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Living sustainability

Your career Sustainability

Wind farms, recycling waste and cutting congestion are not the only one way engineers can save money and improve the environment. Nina Lovelace reports.

As engineers, supposedly in the know about how to protect the environment, how many times have you looked around at the piles of used paper and cans languishing in your bin and thought guiltily about the waste you, personally, are producing?

At a guess, more than once.

Most would probably blame long work hours as a reason for jettisoning sustainability when it comes to throwing things away. However, luckily for them, some companies are tackling the problem by bringing in company-wide policies.

Three years ago MWH brought in environmental economist Annabelle Giorgetti, keen to improve its employees' knowledge of in-house sustainability.

It reasoned that, at a result, the new psyche would translate into long term engineering solutions that were better for society, better for staff, and more attractive to potential clients.

Immediately on arrival at MWH's High Wycombe office, Giorgetti was set the task of helping the company achieve an internationally regarded environmental management system.

To ensure she did not alienate staff she began slowly, giving presentations and distributing posters to MWH's 7,000 staff at its 12 UK offices.

All this cost money, but management was willing to look beyond that. 'It was a start to building a strong reputation for MWH as being sustainable.'

The next step was to get staff involved in community projects to help them gain a practical understanding of the social benefits sustainability can bring.

Staff at the High Wycombe office got involved in restoring a nearby Water Mill. Local efforts to return it to working condition, grinding corn to produce flour for sale at the local markets, had had limited success, but with MWH on board, 'we repaired it within six months', says Giorgetti. As a result the local community began to see MWH as an ally and the engineers felt they had achieved something positive for very little outlay.

Their own local environment was the next target. After donating £5 apiece to provide a new indigenous hedge in the office grounds, staff at High Wycombe were then asked to give up a weekend to plant it.

'The idea was to encourage employees to take responsibility for the climate change emissions they produced by driving to work, ' she said. 'By planting a hedge, for example, you can offset some of your emissions. The local press came along, and the staff really enjoyed it.' Benches will now be put along the hedge so staff can eat lunch outside.

Giorgetti then turned to the office environment with a study to highlight the environmental impacts of day-to-day working.

Paper was an obvious start. After detailed assessment of several different types of recycled or sustainably sourced paper, five were 'blind tested' in the office.

The choice was a 100% recycled option which was then phased in for use at all of its 12 offices, in addition to a scheme to recycle all waste paper.

'By using this paper we are closing the recycling loop, which would not happen if we used paper from unsustainable sources. And there is no difference in quality whatsoever.'

Giorgetti refutes claims that recycling paper is often uneconomic. 'There is just a lot of prejudice within companies.

But this deal saves us £10,000 a year, ' says Giorgetti.

'As a company you have a lot of leverage with suppliers, ' she says.

Staff are also encouraged to bring in their used batteries and drinks cans for recycling. 'We don't get money for it, but it does make people feel better about working here, ' she says.

Cleaning products and computers across the whole company also came under close scrutiny for their sustainability.

'A year ago I reviewed our cleaning products to make sure they were CFC free, and that we use no aerosols. We now also avoid bleach as it is harmful to people and the environment, ' says Giorgetti.

MWH also secured its PC lease for the UK from a supplier that was willing to give a commitment to handing its old PCs to local schools. Other IT improvements are currently under discussion, for instance enabling faxes to be sent directly to PC screens and discouraging employees from printing every email, to save paper. Power saving modes may be installed to switch off monitors left unattended. Photocopiers and drinking water fountains already have automatic switches that turn them off at night.

Even the daily cuppa does not escape Giorgetti's watchful eye.

'All UK MWH tea and coffee is fair trade, ' she says. At High Wycombe, milk is delivered by a local source in glass bottles that can be collected and re-used.

With these many and varied schemes in place, the company recently underwent an environmental audit which it hopes will result in it being accredited with an internationally renowned environmental standard system under ISO:14001.

Giorgetti says, however, that nothing could have been achieved without support from the company directors. One even drives a hybrid-powered car to prove to employees that sustainability is taken seriously at all levels, she adds. 'Management recognises that you have to set an example to the rest of the company by changing your own behaviour.'

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