Environmental management systems and handling waste

Globally this year, there has already been more than 900 million tonnes of waste dumped. This figure is set to continue increasing rapidly as the months roll on, soaring to over 2 billion tonnes by the year’s end.

Waste can be anything from electronic waste and hazardous chemical waste, to general household waste like clothes, toys and kitchenware.

Organisations are key contributors to the level of waste each year, with twenty companies being responsible for producing 55% of the world’s single-use plastic waste. Now, many businesses are beginning to recognise the impact they have, and are looking for ways to improve the overall sustainability of their operations.

Environmental management systems are designed to help businesses reduce their impact on the environment and manage business costs through sustainable practices – and one aspect of this waste management.

Understanding environmental management systems

ISO 14001 is the universal standard for environmental management. As with all ISO standards, businesses from across the globe of all different sizes and types can achieve compliance.

The guidelines of this standard provide a framework for organisations looking to introduce practical, lean and maintainable systems that reduce the impact their operations have on the environment.

ISO 14001 helps businesses streamline and fine-tune their processes, while also giving customers the ability to make more environmentally conscious purchasing decisions. Not only can they improve their response to change and ability to stay compliant with ever-changing legislative requirements, but they can save on costs by making systems more efficient and reducing waste as well.

For many businesses, this also leads to positive responses from key stakeholders. With ISO 14001 certification, companies are outwardly showing their investment in and commitment to reducing their global impact, which can help them attract more customers with similar value, priorities and preferences. Employees are expected to be heavily involved in change, regardless of their organisational level, and this can translate into staff feeling more valued and engaged in the company – which often means less employee turnover.

Environmental management systems and waste management

If you’re an organisation dealing with any kind of waste as a by-product of your operations, mismanaging this waste can harm your employees, community, and the environment.

When businesses think of waste management, their minds often go to collecting rubbish and dumping it in landfill. However, waste management involves so much more than disposing of your everyday rubbish correctly, even though this is an important part of it.

The bigger picture is that, in actuality, waste management takes careful consideration and planning to get right – particularly if you’re a business dealing with waste that’s hazardous. Materials of this nature are in a myriad of products, including everything from batteries and electronic devices, to oil and solvents.

Developing systems to achieve ISO 14001 certification will also double as a means of developing effective systems for managing waste, especially with the help of a consultant experienced in your industry. You can be reassured that you have developed a clear framework for tackling waste management, thereby avoiding the ramifications of improperly handled waste on your business, your community, and of course the environment.

Compliance with ISO 14001 with the help of an industry expert can do this by:

  • Bringing structure and clarity to your systems.
  • Helping you establish a clear vision, goals and shared purpose for all of those in your business. Whether they’re in management, working on the frontline and everything in-between, your employees are more involved in your environmentally conscious processes and better understand their role in maintaining the required standard of waste management.
  • Holding everyone in your company accountable with regular audits.

The importance of waste management for your business

There are plenty of reasons why waste management needs to be a priority for your business, and we have seen time and time again the negative impact poor waste management can have on people, businesses and the environment.

1. Meet legal requirements

Australian environmental legislation mandates how businesses manage waste. The enforced obligations and restrictions are ultimately there to prevent public harm and minimise and/or eliminate a business’ impact on the environment.

Waste-related areas that are usually highly regulated include those regarding the CO2 emissions emitted by a company, and hazardous chemicals that can wreak havoc on our rivers and waterways – and the ecosystems that occupy them.

New challenges and risks are always emerging, which is why the legislation that governs waste management is constantly reviewed and amended to reflect this. There have been changes as recent as 1 July 2021, when the revised Victorian Environment Protection Act 2017 officially came into effect. Now, businesses in the state must ensure they have suitable permits, registrations and licences for disposing of waste, and the Environmental Protection Authority has more powers for investigating the environmental impact of poor waste management. If serious breaches and non-conformances are found, offenders can be fined up to $3.2 million and even face jail time.

2. Minimise your environmental impact

When businesses dealing with toxic and harmful waste fail to take the appropriate precautions, the consequences of their negligence can be significant, and in some cases, irreversible.

Through establishing lean and effective procedures for suitably disposing of waste in a safe, ethical and responsible manner, companies can consciously reduce the negative impact their operations have on the environment.

3. Improve human health at your company and in the wider community

Improper waste disposal methods can be incredibly dangerous for those handling the waste, and can result in serious medical conditions – which can last a lifetime. There can also be health implications for the wider community, or even those that come to your aid if things get out of hand.

In 2018, firefighters on the scene of what they thought was a normal factory fire in West Footscray – which was actually toxic – had no idea of the lasting impact this would have on their lives.

The fire was ferocious and near impossible to contain, which was later explained by the millions of litres of toxic and highly flammable chemicals stored inside the building. Many of the firefighters who were on scene are now tackling distressing and extreme symptoms, such as breathing problems, nosebleeds, pneumonia and memory loss. A report following the event also showed the presence of more than 25 toxic contaminants in nearby waterways, which could pose a threat to wildlife and local communities.

4. Align with increasing environmental consciousness

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated people’s concerns and awareness surrounding sustainability and the degradation of the environment. In a recent BCG survey, 87% of respondents said companies should integrate environmental concerns into their products, services and operations to a great extent.

Now more than ever before, organisations need to be doing their due diligence when disposing of waste to ensure they do so in an environmentally conscious way that aligns with consumer trends.

The impact of improper waste management

The adverse effects of improper waste management plague the environment and communities across the world. Pollution and contamination comes in a variety of forms, which can impact our soil, water and air:

  • Soil contamination: despite current efforts, the reality is that much of the world’s plastic, glass, metal and paper waste doesn’t end up at recycling facilities. When these and other hazardous materials are absorbed by the soil, the ground becomes contaminated. As the chemicals accumulate in the ground over time, they find their way to aquifers and rivers.
  • Water contamination: water can easily pick up pollution and dissolved substances, such as chemicals and gases. When toxic liquid substances seep into water, the drinking water all living organisms – including humans – rely on for survival can be contaminated.
  • Air contamination: burning paper, plastic and other waste can realise harmful chemicals into the atmosphere and surrounding communities.

How to handle waste using an environmental management system

If you’re working to improve your approach to waste management, but aren’t quite sure where to start, here’s an effective and practical process that can be followed and aligns with ISO 14001:

  1. Evaluate your waste: determine whether your waste is hazardous or not, and identify any legislative requirements that must be satisfied during the handling of this waste.
  2. Store your waste: establish how your waste needs to be stored based on its characteristics and according to regulations in your area.
  3. Label the waste: if you have hazardous waste, you must follow the labelling requirements in your country and/or state.
  4. Transport and dispose of your waste properly: research and carefully decide on trusted entities for transporting and disposing of your waste in a responsible and legal manner.
  5. Plan for emergencies: emergency situations can arise, so it’s important to ensure emergency response equipment is readily available and that all employees have suitable training and know how to respond if there is an issue. By planning in advance, you can not only mitigate risks, but also better manage emergencies if they do arise and minimise their impact.
  6. Train personnel: any employees who have a role in handling, storing and managing hazardous waste need to fully understand safety procedures, their role in compliance, and the hazards posed by each type of waste.
  7. Keep records: records must detail generated waste by type and amount, and act as evidence that suitable procedures are being followed.

Speak with an ISO 14001 consultant

If you’re interested in achieving compliance with ISO 14001 and improving your waste management procedures and systems, get in touch with our experienced team of consultants today.

We have expertise in a wide range of industries developing lean, low burden systems that comply with ISO standards such as ISO 9001ISO 45001ISO 27001 and AS 9100. Our team can also assist your business with compliance management softwareintegrated management systemsISO internal auditscompliance auditsISO gap analysis and more.

For more information, contact us today.

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