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Recycling on the networks: A look at operators' efforts in 2018.

Posted on Apr 16, 2018

Axion's Design for Recycling scheme aims to makes plastic more sustainableOpen a newspaper, turn on a TV and it's likely you'll find a story about green or sustainable issues. It's become a massive issue for businesses and industries across the world and it can no longer be ignored, as the environmental, and financial costs of current working practises are realised. Our industry is no different. Probably the most visible aspect of sustainability is recycling, which needs to involve the operators, contractors, staff and the passengers alike in order to make an impact. In our complex industry external factors can also present big problems to even the most efficient recycling operation. Just to give one example, China, which has been world's largest importer of waste, in January 2018 put severe restrictions on the variety of waste that it previously would accept, leading people to have to find different solutions to the problem.

Despite these challenges, what is clear for any business is that taking a laissez-faire attitude to one of the most important issues of the moment isn't sustainable and demands fundamental changes in the way things have been done – coming from the top-down. We’ve run a feature on recycling in the rail industry before, when we asked : “Recycling: are rail companies doing enough?”, and now seems like the perfect time to revisit this crucial issue and see – two years since the first – whether things have changed.

In 2016 just four companies got back to us but this year we received three times that, showing that the issue is one that is taken a lot more seriously than it was. What I wanted to see with this 2018 edition was how ingrained the sustainability message was in rail companies further afield and not just in the UK, so I got in touch with 32 rail companies that spread across the globe – from Finland and Norway, and New Zealand and Germany to Brazil, Canada and The Netherlands. Receiving answers from roughly half, what was supplied certainly suggested a shift in attitude, with a number or rail operators providing evidence of the impact that their commitment was already having. It’s clear though, as I think the operators will readily admit, that a lot more can still be done

What the industry told us

With the majority of responses covering general, non-specific recycling targets, achievements and commitments, Greater Anglia, the Abellio-Mitsui owned company, kicked off with the positive news that it had recycled 65% of its 2,999 tonnes of waste last year – up from the 38% of waste it put to better use in 2012/13. The operator which serves England’s South East last year appointed Veolia (@VeoliaUK) in to help improve those statistics further and also recently appointed an integrated transport manager to “help make people's journeys to and from stations more environmentally friendly”. Merseyrail in England’s North West has also opted to use an outside business to help it improve its sustainability, Gaskells Materials Recycling Facility, which sorts through refuse that has already passed through Merseyrail’s single bin policy – to “cut down on the public’s confusion of what can be recycled’ – that enables three quarters (77%) of the rail operator’s waste is used to generate energy, with the remaining 23% being recycled.

Great Western Railway has recruited Nominet for cyber analysis and responseAchieving similar figures as Greater Anglia, Great Western Railway (GWR) has upped its recycling rates to just under 70% in around two years, achieving that with upgrades to its bin network that includes separate containers across more than 200 of its stations. Meanwhile, one of the newest rail franchises on the block in the UK, South Western Railway, reveals that in January 2018 it recycled 67% of its waste, more than 20% higher than the 45% that UK households managed in 2016, according to the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

North of The Border, ScotRail has also instigated a more straightforward bin policy to convince its passengers to recycle more of their waste, as is the largest rail franchise in terms of passengers, Govia Thameslink Railway, which is doing its bit by “reducing waste at source, increasing recycling and diverting waste from landfill”. Much further afield, Sydney Trains is taking a similar stance and is undergoing a renewal of its waste management contract to include “waste separation and improved recycling outcomes”. The New South Wales’ operator plans to use the power of good design to reinforce its message, using new eye-grabbing signage to influence behaviour in addition to an education programme.

The first of the two Scandinavian operators in this feature, Finland’s national operator VR Group shows that its ‘Less consumption, more recycling’ approach is yielding results, helping it to exceed its target of no more than 15% of waste going to landfill. Beginning in 2013, when it sent 24%, VR Group more than halved this amount a year later to 11% and in 2016 sent just 6%.

Meanwhile, representing England’s capital, Transport for London (TfL) reveals that in 2016/17 it recycled 1,752 (33.36%) of the staggering 4,400 tonnes of commercial and industrial waste produced – 40% of which is made up of the free newspapers handed out to commuters across the city.

A matter of consumption

Coffee bean recyclingFood and drink accounts for a huge amount of the waste on trains; out-of-home food options have come on leaps and bounds over the years and has surely contributed to why the carriage is viewed as just another place to consume food and drink. The manager of much of Britain’s rail infrastructure, Network Rail, has since last year harnessed the by-product the world’s pick-me-up, coffee, to lessen its requirement on fossil fuels. Linking up with the company bio-bean, Network Rail has already used more than 790 tonnes of used coffee grounds from 38 million cups to create biofuel that powers some of the capital’s buses. The @bio_bean_UK scheme has reportedly converted more than 790 tonnes of coffee from 38 million cups… it’s estimated that 2.5 million cups of coffee are needed to run a London bus for a year – just 10% of the daily number of cups (55 million) drunk in the capital every day.

Greater Anglia has installed a special type of bin across its network that matches the waste food recycling service offered by many councils around the world, which enables its primarily commuter clientele to divert waste from landfill. South Western Railway has introduced similar facilities, with the operator that connects the South West with London and the South Coast rolling out food and coffee recycling at 15 stations on its network – part of its target of zero waste to landfill by 2020. Eurostar is also making moves to make its food offering more sustainable and is a signed-up member of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, the group that promotes responsible practices in catering.

Recycling, built in

Network Rail recycles old infrastructure

With train stations and new networks cropping up across the world on a seemingly daily basis, the issue of responsible construction is perhaps one issue of the sustainability agenda that doesn’t get the same coverage as more ‘everyday’ waste – despite the fact that construction can expose the environment to potentially damaging materials. Bane Nor, Norway’s national rail operator got back to SmartRail World to show the emphasis it places on recycling materials, especially during construction. “Where we do have the most use of recycling is in terms of the interior and exterior of buildings that needs to be removed to make way for new railway tracks,” said a spokesperson from Bane Nor, which categorises every material so that every piece that can be reused.

Back in the UK, Network Rail has a team set up specifically to remove redundant and used ballast, sorting the materials and grading them to see whether it can be reused. Taking this approach can, according to Network Rail, save around 50% of the cost of new rail for low-speed routes – equivalent to savings of £5m every year. “Nationally, Network Rail has recycled more than 93,000 tonnes of rail, and 1.2m tonnes of ballast, in the last financial year. That's the equivalent of 13 Eiffel Towers in steel rail alone,” said a Network Rail spokesperson.

Also taking steps in this area, TfL recently reused 100% of the waste that it uncovered for work on the Metropolitan line on its London Underground network and, in line with its pledge to “reuse 99% of non-hazardous waste” and has also delivered a programme to reduce its use of “hazardous, environment-harming waste”.


From my perspective, it's been an absolutely fascinating journey putting this feature together and it's made me hopeful of the direction this industry is moving. As I wrote at the beginning: there is still a lot more that can be done, but I am already looking forward to seeing what the situation will be like in another two years' time. We would be really interested to hear what you think. Are rail companies doing enough? Can passengers do more? What do you think needs to happen if the rail industry is to become an example to other industries? Please either leave a message below or get in touch with Dave Songer: dave@smartrailworld.com



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Topics: Sustainable

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