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Recycling: are rail companies really doing enough?

Posted by Sarah Wright on May 11, 2016


2-1001.jpgSustainability and going green are regular features in stories about rail, and rightfully so. You don’t have to look to hard to find rail operators proudly promoting the fact that they have reduced their emissions, cut down on waste when carrying out upgrades, or are helping to protect the wildlife around the tracks. Rail’s smaller carbon footprint when compared to road to transport is also increasingly being utilised in marketing by operators. However, something is missing here, what efforts are they making to recycle the waste left on their trains? I think we are all familiar with boarding or leaving a train strewn with newspapers, coffee cups, sandwich packets and other waste. The lack of information and clarity on this all too visible problem led SmartRail World reporter, Sarah Wright, to find out what is really happening and to asking some of the leading operators in the UK how they are tackling the issue.

A report from Advanced Cleaning, a company cleaning 1000 trains on average a day in central London gave some insights into what it was like to clean a train in seven minutes or under. King revealed the shocking fact that Advance Cleaning alone was collecting roughly half a million bags of rubbish a year, which mostly was sent to the landfill, despite the fact that 95% of the collected waste could have been recycled. Back then, King argued that “biggest challenge remains in convincing both those in charge, and the passengers, that something needs to happen.” Six years since that report, the average passenger sees little difference, there are no posters encouraging them to dispose of their waste and there are few bins in sight. This begs the question, what is happening with all the rubbish and how much has really changed?

With this in mind we reached out to five of the UK’s leading operators to get their story and statistics. Asking them questions about how much waste they discarded in the last year, how they encourage passengers to recycle and what do they think can be done to make a difference.

What the industry told us

c2c: Easily found on their website, c2c have a page dedicated to their impact on the environment, promoting their plans to reduce their carbon foot print. However, they say nothing about their efforts to recycle. When asked about their efforts, c2c informed us that they collected over 1,050 tonnes of waste from their trains and stations in 2015, and that “zero waste was sent to the landfill.” Recycling 90% of the waste, the other 10% is sent to energy recovery.

Instead of asking their customers to separate their rubbish themselves, c2c and their contractors simply sort through and divide the waste left behind. They adopted this approach thinking that it would be the easiest option for their customers, and the statistics show that it is clearly working.

Chiltern Railways: Now working on a similar approach to c2c, Chiltern are looking at the effects of traincare teams and station staff segregating waste, rather than asking passengers to do this themselves. The trial began in March at their Banbury station, and Chiltern have informed us that if all goes well, the system will be rolled out across their stations. They are hopeful that it will allow them to provide their waste carriers with higher levels of recyclable materials.

Currently recycling 35% of waste, Chiltern is striving to up the amount of waste they recycle. They like c2c, hope to keep things as simple as possible for the customer. Telling us that “as a business, we’re keen to ensure that our environmental footprint is as small as possible and have a dedicated in-house ‘waste’ team to ensure we can deliver on our waste and recycling goals.”

1_2.jpgTransport for London (TFL): Today, statistic on TFL’s site show that 70% of the waste left on trains and in stations is recycled. When responding to our questions, TFL suggested that most of their waste is produced through maintenance, of which 90% is recycled. Over the years they have tried to minimise waste by removing paper ticketing systems, placing ads in newspapers and using poster campaigns to encourage passengers to recycle their waste, take it home or at least deposit it in the stations.

What more did TFL think they could do? While their answer removed responsibility from operators, it made some sense. They argued that often the problem is caused before the waste is left. “We need affirmative action by the waste producers to minimise their post-consumer waste at the earliest opportunity.” For TFL the biggest contributor to the problem are the coffee shops and fast food retailers that encourage a throw away attitude. 

Abellio: In reply to our questions Abellio informed us that between 2014 and 2015 they handled 3496 tonnes of waste. However, they did not say how much of this was recycled. Even their website doesn’t inform you of how much waste is recycled or prompt you to get to know their green policies. With a bit of digging, we found that in 2013, 50-97% of waste collected escaped the landfill, numbers to be proud of. If rates are still at this level, then why not say?

Expanding on their efforts, Abellio have placed recycling bins at their stations, so putting the emphasis on the passenger to place rubbish in the correct bin. One point they raised in particular stood out and paralleled the arguments made by TFL. This was that coffee cups and newspapers are at the heart of the problem. Abellio commented: “Looking ahead, the biggest differences would come from the elimination of free newspapers, or their transfer to being online only, and a change to either reusable cups, or improved recyclability of cups from coffee vendors.  These two items make up around 60% of total passenger waste.”

The causes...

The answers we received were mixed but there was a clear reality running through all of them, railways are not the only ones that need to make a change. In fact a major part of the problem are the paper coffee cups and free newspapers copiously consumed by passengers. These throw away objects have in fact been a concern for many. Each year in Britain, 3 billion coffee cups are used and shockingly, statistics show that only 1% of these get recycled. Recently, as concerns arose campaigners criticised coffee companies for misleading customers, by placing the recycling symbol their cups when in reality, the plastic coating means that they cannot be recycled along with the usual items.

These statics have outraged many and asked us to question how much of our waste gets recycled? Much like the figures for recycling on transport, the numbers are hard to come by and it seems safe to say that a large amount of waste still ends up in the landfill.  Most believe it is the responsibility of the sellers to ensure that the cups used are more eco-friendly or that funding is contributed towards recycling. A voice echoed by the operators we spoke to when writing this piece.

Among those that SmartRail World reached out to was Virgin Trains. The passenger rail operator prides itself on innovation and only last year argued that they are “passionate about the environment and are always looking to improve what we do”. On their website they state they recycle 94% of the waste left on their trains. Yet, when approached and questioned about their effort they could help us, their press office telling us; “I’m afraid that we would be unable to help you with your article.” We cannot say why they would not help, but only that it brings us to question their approach, if you were that keen on being green and successful then why not shout about it?

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... the solutions?

1-205.jpgClearly since Advance Cleaning’s report in 2010 things have improved, but often the information available is outdated and answers were hard to come by. One solution for rail companies would be greater uniformity in the recycling – some offering separate bins and other not can be confusing for passengers. Perhaps a central incentive (or threat) to harmonise efforts could help the solution?

The retailers that encourage the use of disposable items, like the coffee cups, are slowly starting to make changes. For example, Starbucks launched a scheme offering customers a 25p discount if they bought their own cup. As for the free papers, the only foreseeable solution would be for them to move online, though these can be recycled using conventional methods, unlike the coffee cups.

Then there is of course, us, the passengers, next time you can’t spot a bin maybe put that newspaper or paper cup in your bag until you get to the office or home?

New approaches and a joint effort from the operators, rail passengers and retailers seems to be the long term solution. Some have made a start but there is still a long way to go.


 Have your say! We’d love to hear more about what global rail operators do to recycle, contact me Sarah.Wright@GlobalTransportForum.com to let me know and we’ll publish the best replies.


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Topics: Passenger Information Systems

Sarah Wright

Written by Sarah Wright

Post studying for a Masters in History at the University of Essex and taking time out to travel Europe and South East Asia, Sarah came into the world of events and marketing. She has been putting her communication skills and creativity to good use here with us since.

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