Ryan Swenson of Officeworks:

A case study for reducing waste

Please note that this episode was recorded before Covid-19 preventive measures really started to impact businesses and people in Australia.

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Ryan Swenson, the Head of Sustainable Development at Officeworks about their initiatives towards a zero waste to landfill goal.

Ryan Swenson of Officeworks

Five years ago, Officeworks created its first long-term sustainability strategy with the ultimate goal of sending zero waste to landfill. While overall operational waste has increased during this time, they’ve slashed the amount they send to landfill by nearly half and are now recycling 82% of their waste – providing a great case study for other businesses to follow.

We hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Ryan Swenson of Officeworks.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Greening Australia


Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
R: Ryan Swenson, Head of Sustainability Development


T: Ryan, welcome to the show.

R: Thanks Tammy. It’s great to be here.

T: I originally contacted Officeworks a few months ago. I read somewhere that your Melbourne store in Ringwood had done a significant reduction of waste. In fact, they hit a 95% reduction in waste. And I just thought that’s incredible for really any business to be able to achieve such numbers, but especially one that was a part of a larger organisation.

T: I wanted to know specifically what were those people doing at that store that allowed them to achieve such success? I understand that you’re working with them on this initiative.

R: Yeah, absolutely. And it really is a great example of what can be achieved through the leadership of the store. But also, as you pointed out, part of a larger organisation making sure the right foundations are there to enable them to achieve those type of results.

R: From our perspective, back in 2015, we developed our first long term sustainability strategy up until 2020. And that was really developed by talking to a number of our stakeholders, looking at global best practice, basically identifying those issues of most importance and then setting targets out for the five years.

R: Our strategy included supporting the aspirations of our team and communities through initiatives like balanced leadership and supporting disadvantaged students, supporting products and services in sustainable and responsible ways through ethical supply chain, sustainable paper. And importantly, reducing our environmental impact so through emissions, helping customers recycle.

R: But ultimately working towards zero waste to landfill. And having that long term target obviously set the goal as a business and as our team members, to work towards. But, whilst it’s important to have a target, it’s not necessarily the motivation for everyone. And we’ve really had a program of embedding this as a culture across the business, through a number of initiatives.

Operational waste reduction

T: I did look at your plan this morning about your operational waste reduction. It said that in the 2018/19 report, you achieved an 82% operational waste reduction. From 82% percent operational waste reduction from your program, or that amount, I suppose, was recycled, from 76% percent before. Now, how do you identify what’s operational waste?

R: Yeah, ultimately it’s everything that we generate across our business. Whether that be through our support offices at our distribution centres, or at our stores. We have 167 stores and about 8000 team members. So, it’s really everything that comes into our business which is considered waste.

T: So, that includes packaging for your products as well?

R: Yeah, it includes packaging, things like the pallets that they get sent to stores on. (It includes) obviously a lot of cardboard in stores, but also things like faulty furniture that we have return issues. And also, when we look at the support office, obviously different waste streams. More food waste, for example. So, all of those streams combined.

T: If you had an 82% reduction across all the different offices and warehouses and such like that …

R: Tammy, I should probably correct you. It’s 82% recycling rate.

T: Okay.

R: 21% reduction.

T: Got it. Okay. So, 82% of all your waste is recycled?

R: Mm hmm.

T: And how is it then that this particular store achieved a 95%?

R: We take quite a strategic approach in terms of how we enable our stores to hit those targets. If I look at broadly what we’re doing, first of all, it is about making sure we’ve got the right infrastructure, back to basics. We’ve got the right bins in the right place. It’s also making sure we’ve got the right service schedule. And this was one that looked like a really obvious area we could drive change quite quickly.

R: When I started in the role – traditionally waste services are: you go to tender, you set the schedule and you leave it until the next review comes up. But it was obvious. If we were having a much greater focus on reducing what was sent to landfill and ultimately putting recyclable material in the right bin, then we needed to be a lot more agile and responsive around how we adjust our service schedules.

Behaviour change and culture

R: So, one area that actually drove change quite quickly was moving most stores – we were on a three-metre bin and a weekly collection. We looked at the data, and we changed those stores to a fortnightly pickup. And obviously, when someone from support office makes a change to a service like waste, it’s generally not received that well in store land.

R: But whilst there was a bit of short-term pain over a couple of weeks, it did provide that trigger. That meant team members had to reconsider, which bin they put it in to make sure they essentially could have their general waste bin last.

R: There’s some stuff that we can do from a central function to help motivate it. We’ll get it moving in the right way. But ultimately, it comes down to having the right behaviours. And as we know, behaviour change is probably the hardest part. And when we talk about waste and recycling, ultimately, we just want to have a culture that’s really about waste avoidance and resource recovery.

R: I think what Ringwood have done is a great example of that. They saw the target that we set and that was going to be relevant to them. They said, “Well, we can get to 95%.” Led by the store manager, Brendan, he obviously had the passion. But I think as an organisation, recognising that it was a priority for the business also gave him the opportunity to leverage that. And he was pretty creative when we talk about behaviour change.

R: One thing he picked up on pretty quickly with a team of 40 was that, it’s on every one of those team members to make sure they’re putting their waste in the right bin. In the early days, he was getting a bit frustrated that he’d find cardboard in the general waste, where he’d find bottles, plastic bottles.

R: So, he put in a roster where the team would have to sort the bins. One team member per week and get the right waste in the right bin. Essentially, he said to them, “We’ll stop the roster when it’s all in the right bin.” And so as you can imagine, it really changed that discussion and that culture around ownership and accountability. That was probably one of the first key steps.

R: But then really looking at waste generation elimination, he then put in initiatives like his own compost bin that was outside one of the gardens in the car park. So, through these processes of identifying and getting the buy-in across the team, (he) was able to move away from the general waste bin, through our waste provider, altogether. And move to a small 240-litre—a household sized bin—collected via the council.

R: What I love about this is it’s not just environmental benefit. He’s eliminated his waste expenses for that store. Also, the unintended benefit is the compost in the car park is actually now forming a community link. So, people from the apartments next door have been coming in, putting their coffee grounds in there. And there’s a local community garden that comes and collects the compost for their allotment. It’s a really nice example of hitting all the sweet spots and ultimately just embedding that as our own culture within our store.

Sustainability performance targets

T: It’s so interesting to hear about these extra initiatives that that store manager took. Because it was great that you guys were already setting some high targets at a corporate level. But I imagine that like most places, when you’re working in a large organisation or company, sometimes it’s hard for the individual employee to feel like they can make a difference.

T: What, in the cultural behaviour and initiatives that you guys have put in place, has prompted someone like Brendan to be able to say, “Hey, look, I think we could do this. And I know I have support to do these changes?” Because a lot of people would feel like they’re disempowered to make anything significant happen when they’re part of such a large organisation.

R: Yeah, it’s a really good point. And I think a lot of it talks to the commitment from our leadership team. So, it really does start from the top. It talks to having that strategic approach to our sustainability strategy and identifying those priorities and setting targets and working to them.

R: It really talks to celebrating the successes. We call out the great work that the likes of Brendan and his team are doing, because it is over and above the day to day running a store. But also it comes down to looking at how we want to operate as a business.

R: For example, our store teams are not just measured on their financial performance, but through their balanced scorecard. Looking at things around where they’re performing on their recycling targets, how much waste they’re collecting from customers and how they’re supporting the local communities. So, it is taking the lens that is ultimately operating a sustainable and responsible business, it is better for business, as well as being better for everyone and the planet.

T: So, you were just saying that your employees, or the store itself, is being measured on a balanced scorecard that includes things like recycling?

R: Yeah, correct.

T: So, both employees and the store? That’s incredible because most people, I think would say “The store manager is responsible for that.” But the individual employee scorecard or evaluation will look very.

R: I would say it’s a shared effort. And those stores operate as teams in order to achieve those targets.

Tip the bin exercise

R: It is very transparent around where they need to focus on. As I mentioned, one of the challenges is that behaviour change component. So, whilst we have the target, how do you really get the buy-in? And one of the opportunities that was obvious to me is actually just having a look in the bin.

R: If you look at the work Craig Reucassel did on the War on Waste where they tipped the bin upside down for the school and have them sort it, you really quickly got a visual of the opportunity just to put the right waste in the right bin.

R: So, we started a program back in 2018. First of all, we did it at our support office. We took a few people out, and we tipped up our general waste bin. And, we saw pretty quickly there were some easy ways we could improve our waste management.

R: One example was there were half-full rolls of large toilet paper that were in the general waste and there was a number of them. And we worked out it was around $8000 a year just of toilet paper.

R: When we went back and spoke to the cleaners about it, we found out that they were changing the rolls every day, whether that were full or empty. As opposed to waiting until we used it. So, that was an easy fix. And it spoke to the need to get an education session with our cleaners and talk about it.

R: But I also noticed that there were some of my documents in a general waste bin. And I was certain had put them in the paper recycling bin. And so that again spoke to that issue of making sure that the cleaners were putting the right waste in the right bin. It’s a great example. And it helped us implement a lot of change at support office, like coffee cup recycling.

R: So, then we looked at “What does that look like for our store teams?” And taking a leaf out of the War on Waste book, we identified five stores in New South Wales. We said to them, “Look, you’re coming for a day just to learn a bit more about recycling.” And unbeknownst to them, we took their general waste bins and we had them at the facility. And on the day we said to them, “All right, well, actually, what you’re going to do is sort your general waste bin, to see the opportunity of how you could reduce waste in your store.”

R: It could’ve gone one of two ways. But, the passion of the team was just like, “Oh, wow, I can’t wait to see what’s in there.” And they were actually so engaged about it. And what that did, as we spent the day sorting the waste. You could easily see that, “Oh, here’s some plastic that should have been recycled. Here’s some cardboard that should’ve been recycled.”

R: We then workshopped through the cause and effect. “How did it end up there? And what changes could you make?” Through that, they went back to their store and really took ownership and embedded the change. We’ve since rolled it out to about 25 stores.

R: One comment when I was over in WA recently. At the end of the day, a guy said, “We used to go to the pub and have our team days and now we’re sorting through waste bins.” But it kind of spoke to that power of coming together around a common purpose and also seeing the issue firsthand. And the opportunity that they can make a difference in their store.

T: Yeah. I think sometimes those practical exercises are probably the most meaningful for someone who might otherwise think it’s the cleaner’s job to sort the waste.

R: Yeah absolutely.

Using data to measure waste reduction

T: So, how do you measure waste reduction? (Earlier) I got the numbers mixed between the reduction of waste in your company, as well as the percentage that’s been recycled. Obviously, two different numbers. How do you actually measure waste when you’re measuring the various stores?

R: Yes, I think it comes back to making sure we’ve got the right waste provider in the first instance. And before we really address this strategically, we identify with the need to go to market and find that right provider. A key part of that was making sure that they had good data and good reporting that was available to us in a timely manner.

R: And having the one provider that does look at the weight that’s going into our general waste bins and also the weight of all the recyclable material through the different services that come back – giving you a picture of that total waste generation and the mix between what you’re sending to landfill versus what you’re recycling.

R: We took the approach to work with one waste provider. It’s probably an important step because we’re reducing waste we send to landfill by 20% year on year, and putting it more in recyclable streams. Working with a partner that actually recognises, “Well, that component of the business is going down and rightly so.” And ultimately you’re going in the other direction in recycling.

R: I can’t understate the importance of having reliable and accurate data. It was one of the challenges when I started in the role. There were a lot of queries from our teams around the accuracy of data. Once you’ve got that as a discussion point, it kind of undermines the purpose of it, which is to have reliable measurements in place. That’s a fundamental part that has enabled us to build that into balanced scorecards and annual reporting targets.

Sustainable procurement

T: You just talked about selecting a provider and sustainable procurement is such a hot topic right now. I just attended the National Plastic Summit and government, in particular, is trying to put together some measures for sustainable procurement. What is Officeworks doing in that space right now?

R: Our current focus has really been looking at the overarching initiatives. So, as a customer, if you shop at Officeworks, what does that mean in terms of sustainable purchasing? The first one would really be around that commitment to sustainable paper.

R: So, part of our strategy, we set the goal that by December this year all of our about paper products would need to be FSC certified or made from 100% recycled content. And with around 10,000 paper products, it’s been quite a process to shift the dial on that.

R: But that then created the foundation for us to launch our Restoring Australia program, which is ultimately a two for one tree planting program. For customers that purchase paper products from us, we look at the weight of paper and how does that kind of equate to trees? Then through that, we’re restoring landscapes across Australia with our partner, Greening Australia. Since launching that in 2017, we’ve planted nearly 600,000 trees.

R: Again it’s that overarching impact that customers can have by buying paper. A lot of work is being done on making sure that our packaging is recyclable across all of our private label products and engaging local suppliers. And then, from a customer perspective, also supporting them to dispose of their e-waste and pens and batteries in a responsible way by offering recycling collection points in stores.

R: So, that’s addressing some of these overarching initiatives. Clearly, we’re seeing that move towards more sustainable products, or the circular economy transition. And so that does then give us the opportunity to look at what other sustainable products can we bring to market. Whether that be more products designed from 100% recycled content, for example.

A more sustainable packaging example

T: Let’s go back to, first of all, to packaging. Do you have any examples of when you’ve actually worked with the vendor to change your packaging so that it could be properly recycled?

R: Yeah, I’d say the most recent example is in our furniture range. We sell a lot of furniture for the home office or more commercial products. By its nature, it’s a lot of the products that have typically been designed with polystyrene to protect the product.

R: Clearly, we know there’s issues associated with polystyrene. And again, want to make it easy for our teams and our customers to recycle their packaging when they buy products from us. So, that was very much around eliminating the use of polystyrene whilst ensuring that the packaging is still fit for purpose.

R: We did some trials with some of our suppliers overseas on how we could remove that. As with anything, it’s a change of how they operate. And basically it was a matter of our buyer having to visit each factory and work with them to identify ways that we could remove the polystyrene, redesign the packaging – but do it in a commercial way that it wasn’t just replacing it ‘like for like’ and adding cost.

R: What we’ve been able to do is balance that. So, it hasn’t caused any issues from a financial perspective. But we’ve been able to make the right decisions from an environmental perspective. And so, we’ll start seeing all that product flow through from this month.

T: Instead of polystyrene, what are you using as a replacement?

R: Recycled cardboard, basically.

T: Brilliant. Obviously, a lot easier to recycle, and it’s compostable as well.

R: Yeah.

Recycling soft plastic – easy changes

T: Are you guys able to recycle soft plastic right now?

R: Yeah, a certain grade of soft plastic in our store. And we’ve put bins around our support office. But in-store…and this is where you talk about how you can influence the supply chain.

R: Obviously, when China changed its approach through the National Sword Policy, that really put a focus on the contamination rates. And so, one area we saw is plastic wrapping that came in on pallets, where it was a mix and we would have black and clear. We obviously needed to go to a cleaner stream. And so, we worked with our suppliers just to remove black plastic altogether coming into our stores so that we could have that cleaner stream.

T: Great. Well, certainly the recyclers here will thank you for doing that, because if they get a hold of the plastic, then they’re always complaining about it being dark. “Why can’t it be clear?” So, that’s good to know.

R: Yeah.

More about Ryan

T: Ryan, we’ve talked a lot about Officeworks, but I’m really curious to know about how you got into your current role. And how did you become so passionate about sustainability

R: Sure. So (in) my post-uni career, I found myself in buying and did that for a few years. But I came to the conclusion I needed something a bit more. So, I set off for a year with my current wife, and we backpacked through South America. And as we headed down to the southernmost city, Ushuaia, we cottoned on to the fact that boats booked from Ushuaia headed down to Antarctica from there.

R: And if you’ve got time to wait around, there’s often last minute deals you can capture. So, we debated it and then decided just to put it on a credit card and jumped on the boat after waiting a week. On that boat was the climate scientist Doctor Steve Running.

B: And as we crossed the Drake Passage (which is one of the roughest passages in the world), he gave a series of presentations on climate change. And that really piqued my interest. And in talking to him and weighing up what I was doing next, he put me in that direction of considering an MBA in sustainability. That really played a pivotal role for me. And when I went to London, I did that. And after taking a role at Officeworks, have transitioned into this field.

T: Well, it’s completely appropriate to go from a buyer to someone who’s advocating sustainability, given this day and age where the two go hand-in-hand.

R: Yeah, absolutely. And I really appreciate that commercial background because it’s so much more than just doing the right thing. There’s a business case in why we would do all of this. And so, it’s bringing that all together.

Other sustainability efforts at Officeworks

T: In your current role I think you do actually a lot more than just waste and recycling. And you did mention climate change and carbon emissions. I noticed on your reports as well, that you guys have been doing quite a bit of work to try to reduce your energy consumption and your carbon emissions. Do you want to talk about any of those programs?

R: Yes. Again, it was a key pillar of our plan. “How do we reduce our emissions?” Which, at the time, we set back in 2015 a target of 20% by 2020. So, a lot of the work we did was around addressing energy efficiency in the first place. So, implementing LED lighting, putting building energy management systems across our network. That’s seen us achieve that goal.

R: Now, we’ve looked to the next five years and we’ve said, “We’ll reduce it by another 25%.” And really that’s through the role of renewable energy, particularly solar. So, we’re starting to roll out solar across our stores. I think, this is one where you look at the commercial lens and, really not just reducing emissions, but mitigating the cost increases that we’ve seen in the electricity sector.

T: Good for the environment, good for business, too.

R: Yeah.

Officeworks’ next sustainability plan

T: Now, your current plan is only until 2020, which we’re here now. Are there any plans at Officeworks that you’re able to share with us now?

R: Yes. We’re working through what the next five years look like for us now. We’ll expect to have that firmed up sometime this year. But we’ve shown through our first plan that, back in 2015, setting some pretty bold and ambitious targets at the time, that we’ve been able to achieve or exceed them.

R: That’s really set the foundation for us as a business to say, “Okay, where do we next want to play? How bold do want to be?” And whilst we might not have all the answers of how to get there, we know that there’s a need from our stakeholders’ interests: whether that be customers, team members, more broadly around those areas. So we’ll continue working through that at the moment, basically.

Advice for employees who want to make a difference

T: What advice would you have for employees in other places that might feel like they don’t have the authority to implement such programs?

R: I think it’s about how you can put the case together around why you can change and who you ultimately need to influence to help make those decisions. So, if I come to our waste example with Ringwood. It has reduced the cost of doing business. And that benefit is then around the environmental impacts as well.

R: So, depending on the driver and the situation, I think it’s how you frame your case. It may be taking a more community lens approach, and representing the needs of the community, and building those community connections if that’s what helps get the initiative across the line.

R: And look, one other example. We talk around the role of individuals to help influence change. We had an example in our support office. You’d probably be familiar with the soft plastic recycling that Coles and Woollies offer through REDcycle, the collection points. So, this team member identified that there was a need to have those collections around our office.

R: So, he set up a couple of collection spots, and he would take those bags and put them in his car boot. And drive them down to Coles once a week. And it quickly became twice a week and then a couple of trips. It really just showed to us, well, actually, we need to partner with REDcycle and actually implement that as a service. And so it’s something that started, just with that individual action showed the need for us to offer something more appropriate.

T: Have you actually partnered with REDcycle?

R: Yes, we have. Just last week we became a member of them. So that we can start to update our messaging on our packaging – where we have soft plastic and we can’t avoid it, to encourage people to recycle that at the appropriate store collection point.

T: Fantastic.

One employee can make a difference

R: I’d say one thing that we’ve seen is that anyone across the business can have a great idea. Particularly in an environment where we use Yammer, the internal social media app. How some of those ideas can gain traction is really powerful through those channels.

R: An example I had the other day, in our Jandakot store. They’ve considered the role of repurposing and reusing some of their waste out of the print and copy centre. So, they’ve set up a free collection station of these items. And we’ve found that teachers and early learning centres are coming in and taking these cardboard rolls and other items for their arts and crafts projects.

R: And just by one person taking that initiative and sharing it, there’s been a lot of momentum from other stores saying, “That’s great. We’ll implement something here.” I think sometimes just getting something off the ground and showing how it works and then sharing that, helps build that momentum behind it as well.

T: What a great example, too, of taking something that would otherwise be considered waste and turning it into value for teachers and teaching.

R: Yeah, absolutely.

A preschool field trip?

R: I have one other story around that unintended benefit with that community link. Just this week, we had a childcare centre come in with their educators and the kids to spend a bit of time in store to learn about sustainability. And recently we’ve just rolled out some new bin signage which features images of the most common queries we get in our waste streams. Stores have been able to set up (these) across all their bin systems.

R: And what we did was use that signage and play a bit of a game with the kids around which bin does the waste go in? A really nice example, again, of how we have developed something for our teams, but it’s kind of gone beyond. And they’ve been able to engage the local community to help educate them as well.

T: I’ve never thought about taking preschoolers to an Officeworks for a field trip.

R: I know. Time’s changed.

Avoiding landfill by working with charities

T: Were there any other stories, that you wanted to share Ryan?

R: Yeah. One example I’d give is just our focus on furniture that we’re doing at the moment. This kind of links to the circular economy. We’ve started partnering with The World’s Biggest Garage Sale in Queensland. We’re sending them some of our faulty furniture that comes back from customer returns.

R: Basically, what they’re doing is using their team to actually start repairing those items. So, they may have 10 faulty chairs, and they can make 6 good ones out of it over a 12 week period. Avoiding those going to landfill, and then ultimately selling them on. And the benefit is a better understanding of where the faults are.

R: Ultimately, we don’t want any faulty furniture ending up there. We want to be addressing it upstream or having a repair or solution that our team members can easily address. It kind of comes back to that data. Having that data to help address these issues upstream is a really important part of that. So, partnering with others that are not likely partners is also really important in this space about how we can continue to reduce our environmental impact.

T: I think that’s a fantastic initiative. I imagine that some of that furniture that you had before with even some small faults might have just ended up a landfill otherwise. So, being able to partner with —they’re a charity, aren’t they?

R: They are. Yeah, And this is in Queensland. I think this is where it talks to the changing policy landscape because there’s a landfill levy in Queensland now that is a great deterrent of sending things to landfill. So, when we talk about the value in something, we’ll come back to a business case, not just why this is the right thing to do. But it avoids that cost of sending it to landfill.

T: And someone is getting some use out of that product that would have otherwise been considered waste.

R: Absolutely.

T: Once again, good for the environment, good for business.

Listener request

T: Ryan, is there any request that you might have for our listeners?

R: Yeah. We’re having some challenges in what we can recycle, particularly with laminating offcuts. And as you’d imagine with our distribution centres, the back of labels. We’re trying to find a solution in the background, but I haven’t had any luck yet. If anyone knows how we can recycle that material locally, we would be all open to hearing it.

T: OK. I’m thinking of at least two companies that may be able to help you out.

R: Yep. Great.

How to find out more about Officeworks’ sustainability programs

T: Ryan if people want to know more about the Officeworks programs, where can they get more information?

R: Yeah sure they can head to our website, officeworks.com.au and there’s a section on sustainability. You can read our latest report and some of the initiatives we offer in store.  

T: There are some great videos there too on some of your programs.

R: Yes.

Final words

T: Ryan, thank you so much for your time today. I think that people start to think of the bigger businesses as immune to the waste management issues that the small businesses or the medium sized businesses might face on a daily basis. But the reality is you probably have far more waste than they do. And so, it’s a much bigger problem, which is usually harder to solve.

T: You guys have done so much work in the space already. There’s a lot of other programs that you hadn’t mentioned that I’ve noticed.  I just wanted to thank you guys for, first of all, for being open to having this conversation on the podcast and also for the work that you’re doing and continue to do to try to reduce waste. And specifically for this podcast, plastic waste, too.

R: Yeah. No problem, Tammy. I appreciate the opportunity to share some of what we’re working on. Hopefully others will learn something from it, and it supports them in what they’re trying to achieve.

T: Cheers.