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Now is the time to focus on sustainability

27 October 2020

SUSTAINABILITY MAY have taken a back seat in the last few months as businesses scrambled to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. Now things are starting to settle down Mike Boxall believes it’s time to make sustainability a key consideration for cleaning services.

THE GLOBAL lockdown has underscored the importance of legislative and corporate action on the environment. Measures introduced to slow the spread of COVID-19 since March of this year, including travel bans and the closure of many industrial and commercial sites, have led to a record drop in carbon emissions. 

This dramatic shift demonstrates the potential for change. But the pandemic has forced organisations into survival mode, pushing sustainability way down on their list of priorities. The virus threatens to undo years of progress on plastic pollution and other harmful waste, with some experts warning that the sustainability debate has effectively been “parked” for a year.

The UK government has delayed its planned ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds. Restaurants have cut out reusable cups and ramped up the use of plastic takeaway containers and cutlery. Heightened hygiene measures have led to an increase in medical waste, including masks, gloves and other PPE, and sanitary products such as disposable wipes.

Corporates have installed Perspex screens into workplaces to adhere to social distancing rules. Out of desperation to keep buildings and people virus-free, many facilities managers have asked their cleaning teams to reintroduce powerful chemical-based cleaning products in place of newer, environmentally friendly alternatives. 

Pressing reset 
These challenges demonstrate that the cleaning industry can play a central role in the crisis recovery and resetting the environmental agenda. Plastic waste is a significant issue. Still, we cannot forget that the sustainability of services like cleaning also depends on several other key factors that are likely to feel the economic impact of the pandemic, including service standards and specifications, wellbeing, staff training, wages, social value and overall productivity. 

As the ground continues to shift beneath our feet, it’s important to remember that no two experiences or sets of circumstances are the same. Organisations have responded to the pandemic in different ways – in areas such as procurement, supply chain management and staffing – and facilities teams have to adapt to these changes, meaning that there can never be a one-size-fits-all approach to sustainability. 

At the same time, organisations are complex beasts with sprawling networks of business functions, services, suppliers and processes – a positive sustainable change in one area of the business might produce an unintended negative consequence in a separate area. Purchasing a large volume of polystyrene cups because they are cheap and disposable is counterproductive if it costs the facilities or cleaning provider five times as much to dispose of them. 

A boom in home working is likely to produce similar challenges. Plenty of corporate workplaces will remain closed until a resolution to the crisis becomes clearer, while some large companies have told their employees that they can work from home permanently. Even so, the consensus is that people have adapted well to home working, and this will have convinced many employers to keep the practice long after the pandemic ends.

The most forward-thinking of these companies understand that remote working not only offers health and wellbeing benefits for staff but also reduced real estate costs and better sustainability outcomes. In theory, if more people work from home, both building and travel emissions should drop. However, the facilities team will need to make the appropriate changes.

A failure to modify waste collection in line with new occupancy rates of a workplace will lead to over-scheduling, wasting money and producing other unnecessary emissions in areas such as deliveries. So, it is vital that as organisations adapt to the changes brought on by the pandemic, our understanding of areas such as sustainability develops in parallel.     

Setting a benchmark
So, how can organisations ensure both the efficacy and sustainability of their cleaning services?

A common misconception is that benchmarking is simply a tool to help procurement teams cut costs. But this view does a disserve to the practice and robs organisations of a level of insight that could lead to significant business improvements. WRAP, the circular economy and resource efficiency experts, recommend benchmarking to set targets. Setting goals against internal reviews of processes or management practices is parochial and susceptible to confirmation bias. In contrast, independent benchmarking can help to build an impartial, holistic and data-led picture of gaps and opportunities. 

At a basic level, benchmarking a cleaning service enables a like-for-like comparison of its constituent parts, such as waste management and recycling performance. Doing this will identify the efficacy of these areas and offer solutions for improvements. An initial, in-depth assessment positions each element of the cleaning provision and analyses documents, policies and procedures. From here, an efficiency score is created, issues are identified, and solutions are proposed and implemented. By compiling data that an organisation is unaware it is lacking, benchmarking can identify specific actions that will significantly improve day-to-day management, efficiency and sustainability. 

Benchmarking rates of recycling can help determine where an organisation is most and least successful and identify more sustainable end-of-life solutions. This includes the distance that waste has to travel once it leaves a site – the further it goes, the higher the vehicle emissions and cost. So, benchmarking the costs to numerous locations should provide the organisation in question with the fairest market rate for waste handling and the most energy- and cost-efficient solution.  

An independent benchmarking exercise can also shine a light on each waste stream individually. It is then possible to compare different waste collection schedules and identify potential scheduling or capacity issues. The same is possible for staff engagement programmes, cost improvements, console configuration, equipment specification, tender processes and more. 

Sustainable goals 
The power of benchmarking lies in its broad access to data and independent verification. Despite a wealth of building data, organisations often find that their management in practice doesn’t match what’s on paper. A robust benchmarking exercise will locate the holes in the organisation’s operating data and unearth inconsistencies between theory and the reality.  

The practice can improve the softer side of cleaning services and management, such as training and staff engagement – areas traditionally more challenging to quantify. A greater emphasis on the circular economy or striving to prolong the lifecycle of products will not only save and cut emissions but may potentially also encourage the engagement of staff who care about the environment or want to work with purpose. 

Benchmarking every aspect of the cleaning service allows organisations to identify their suppliers' performance and environmental impact, providing them with an opportunity to work with companies that offer value for money and sustainability credentials. It should go without saying that working with more responsible or environmentally driven suppliers is likely to push the entire supply chain toward sustainability standards. 

By benchmarking, organisations also have the opportunity to turn waste streams into revenue streams. Regular waste such as cardboard, plastic wrap, aluminium and paper can be sold on for a profit far higher than their perceived value.  

The primary goal is to collect enough data so that organisations can benchmark and set targets against industry averages. This makes it easier to forecast waste production and make improvements. For example, the cleaning team might glean from the data that they need to order smaller containers in line with demand or switch to cleaning solutions that are generated on site. Waste levels can even be compared between departments or as people move through the organisation, ensuring that any staff or management changes do not lead to a dip in either performance or efficiency. 

By repeating the benchmarking process over a sustained period, organisations can collect data with a broad frame of reference. As products, services, technology and legislation change, they will need to measure and adapt. The future is uncertain. Nobody quite knows how the pandemic will affect the way organisations operate in the medium to long term, only that it will change. But the fact that sustainability has taken a backseat in this period should concern the cleaning industry because it will be cleaning teams who pick up the pieces when organisations are free to reset their priorities. 

Pre-COVID-19, the direction of travel was clear: the demand for sustainable options such as concentrated cleaning products and plastic-free processes had never been higher. Cleaning companies wholly committed to environmentally friendly products were enjoying incredible growth. Organisations cannot lose sight of that as they navigate these challenging times. 

Mike Boxall is managing director at Sitemark