Plastics and waste

Plastics (position statement)

There is growing worldwide concern about plastic in the environment. We are working hard to reduce our own contribution to this problem as well as support initiatives to help customers reduce their reliance on single-use plastic.

Our interaction with plastic takes place in three key areas:  

  1. Operational waste plastic: this is plastic that arises from our own activities e.g. packaging from items that we purchase, remnants of newly installed plastic pipe, and office consumables. Our assets (pipes and treatment centres) are usually pathways for plastic rather than sources, however we do have a small number of treatment processes which could be a potential source if the plastic they used as part of the process accidentally escaped.
  2. Plastic in the water cycle: this is plastic that finds its way into water sources, sewers and treatment works. It includes plastic from wet wipes, sanitary items, incontinence pads etc. and microplastics from clothes fibres, tyre fragments and degradation of larger plastics. 
  3. Plastic used by customers to consume water: customers use single-use plastic bottles for hydration purposes. 
Plastic type Issues  What we are doing 

Operational waste plastic

  • We can manage plastics arising from our activities and our suppliers also have a part to play to reduce the amount of plastics coming into the company (for example, reducing plastic packaging).
  • Four of our 408 water recycling centres use plastic bio-beads as part of the treatment process.
  • Plastic equipment is used to varying degrees within water and sewage treatment processes. It is unknow if the equipment undergoes attrition and contributes to microplastic loads. Plastic equipment used in wastewater treatment processes is being investigated as part of the Chemical Investigation Programme 3. 
  • We have a target of sending no waste to landfill by 2020; in 2019-20 we diverted 99.7% of waste away from landfill and have set a target to end the use of avoidable single-use plastic in our business as part of our Public Interest Commitment.
  • As part of this commitment, we have undertaken a baseline assessment of the plastic waste generated by our company in 2018, we will use this to measure reduction achieved over the next ten years.
  • At our offices and depots we have removed disposable hot beverage cups, plastic soft drink bottles, plastic cutlery, stirrers and plastic salad pots. We have replaced protective plastic packaging with shredded recycled cardboard at our central store and distribution depot. We are also working with waste contractors to inspect waste skips to estimate how much plastic they contain. We will set ambitious waste reduction targets and increase reuse and recycling.
  • Where our treatment processes use plastic bio-beads, we are ensuring that controls are tight enough to avoid accidental releases to the environment and investing in secondary containment where we feel the risk of escape is too high.
  • Further work is required to understand how much of a contributing factor the disintegration of plastic used in water and wastewater treatment processes is.  

Water cycle plastic

  • Macroplastics (particles larger than 5mm) received at our water recycling centres are mainly from consumer goods. 
  • Microplastics in wastewater come mainly from clothes washing, car tyres and macroplastics breaking down.
  • The prevalence and impacts of microplastics upon the environment and people is not yet well understood.  
  • To reduce waste macroplastics arriving at treatment centres, we run awareness campaigns that encourage sewage customers to avoid flushing inappropriate items (such as wet wipes) down toilets and drains and prevent litter entering waterways.
  • Currently, we do not analyse water or wastewater samples for microplastics as there are no nationally agreed methods and they are not included in existing requirements set by our regulators.
  • A UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR) project has confirmed that existing treatment processes effectively remove 99.9% of microplastic particles from drinking water and treated wastewater using a robust approach to sampling and detection of microplastic particles. More details here. We need more scientific evidence about microplastics. So, we are contributing to research with other water companies, through UKWIR, on ‘known unknowns’ about microplastic sources, pathways, behaviour, fate and abundance within water and wastewater treatment.  

Plastic water bottles bought by customers

  • There is still a massive reliance on single-use plastic water bottles.
  • As well as ensuring water is good enough to drink from every tap, we are funding refill points in our local communities.
  • We are working with local authorities and town councils across our water supply region to help install water refill points in larger urban areas.
  • We are fully supporting the UK Water Industry Public Interest Commitment to ‘prevent the equivalent of 4 billion plastic bottles ending up as waste by 2030’ and sit on the steering group for this project. 

 

Waste management

We have set an ambitious target to lead the way for waste management in the water industry, around ten years ago we set out an aim to divert 100% of our non-sludge waste from landfill by 2020. In 2019 and 2020 we were successful in diverting all waste we possibly could from landfill, averaging 99.75% of all waste being diverted from landfill. The very small amount of remaining waste was mostly waste that can legally only be sent to landfill, such as waste contaminated with asbestos and some invasive species.

We will continue with our zero waste to landfill target and set further waste reduction targets going forward. We are the only water company that has committed to ensuring all possible waste from across the business avoids a trip to a landfill site. 

Our approach is being embraced throughout the business, including during major construction schemes. For example, we now do not use landfill for any of our inert waste which is produced across the business. This is over 100,000 tonnes of material diverted from landfill each year.

Zero waste to landfill logo

As well as construction, we are also enforcing the zero-landfill promise throughout day-to-day operations, including the water recycling process (sewage treatment process).

Plastic, paper and sanitary material from non-flushable items such as wet wipes and nappies that are screened out from water recycling centres (sewage treatment works), as well as grit from the road falling into sewers are traditionally sent straight to landfill.

Instead, at Avonmouth water recycling centre, our subsidiary company GENeco pioneered a compositing process for these materials, as well as that from other companies. The compost like outputs are used for land reclamation projects such as in old china clay pits in Cornwall. Any plastic remnants from this process go to incineration to produce electricity.

Now that we have diverted all possible waste from landfill, we are looking at reducing waste and managing problematic waste streams. The potential issues surrounding plastics have risen up the agenda in recent years and we are aware of the importance of minimising plastic waste. To see specific work we are doing on plastics all round our business, have a look at our plastics position statement.