Weighing rubbish to emphasise the importance of separating rubbish for recycling

Weighing rubbish, scratching CDs and hiding paper towels – just a few of the odd things our environmental co-ordinator, Matt Beavers, has done in the name of environmental awareness.

Our cleaning lady looked at me a little bewildered, “You want to do what?,” she asked. “Weigh our rubbish,” I said. “It’s for the environment. We need to know how much rubbish we throw away, so that we can measure our impact on the environment”. So there we were, one winter evening after most other colleagues had gone home, the cleaner and I weighing a day’s worth of rubbish from the British Council’s office in Berlin on our parcel scales.

Monitoring our waste production

It might seem like an odd thing to do, but monitoring our waste production is an important aspect of our environmental effort. Waste that ends up in landfill sites or being incinerated generates greenhouse gases, and together with our travel, electricity and water use is one of the factors we monitor in order to calculate our carbon footprint. The footprint, which is a measure of the total greenhouse gas emissions from our activities, enables us not only to see what impact we are having on the environment, but shows us which areas need improvement and where we can do better.

Weighing rubbish is by no means the only unusual situation in which I have found myself as part of our green agenda. One memorable occasion (still on the topic of rubbish) was with a colleague early one morning on the outskirts of Berlin, visiting a recycling plant of the city’s waste disposal unit. It was a fascinating albeit smelly experience! We were shown how the plant has remarkably high-tech machines for sorting rubbish, which use lasers to recognise different types of material. Above all we got to ask all the questions we had about recycling and (after our return to the office and a change of clothes) were able to feed the answers back to our colleagues to emphasise the importance of separating rubbish for recycling.

"Hitting two flies with one fly-swat"

A scratched CD or DVD is usually bad news. But in our case CD-scratching was the ingenious solution to an environmental dilemma our IELTS team was facing. The team goes through a lot of CDs which need to be destroyed after use. Because of this they couldn’t be recycled, which meant that each year hundreds of CDs ended up in the normal waste. One of the IELTS team, however, did some research and discovered a system by which the CDs can be made unreadable - using a vicious looking scratching device – and then thrown into a recycling box. The CDs are collected for recycling each time the box is full, thus meeting both our operational needs and reducing our waste production –  or as the Germans say ‘hitting two flies with one fly-swat’.

In the course of our green agenda I also discovered that people have a surprisingly strong attachment to paper hand-towels. As part of a week of action, we trialled one day with no paper towels in our bathrooms – we actually have no need for hand towels, as we have some super quick hand-driers. Things started off well, but halfway through the day I noticed the paper towels had miraculously reappeared. We hid them again but a few hours later they were back! Possible explanations: 1. the paper towels have lives of their own (less likely) or 2. (more likely) it just goes to show that, despite making environmental sense, people are often very used to their routines and habits and getting them to change isn’t always easy.

Top five tips for reducing your environmental impact

The key to making environmental efforts a success is to communicate and spread the word. With this in mind here are my top five tips for reducing your environmental impact:

  • Pull the plug – most of us know by now not to leave electrical appliances in standby mode. But people often forget that many devices – including phone and laptop chargers – continue to use electricity when plugged in, even if they are not connected to an appliance. The solution is simple: just pull the plug.
  • Get rid of bottled water – in Germany we are privileged to have tap water that is of a very high quality and safe to drink. There is therefore no need for drinking bottled water which merely generates waste (plastic bottles and packaging) and carbon emissions (through manufacturing, transport and disposal). Simple.
  • Get your mug down to the coffee shop – you’ll find that most coffee shops will be more than happy to make your morning brew in your own mug from home or work (that you can use again and again), rather than using yet another throw-away cup.
  • Print double-sided – look for your nearest piece of paper, turn it over and, can you see? There’s a whole other empty side just waiting to be used!
  • Fit water-saving devices to your taps – most DIY shops or hardware stores sell these little filters that you fix to the underside of your tap. They mix the water with air so that, although the flow seems the same, it actually uses much less water. They are cheap and easy to install.