Lessons from a micro city

Canary Wharf is tackling its plastic problem with a sustainability strategy that embraces corporate tenants, retailers and consumers

When Canary Wharf recently announced that it had joined forces with marine conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage and would become the world’s first plastic free commercial centre in July, it could so easily have been dismissed as a publicity stunt. Instead, it is the latest step taken by the group to not only eliminate unnecessary plastic from its 128-acre estate, nestled in London’s Docklands, but also to educate tenants and visitors about the issue.

And while the term ‘plastic free commercial centre’ might conjure up images of checkpoints and zealous guards checking visitors’ bags for rogue plastic objects to remove and toss into bins, nothing is actually getting banned. This is not about audits or box ticking. This is about asking the questions and prompting the actions that matter as Canary Wharf seeks to transform itself into the world’s leading circular economy by 2030.

As Martin Gettings, Canary Wharf’s group head of sustainability, explains: ‘We are never going to live without plastic. We are going to be plastic free in as much as we can eradicate any of the meaningless plastic. It is about raising people’s awareness. It is about advocating a responsible use of plastic, which all comes under our banner campaign Breaking the Plastic Habit.’

As part of the initiative, Canary Wharf Group has pledged to help local businesses and retailers tackle at least three single use plastic items, either removing them completely or replacing them with a sustainable alternative.

‘We ran a number of programmes over the summer, including a three-week campaign with the hashtag Ditch The Straw. It was aimed at the retail space, and 85 per cent of retailers that use straws said they would support the campaign,’ says Gettings. The length of the campaign was important.

‘Behavioural science suggests that if you work with somebody and encourage them to avoid something for three weeks, they can change their habits of a lifetime. This means they won’t go back to plastic straws. This is the ethos of what we are trying to create here. We are not a landlord who sends out diktats and tries to penalise people. We want to work with businesses and our communities and provide a place that they want to be part of.’

But Gettings is aware that 85 per cent does not quite imply plastic free. ‘I am an environmentalist and, absolutely, we should be thinking about doing something with straws, but I wouldn’t necessarily try to push that number up to 100 per cent. I’d rather work with tenants to think about renewable electricity or other initiatives. It is easy to engage on plastic – it gets us through the door – but once we have established a dialogue, we can explore other options, like tackling waste in a joined-up way. Or looking at bigger waste streams that have a much bigger impact but are not very visual.’

He adds: ‘Canary Wharf is a member of RE100 [a group of more than 100 influential businesses committed to 100 per cent renewable electricity]. Some of the other big names involved are also our tenants, so we know we have tenants who are pushing this agenda. It is about us working together to find a common voice.’

We want to encourage people to use their own reusable cups, so they’re not using the plastic cups in the beginning

The Breaking the Plastic Habit campaign dates back to World Environment Day last year when Canary Wharf Group spent a week quizzing tenants and visitors on the environmental issue that most concerned them. Single use plastic was the resounding answer. This prompted a year-long investigation across the estate to find out how, when and where plastic was being used, and what Canary Wharf could do to tackle the issue.

A survey of retail tenants, corporate tenants and consumers found that 94 per cent were willing to take measures to reduce the amount of plastic they used, but that barriers needed to be overcome to achieve this. For example, retail tenants (who must adhere to a strict color-coded recycling system) were better at segregating plastic waste than corporate tenants, who implemented their own systems within their buildings.

However, more than half of all tenants also felt that their bosses could do more to cut down on plastic waste, by implementing clear policies on the subject across their businesses. Strikingly, the vast majority – 86 per cent – of consumers surveyed said they would show more loyalty to a brand or organisation that was taking a clear stand on plastic.

But they also wanted Canary Wharf to show leadership: 52 per cent want more publicity and attention given to new sustainability projects on the estate.

‘What you don’t see at Canary Wharf is all the work going on behind the scenes to make this a really efficient and sustainable place,’ explains Gettings. ‘We have our own recycling place where we sort and segregate and pack all plastics, cardboard, and a whole host of work streams before they have even left the premises. We have made the waste process into a resource process. People only see the tip of the iceberg, but the bulk of what we do is the iceberg beneath the water.’

The recycling plant takes in 18 tonnes of rubbish a day, excluding construction waste, but not a single kilogram is sent to landfill. Indeed, for the past eight years, Canary Wharf has not sent any waste to landfill. Instead, it tries to make its rubbish enjoy a second life, such as compost, biofuel or even coffee logs for fires. It is also working hard to improve recycling levels in construction waste, which currently stand at around 98 per cent.

In February 2017, Canary Wharf launched Wake up and smell the coffee, an initiative designed to tackle coffee waste. Since then it has recycled more than 170 tonnes of coffee grounds and is fast approaching its millionth coffee cup.

‘It was on the back of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Hugh’s War on Waste programme. He was driving around London in a double decker bus with coffee cups stuck to it, and we thought We can do that here,’ says Gettings. ‘We have a responsibility on the estate. We do things not just because they are the right things to do but because we can. We have a captive audience – a mini city – and there are lots of initiatives that we can do. And we decided that we could tackle coffee cups.’

The facilities and means we provide must be, not just fit for purpose, but almost restorative

In fact, the double decker was adorned with 10,000 empty, takeaway cups – equating to the number that the UK gets through in just two minutes – the vast majority of which are not recyclable. Canary Wharf estimated that around 17,000 disposable coffee cups were used across the estate every day, served by one of its 300 bars, restaurants, and coffee shops.

‘We have now effectively created a closed loop for coffee – cups, beans and lids,’ says Gettings. ‘They are completely segregated. One hundred per cent of our coffee cups get recycled into other things.’

New bins have been installed across the estate, with segregated space for lids and cups. ‘It is the plastic linings in the cups that make them problematic to recycle. You can’t just chuck them in with paper because, while it doesn’t scupper the recycling, you lose an element of purity in the paper. Our coffee cups are initially pulped up, and then put into a centrifuge where they are spun and the paper is separated from the plastics and then recycled.’

Its partner Simply Cups transforms old coffee cups into a range of products, such as pencils, rulers, coasters, stationery and even chalk boards. Canary Wharf also separately works with coffee shops and restaurants on the estate to collect all their grounds.

‘We make sure all the coffee beans are kept out of the food waste stream. We are working in partnership with bio bean Ltd, who convert the grounds into a fuel derivative which is used to make items like coffee logs. And when you pop them on the barbecue, you get an amazing coffee aroma.’

Gettings adds: ‘We do this, and it’s good, but not that efficient. We want to encourage people to use their own reusable cups, so they’re not using the plastic cups in the beginning. Then we should take it even further: do we need to be drinking so much coffee? Is there a health and safety issue? Would you rather have a glass of drinking water? Here are our drinking fountains, you can fill up for free.

‘Obviously, some of our tenants are coffee houses, and we don’t want to be putting them out of business. We want them to thrive. But what we are saying is that there are other ways to do this and can we look at things differently as an estate? Can we work together and collaborate? It is about having oversight over the whole value chain. It is not about penalising people for using disposable cups. It is about looking at it from a different angle. How do we encourage people to do the right thing?’

Three weeks after Canary Wharf installed the first two of seven water refill stations across the estate, they had been used to fill around 5,000 bottles. (Each station, which can dispense 680 litres of water an hour, has a unique counter system tracking how many bottles have been refilled. The group’s target is 100,000 a year.)

‘Potentially, we have taken 5,000 bottles out of the system,’ says Gettings. ‘The fountains are going to be on every street corner. The water is chilled and it is very popular. That’s the thing about Canary Wharf: people vote with their feet.’

The estate has also installed the UK’s first reverse vending machine, where consumers depositing single use plastic bottles and cans will be rewarded with vouchers from the retailers who initially sold the drinks. CPress, an organic juice bar, is the first tenant to sign up, rewarding those who recycle its cups with a ten pence voucher.

‘We are trying to sign up other retailers but it does take time. But it is a thought-provoking piece of equipment and, since it was installed [in April], thousands of bottles have been recycled even though consumers are not yet getting rewarded.’ Canary Wharf has a working population of around 120,000 people, while between 30,000 and 40,000 people visit every day. And, in a typical year, a further 500,000 people visit the estate’s free arts and events programme.

‘The facilities and means we provide must be, not just fit for purpose, but almost restorative. They must make people think beyond the four walls of this place. We want to get into their hearts and minds, and get them to understand what it is we are doing so that, when they are not here, they carry these behaviours home,’ says Gettings.

‘That’s the positive impact of what we are trying to create here. We are not trying to create a bunch of rules and regulations that you adhere to when you are at work but then, when you step off the estate, you do what you want. We want to inform and inspire. I don’t want to use the term educate. We are tackling some big challenges and we are not afraid of that, but it is not something that we can do alone. We must do this in collaboration with our tenants, our staff, our customers and our competitors.’