, operational space and productive capacity have continued to expand.
All our offices now use LED lighting, and in January 2018, eco-efficient lighting was installed in our packaging department.
We use three sources of power to heat the buildings at Out of Eden: liquid petroleum gas (LPG), electricity, and oil. While there’s little we can do about the use of LPG and oil for the time being – our rural location means that our older buildings are simply not connected to the gas distribution network – our more recently refurbished buildings incorporate a host of energy efficient measures, including oil-powered under floor heating and LED lighting.
Our main offices also enjoy a ‘smart’ building management system (BMS) that controls when heat comes off and on (the heating stays off all weekend), caps the temperature reached (offices are set at a comfortable 20 degrees Celsius), and sends heat only to those radiators it needs to heat.
Conversely, we’ve managed to ‘power up’ the supply of renewable energy on our premises, installing solar panels in February 2012 at a cost of just over 21,500 pounds. Our panels are already earning their keep, having brought in a total income equal to their investment by late 2017 for power fed back into the electricity grid, in addition to producing electricity for our use on site.
The electricity they generate peaks in the summer months and dips in the winter – we produced 1162.7 Kwh in July 2017, for example, in comparison to 145.6 Kwh in November. This seasonal power boost is the perfect summer bonus, arriving in time for the busiest period of Out of Eden’s year, when we are working hard to fulfil customer order requests and continue to provide a fast service our customer expect.
Then there’s waste. When new MD Mike Gannon brought in all new Out Of Eden branded cardboard boxes for packaging in place of reusing old boxes for dispatch, some of our customers may have feared we were surrendering our values.
Not so: our new boxes are made from a minimum of 82 per cent recycled material that is 100% recyclable, and a new baler introduced by Operations Coordinator Lee Ashley ensures our old cardboard is dispatched for recycling, along with all polythene, mixed plastics, and hessian sacks used to package supplies and products.
Lee researched the market thoroughly before bringing in his beast of a baler. It works by using a hydraulic ram to compress and band bales of segregated waste to the industrially standardised dimensions appreciated by recycling companies because they are easy to move around and stack.
Renting a machine like this from a baler supplier doesn’t come cheap, and initially, we faced some difficulty in finding a recycling company willing to come out as far as Eden to collect our bales without levying heavy costs for transportation. The problem was solved when the baler supplier introduced us to Darlington-based Total Recycling Services, who take them away for free so long as we can store them long enough to fill the truck to the optimum level, of 12 bales or 6 tonnes.
With this arrangement in place, our baler is already paying its own way, thanks to the money we receive from Total Recycling for bales of recyclable material.
In 2018, our Total Recycling waste collection figures recorded 7.35 tonnes of polythene, 30.07 tonnes of cardboard, 1.08 tonnes of hessian sacks and 1.42 tonnes of mixed plastic were sent for recycling. In the same period, we sent 5.55 tonnes of general waste to Total Recycling for landfill – a figure we are eager to reduce come the end of 2019.
This amount, plus whatever goes into our Eden Council grey bin each week – a bin only slightly larger than a standard household bin for general waste – comprises everything we send to landfill. We might not be zero waste yet but we’re doing our utmost to get there.
Achieving the 2017 Green at Heart award was easier than in previous years because of systems already in place, according to Operations Manager Maria, who notes ‘living our values means there’s less needing to be done.’
However, CBEN’s benchmarking process keeps us on our toes by requiring us to set ourselves new targets for improvement every year to retain our Green at Heart Gold status. In fact, with last year’s CBEN recommendations still ringing in our ears – reminding us to replace the last of our non-LED lights with energy efficient lighting and start totting up how many car miles our staff are saving by participating in our car-share and walk-to-work schemes – we’ve plenty to crack on with. Long-term, too, there’s a lot to consider.
We’ve the potential to ‘power up’ further by mounting a small wind turbine to the roof in the corner of our warehouse – a capability built into the design when we developed the site more than ten years ago.
Shorter days in the winter period decrease the yield in solar power generated on site at precisely the time when electricity consumption spikes because of heating and soap production – the latter, the most energy intensive of all our operations.
Wind power could therefore be just what we need to reduce how much electricity is brought in from an external electricity provider. We could also take a closer look at how we use water.
While our auditors have encouraged us to harvest rainwater and use more greywater on-site, we have yet to develop this capacity.
Finally, we should perhaps rethink how we source our electricity. Is it enough to simply source the cheapest electricity provider each time a fixed term contract with a given provider expires, or should we be looking for a provider that produces its power from only renewable sources?
Out of Eden has an obligation to the environment born not only of our commitment to sustainable and ethical business, but to our location – Eden in Cumbria, home of the English Lake District, an area steeped in natural and cultural heritage, recognised internationally for its natural beauty. It’s an obligation we all embrace.
Our financial director, John Andrews, liked our solar panels so much, he installed some at home. Director Colin Wheatley still dreams of a biomass boiler on site fuelled by broken or rickety wooden pallets that have outlived their use, although Operations magician Maria has thwarted him by procuring a deal with Darlington-based Evergreen Pallet Solutions Ltd to pick up the redundant pallets for recycling at no cost on the way back from making deliveries in the area, in a bid to keep a tidy thoroughfare in the warehouse.
Maria, meanwhile, is able to bear it if not precisely grin while Lee’s bales of plastic, cardboard and hessian sacks pile up for periodic removal. All of us do our bit on-site by patiently peeling paper labels off plastic packaging so that both can be recycled, and many of us spread the green gospel at home, asking family members to sort old clothes and wash out yoghurt pots for recycling.
We do what we can because we believe it makes a difference but we know there’s much still to do. Sometimes our green improvements save us money, but at other times, they cost us some of our profit.
Often they cost us time. Still, it’s a price worth paying. A price worth paying for keeping our beautiful planet green as well as blue.