A trade union bargaining guide on resource efficiency

reduce, reuse, recycle
Jo Rees
Policy Officer (Wales TUC Education)
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date

This guide is aimed at trade union green or environmental reps and other trade union representatives who want to work with employers and members to reduce the environmental impact of their organisation through reducing waste and improving resource efficiency.

In this guide the term ‘resource efficiency’ refers to using the planet’s limited resources in a sustainable manner, whilst minimising impacts on people and the environment.

Resource efficiency - what are the issues?

Why is resource efficiency a trade union issue?

The extraction of the world’s resources is responsible for almost half of carbon emissions and around 80 % of biodiversity loss. Resources are now being extracted from the planet three times faster than in 1970. This is despite the fact that the population has only doubled in that time.

Due to increased consumption and demand, we are extracting the world’s resources faster than they can be restored, and some are in danger of being exhausted. Waste and pollution are being released faster than the planet is capable of absorbing it or breaking it down in to something harmless.

A trade union bargaining guide on resource efficiency
Photo credit: iStock

This is an issue for us as trade unionists because it is not compatible with sustainable development. It is also a social justice issue. It is well-documented that the more economically developed countries in the global north consume far more of the world’s resources than countries from the global south.

Excessive resource consumption and the waste generated also creates health and safety issues for workers and the wider community both here and abroad. For example, the production of laptops requires the extraction of rare earth minerals and every year a huge amount of toxic electronic waste is shipped to the global south causing damage to human health and eco-systems.

Urgent action to improve resource efficiency and reduce waste is needed to help us stay within our ‘planetary boundaries’. It can help us to address the climate and nature crisis and support sustainable development for all.

The move to a ‘circular economy’

A circular economy is one that keeps resources in use as long as possible and avoids waste. It’s a different model to the traditional ‘linear’ economy. This is based on extracting resources to make products which are used and then disposed of – the ‘take-make-use-dispose’ model.  

The circular economy reflects the fact we live on a planet with finite resources. In a linear model, waste is the end point. But in the circular model it becomes the start of something new where a product or material can be recovered and regenerated for another cycle. This creates a closed loop, keeping resources in use for as long as possible.  

It’s a system that extracts the maximum value from products and resources while they are in use.  A circular economy also offers opportunities to increase the value from a product’s use through different ownership models, such as sharing, renting and service-based models.

‘linear’ and ‘circular’ economic systems
This graphic illustrates the differences between ‘linear’ and ‘circular’ economic systems

The Ellen Macarthur foundation has produced a short ‘explainer’ video on the basics of the circular economy

Zero waste?

The term zero waste means that no residual waste to goes to landfill and everything is either re-used or recycled. Zero waste seeks to eliminate rather than merely manage waste.

Why do we need a zero-waste, circular economy?

A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation demonstrates why meeting climate targets requires a transformation in the way we produce and use goods. It found that circular economy strategies could play a key role and could reduce ‘global CO2 emissions from key industry materials by 40% or 3.7 billion tonnes in 2050’. 

“The circular economy tackles climate change and other global challenges, like biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution, by decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources.” (Ellen McArthur foundation)

As well as helping the climate, eliminating waste will bring huge benefits for nature and wildlife. For example, eliminating plastic waste will help to reduce plastic pollution in oceans and its impact on marine animals.

The circular economy could also have much to offer in terms of new, green jobs in local supply chains. Many jobs will be needed to support reconditioning, remanufacture, servicing and repair. According to the Carbon Trust, a circular economy offers “strong job creation opportunities as the circular economic model is focused on extracting greater value from resources, so opening up new opportunities across material and product loops that do not exist in linear, waste creating models.”

It is important that there is a just transition to a circular economy. Trade unions must have a voice in changes at both a national, sectoral and workplace level. Social partnership has an important role to play in ensuring that the move to a circular economy happens fairly and that new jobs that are created meet fair work standards.

Workers in the circular economy

The European Federation of Public Service Unions has produced resources  which make visible the crucial role of workers in delivering the circular economy.  EPSU says “A key concern is that we need to ensure quality jobs and decent pay and conditions, high health and safety standards, fight against social dumping and develop social dialogue.”

These concerns are stressed in a series of reports of EPSU on Safe Jobs in the Circular Economy and on Circular Economy in the waste management sector:



What is the current picture on workplace waste?

In many workplaces, there has been substantial progress in resource efficiency, recycling and waste reduction but there remain some significant challenges. For example, significant amounts of recyclable materials are still disposed of as a part of the residual waste stream  or co-mingled with other recyclable wastes. This reduces the quality and quantity of material that can be recycled.

Natural Resources Wales most recent survey of industrial and commercial waste found that:

  • Welsh industrial and commercial sectors generated an estimated 2.9 million tonnes of waste

Of this:

  • 45% was recycled
  • 14% was prepared for re-use
  • 11% was disposed of via landfill
  • 8% was sent for incineration
  • 8% was composted
  • 7% was treated
  • 3% was sent for land recovery
  • The remainder 4% - was classified as ‘other’

What is the legal and policy framework on resource efficiency and waste?

Welsh Government Circular Economy strategy

The Welsh Government wants Wales to become a ‘one planet’, zero waste nation by 2050 by transitioning to a circular economy. It has set out plans on how it intends to achieve this in its Circular Economy strategy: www.gov.wales/beyond-recycling

Union involvement will be vital in moving Wales towards the circular economy. Workers on the ground can be one of the best sources of ideas for identifying ways to reduce unnecessary waste. They also have ideas about ways that products could be designed better to support repair and reuse. It is important that workers are involved in any new schemes so they can share ideas and help to identify issues.

Wales is already a global leader in recycling. But the strategy sets out how the move to a circular economy will see Wales move ‘beyond recycling’ towards a different mindset. Whilst recycling will still have an important role, in a circular economy it becomes less significant. There will be less emphasis on recycling and a greater focus on preventing waste in design. More products will be repaired and re-used, so they can be kept in use longer.

Wales zero waste targets

The Welsh Government’s circular economy strategy sets out phased timeline of ambitious targets:

By 2025

  • 26% reduction in waste
  • Zero waste to landfill
  • 50% reduction in avoidable food waste
  • 70% recycling

By 2030

  • 33% reduction in waste
  • 60% reduction in avoidable food waste

By 2050

  • One planet resource use
  • 62% reduction in waste
  • Zero waste
  • Net zero carbon

(Note: All waste reduction targets are set against a 2006-07 baseline)

Source: Beyond Recycling

New recycling regulations in Wales

New workplace recycling regulations come in to force in Wales on 6th April 2024. These regulations, brought in under the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, require all workplaces in Wales to separate key recyclable materials (including food waste) in the way most Wales households already do.

Phase 1 of a single-use plastics ban came into force in Wales on 30th October 2023. This bans the supply of certain single-use plastic items to consumers, such as plastic plates and cutlery.

Phase 2 of the ban, covering additional types of single-use plastic is due in 2026.

The waste hierarchy

The waste hierarchy underpins the legal and regulatory framework that governs how organisations should prevent and manage waste. All organisations are required to apply the waste hierarchy throughout their operations.

Crucially, the hierarchy ranks actions in priority order. It prioritises prevention and re-use ahead of recycling, with disposal as the last resort. Guidance on applying the hierarchy of waste can be found here: gov.wales/applying-waste-hierarchy-guidance

The waste hierarchy

Source: https://businesswales.gov.wales/managing-waste

The duty to follow the waste hierarchy comes from The Waste Regulations 2011 and it applies to all organisations in England in Wales. The Environment (Wales) Act 2016 introduces a number of new regulations for organisations in Wales, including the new waste separation regulations. There are also additional regulations that apply to specific types of waste, eg the Hazardous Waste Regulations 2005.

Organisations can find more information about their legal obligations to manage waste here: https://businesswales.gov.wales/topics-and-guidance/sustainability-and-social-responsibility/resource-efficiency/waste/managing-waste

Preventing pollution

The problems of waste and pollution are closely linked. In UK law, pollution is defined as contamination of land, water or air by harmful or potentially harmful substances. The ‘polluter pays’ principle forms the basis of the regulation of pollution.

The ‘polluter pays’ principle is the concept that those who produce pollution should pay the costs of managing it to prevent damage to human health or the environment. The principle was established as commonly accepted practice in many countries legal systems following its inclusion in the Rio Declaration (1992).

Organisations should be aware of their legal obligations to prevent pollution and ensure appropriate measures are in place. Guidance on preventing pollution and legal obligations for organisations in Wales can be found here: https://www.netregs.org.uk/media/1898/guidance-for-pollution-prevention-1-2022-update.pdf

The Well-being of Future Generations Act (2015) and social partnership in Wales

Public bodies that come under the scope of the Well-being of Future Generations Act are required to act in accordance with the ‘sustainable development principle’. This is about ensuring that we can meet the needs of people in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

This means that these public bodies should be considering the environmental and social impact of things like the organisation’s resource consumption, and the waste and pollution related to its activities, when setting and delivering their wellbeing goals.

The new Social Partnership and Public Procurement Act (2023) places a statutory duty on these public bodies to seek consensus or compromise with their recognised trade unions, or where there is no recognised trade union other representatives of their staff, when setting their well-being objectives and delivering on those objectives.

These public bodies must also consider ‘fair work’ when setting their wellbeing objectives. The Act also includes a statutory duty on these public bodies to consider socially responsible public procurement.

Together, these two pieces of legislation provide an opportunity for unions to have a strong voice in influencing how organisations manage the use of resources in an environmentally and socially responsible way, in a manner that supports a ‘just transition’.

Tools and systems to improve resource efficiency and reduce waste

EMS systems and accreditation schemes

Organisations can implement an environmental management system (EMS) to improve resource efficiency, reduce environmental impact, clarify responsibilities and ensure compliance with legislation.

More information on different EMS systems can be found in the Greener Workplaces for a Just Transition toolkit. International Standard ISO 140001, the EC’s Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) or the British Standard (BS 8555) are examples of systems available. Some organisations have developed their own in-house systems.

There are also some sector specific schemes promoting best practice in the sector such as the Courtuald Commitment in the food and drink sector.

Life cycle assessments

Life cycle assessments (LCAs) are an important tool to fight waste, climate change, nature breakdown and over consumption of resources because they take into account all stages of a products’ life, including the ‘end of life’ stage. This shows the true cost of materials, products and services in terms of their impact on people and the planet.

Everything that is created goes through a series of ‘life cycle’ stages, from material extraction, manufacture, packaging and transport, through to end of life. A life cycle assessment is a tool that can be used to help assess and understand something’s true environmental footprint at every stage. It considers areas such as the use of finite resources, land and water use, greenhouse gas emissions and human toxicity.

Many organisations are increasingly being asked to provide life cycle assessments for their products. Large companies and public sector organisations are increasingly including questions about life cycle assessments as part of procurement or tendering processes as part of efforts to improve environmental sustainability through supply chains.

There are a number of organisations that offer life cycle assessments. International standard ISO 14040 governs life cycle assessment practice and sets out what is considered a good assessment.

More information about life cycle assessments can be found on the European Platform on Life Cycle Assessments. The Life Cycle Initiative, a programme hosted by the UN Environment Programme, also has a useful website www.lifecycleinitiative.org.

Taking action in the workplace

Waste audits

An audit of the amounts and different types of waste and recycling is a good starting point for workplace action. It is the best way to understand where the issues are and identify areas for improvement. WRAP has a Waste Audit Guide for Businesses.

It will be important to find out who in the organisation has responsibility for waste management and ideally work together on setting up an audit. An audit will make it possible cost potential savings in waste disposal costs, making a business case for change.  

Apply the waste hierarchy

See the waste hierarchy section (above). The key with this step is a focus on prevention first. A good starting point is to consider ways to reduce the amount of resources your workplace is using in the first place. This will help you to identify areas where the most effective changes can be made and identify opportunities to improve existing practice. This will particularly be the case if the audit finds that recyclable materials still being disposed of as a part of the residual waste stream or co-mingled with other recyclable wastes.

There may be further opportunities to eliminate or reduce the use of hard to recycle products and materials. Or to reduce the need to send items for recycling by introducing reusable items.

Procurement and purchasing review

Reviewing procurement is a key step in preventing waste. Does the organisation have an environmentally sustainable procurement policy?

How can the organisation work with suppliers to make improvements – eg procuring products that use less packaging and goods that can be re-used and repaired, using more recycled and recyclable materials?

Where reclaimed or recycled materials cannot be used, do any new materials used meet standards to minimise the environmental impacts eg FSC certified wood?

Ensuring information on life cycle assessments is obtained and used to inform procurement decisions is a key step. Sustainable and ethical procurement considerations (eg fair work) should be closely linked in any procurement policy.

Review the organisation’s own products and processes (where applicable)

How does the organisation assess the environmental impact of its own products?

A number of issues could be considered.

Does it use life cycle assessments?

Does it utilise recycled and recyclable materials where possible?

Does it offer repair/remanufacture?

Has it considered offering alternative models such as shared ownership or service-based models?

Does labelling and information about how to recycle its products meet best practice? 

Engaging with members

Share the findings of your audit, find out what the issues with systems are for staff and where they think improvements can be made.

There is often a lot of support for measures to reduce waste, but communication is key as is ensuring people understand the changes and that the right systems and support are in place to make it work in practice. 

Making a plan and setting target

Use the findings of your audit and consultation with members and others to make a plan to reduce waste and improve resource management. These findings will help you to identify the highest impact actions.

There may be significant barriers to achieving zero-waste in the immediate future. But a helpful approach is focus efforts on interim targets and the highest impact actions in the short term to build momentum, with a longer-term goal to achieve zero waste.

Awareness raising

Does the employer plan to provide any training or awareness raising to support new initiatives?

Training should be provided to ensure members are aware of any new procedures and understand how to separate waste effectively and why action is needed to reduce waste.

Negotiating for change: Making the business case

Cost savings

Waste reduction produces savings at both the procurement stage and disposal stage (eg avoiding landfill tax). WRAP has a simple online calculator tool: businessofrecycling.wrap.org.uk/calculator that can help organisations get a rough estimate of how much they can save by improving waste prevention and how well they are performing against the waste hierarchy.

The true cost of waste is not simply the cost of discarded materials - it includes inefficient use of raw materials, unnecessary use of energy and water, faulty products, waste disposal of by-products, waste treatment and wasted effort. Better resource management can create savings across all of these areas.

The Aldersgate group has released a report on new business trials showing that greater resource efficiency could deliver significant economic benefits to businesses.

Competitiveness and access to new opportunities

Moving to a circular model can help open up new sources of income that are less reliant on the sale of products alone. For example, opening up service-based models associated with maximising the value of resources.

Alignment with the circular model is likely to give organisations a competitive advantage in the longer term. For example, with the Well-being of Future Generations Act public bodies are moving towards greener procurement practices and many other organisations are increasingly looking to improve procurement.


The vulnerabilities of long, linear supply chains, were highlighted by many organisations experiencing disruption to supplies during the pandemic. A more localised, circular supply chain can help to reduce these vulnerabilities. Becoming part of the circular economy can also position organisations to better address emerging resource security/scarcity issues in the future.

Reputation and legal compliance

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pollution by reducing waste is the right thing to do. It’s a key contribution that organisations can make towards tackling the climate and nature emergency and securing the world’s finite resources for future generations.

These issues also matter to customers and services users. So being proactive is not just about ensuring legal and regulatory compliance, it can have a positive impact on an organisation’s reputation.

Advice and support is available

Employers may need support in preparing for and complying with new Welsh Government regulations on workplace recycling and single-use plastics. Or they may need advice on how to improve resource efficiency and move towards circular economy practices. Organisations such as Business Wales and WRAP Cymru can provide information and advice.

The Welsh Government is offering a circular economy funding to support organisations in transitioning to the circular economy. More details about the scheme and eligibility can be found here: businesswales.gov.wales/innovation/support-and-funding/circular-economy-funding 

Resource efficiency/waste - action plan

Step 1: Research
  • Find out who has responsibility for resource/waste management
  • Gather any existing policies and data
  • Ask the employer to carry out a waste audit and identify potential cost savings
  • Check if the waste hierarchy is being applied throughout operations
Step 2: Engage
  • Consult with members
  • Encourage wider discussion. Get external advice and help if needed. Local authorities and organisations like WRAP Cymru and Business Wales can provide information and advice. See the ‘further sources of information’ section
  • Talk to others in the workplace - other workplace unions and any members of other relevant committees in your workplace
Step 3: Plan
  • Identify and target high impact actions – these will depend on the findings of the waste audit
  • Pull together the ideas for a plan – it may be helpful to focus on some quick wins, as well as longer-term goals
Step 4: Negotiate
  • Push for targets for waste reduction – these should be sufficiently ambitious
  • Make a moral case and a business case for action on resource efficiency
  • Focus on your plan and see the bargaining checklist above for other considerations
Step 5: Consolidate
  • Encouraging the employer to sign up for an EMS and accreditation can help with continuous improvement
  • Ensure the employer provides appropriate training and awareness raising
  • Set dates to review progress towards the longer-term goal to become zero-waste

Sources of further information

Welsh Local Authorities

Local authorities have a key role in resource/waste management and are an important source of advice and information


WRAP Cymru


Business Wales

Business Wales is a free service that provides impartial, independent support and advice to people starting, running and growing a business in Wales: businesswales.gov.wales/

WG circular economy strategy


Circular Communities Cymru


Wales Recycles


Ellen MacArthur Foundation


FareShare Cymru


Library of things


Repair cafes


Zero waste schools


Community wood recycling

https:/ /www.communitywoodrecycling.org.uk/

Food waste – what are the issues?
Food waste – what are the issues?

Urgent action is needed on food waste. Food waste has huge economic, social and environmental impacts.

The UN estimates that around one third of the world’s food is lost or wasted, and production of this wasted food generates 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions. That is more than is produced by any individual country, except the US and China.

Food Waste
Photo credit: iStock

Food waste releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. And that’s not the only problem. Throwing food away also means that all the resources that have been used to produce it have been wasted. This can include things such as the water and land that have been used as well as transport and packaging.

Research has found that just under 30 per cent of people in the UK don’t see a link between food waste and climate change.

Most food waste happens at home, but it’s a problem in workplaces too. And things like long working hours, shift work, long commutes and poor work-life-balance can have a knock-on effect on food waste at home. Because they can mean that people don’t have enough time to plan and prepare meals to reduce waste.

Food waste is also hurting people’s wallets. An average family throws away more than £700 worth of food per year.

The impact of food choices

As well as the food we waste, the types of food we choose to eat can have a big impact on the environment too. The British Dietetic Association has produced a helpful fact sheet about sustainable diets and also has a handy list of quick tips on getting started.

Does your workplace have a canteen or organise events with catering? There could be opportunities to make a difference by including more sustainable options in the foods offered.

Food waste – a checklist:

  • Are management and members aware of the link between food waste and climate change?
  • Does your workplace offer separate collection facilities for food waste? From 6 April 2024 all workplaces in Wales must collect food waste separately.
  • What facilities are available for workers to store, prepare and consume food or drink while at work?
  • Is there a workplace canteen, cafe or shop? How much food waste is generated and what action is being taking action to reduce food waste?
  • Are there opportunities to contribute to food redistribution schemes? Community - fareshare.cymru Community Fridge circularcommunities.cymru/community-fridge and food sharing apps etc.
  • Are there opportunities for onsite compositing?
  • Does the workplace offer a good work-life balance and flexible working options?

Food waste resources:

The Wasting Food: It’s out of date campaign and www.lovefoodhatewaste.com have resources aimed at raising awareness with individuals

WRAP has a suite of free resources available on food waste prevention in the workplace.

WRAP Cymru It has a new ‘Food Waste Reduction Roadmap Toolkit’ aimed at organisations in the food and drink sector

And it has produced a specific food waste hierarchy

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