Breaking the plastic habit at Canary Wharf. By Martin Gettings

Canary Wharf is a vibrant, thriving place, welcoming over 150,000 workers and visitors every day to its east London estate. Europe’s second largest financial district behind the nearby City of London, Canary Wharf has evolved over the past 15 years, becoming a destination in its own right for shopping, dining and entertainment with over 300 shops, bars and restaurants. This shift has turned Canary Wharf into a ‘micro-city’, managed entirely by Canary Wharf Group (CWG), who sees this as a unique opportunity to explore circularity in a dynamic urban setting, and to pilot new technologies and initiatives to create a truly sustainable community.

CWG’s sustainability strategy ‘Making Sustainability Real’ was developed in 2016 with the goal of engaging with both tenants and visitors in a positive way, bringing sustainability to life across the Estate and highlighting the impacts that both an individual and an entire city can have. As part of this strategy, CWG developed the ‘Wake Up and Smell the Coffee’ campaign, aiming to address the nearly 5000 coffee cups that are disposed of every day on the Estate. By partnering with Simply Cups, the UK’s only coffee cup recycling company, and bio-bean, a clean technology company that turns coffee grounds into biofuels, CWG has created a closed loop ‘Clean Coffee Zone’. Since starting this campaign in 2017, 3.8 million coffee cups have been recycled and over 320 tonnes of coffee grounds have been diverted from landfill, effectively closing the loop on coffee at Canary Wharf.

After the success of the ‘Wake Up and Smell the Coffee’ campaign, CWG took to the malls to ask the public which issues they wanted to see addressed next. Following a survey on World Environment Day 2017, the response was overwhelming; single use plastics were the top concern. In response, CWG developed ‘Breaking the Plastic Habit’, a 12-month programme designed to reduce usage of single use plastics at Canary Wharf. This programme has been designed to help Canary Wharf become the first commercial centre to achieve the Plastic Free Community accreditation run by marine conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage.

The goal of the Breaking the Plastic Habit programme isn’t to set down rules and restrictions, but rather to encourage people to make the switch to reusable alternatives and to encourage bars, restaurants and shops to cut down on unnecessary single use plastics. A panel debate was hosted by CWG on World Environment Day 2018, with the aim of fostering conversation on how to tackle the problem of plastic pollution. Three key themes came out of the debate. The first was education, highlighting the need to improve the public’s understanding of waste management. The second was simplification, with many attendees pointing out that the current recycling infrastructure in the UK is confusing and complicated, and that many people feel it’s just easier to throw everything in the bin rather than recycling. The final theme to come out of the debate was collaboration, underlining the need for businesses to work together to come up with solutions rather than working against one another.

Through an Estate-wide plastics audit, CWG identified the five most-used single use plastics: plastic bottles, 5coffee cups, plastic straws, carrier bags and food service items such as cutlery. A series of campaigns have been targeting each one of these items individually, educating people about reusable alternatives and recycling options. In order to encourage people to carry reusable bottles, CWG has installed seven water refill stations in the shopping malls, resulting in over 66,000 bottles being refilled since their installation in September 2018. CWG has also installed the UK’s first publicly available Deposit Return Scheme in 2018, which has resulted in over 9000 bottles being recycled.

According to behavioural science it takes three weeks to break a habit, which is why CWG launched the #3WEEKS campaign, during which they encouraged people to break their straw habit by ditching plastic straws. As a result of this campaign, 83 retailers at Canary Wharf have banned plastic straws, removing an estimated 1.2 million straws per year.

With the aim of continued collaboration, CWG recently partnered with tech start-up HELPFUL in launching a smartphone app to encourage reuse and recycling at Canary Wharf. By reusing and recycling items on the Estate, users can collect coins that can be redeemed for prizes including reusable water bottles, coffee cups and tote bags. The app has been extremely well received, and has seen over 2500 items reused or recycled in the two months since its launch.

CWG is hopeful that its initiatives can spark a wider resource revolution in London. Steve Greig, co-managing director of Canary Wharf Management, says: “Going for Plastic Free Community accreditation with Surfers Against Sewage is our next step in the Breaking the Plastic Habit campaign, which is our framework to continue this long-term strategy, something we truly hope will become a part of Canary Wharf’s legacy. It is our dream that this project will change our incredible community, and its environment, in a credible and positive way.”

Martin Gettings is Group Head of Sustainability at Canary Wharf Group plc. Canary Wharf Group plc has overseen the largest urban regeneration project ever undertaken in Europe, designing and building more than 16.5m sq. ft of London real estate, which now houses local and international companies and renowned retailers.