If there's one group that has put its weight behind saving the planet, it's United Co-operatives, as Amy Lanning finds out

Co-ops are renowned for their ethical policies so it's no surprise that United Co-operatives has embraced the green movement. From large-scale recycling to reducing energy use, limiting its impact on the environment has become all in a day's work for the group. But it's the creation of a 'green' highly energy efficient store that has earned it real acclaim in environmental circles.
The store in Sandbach, Cheshire, might look like any of the organisation's other stores, but it's been the test bed for an array of eco-friendly initiatives. The store was designed to save 25% of 'normal energy use', but already it's saving 34%.
Like all modern c-stores it has long banks of chillers. Usually they would throw out lots of heat that goes to waste - but not in this store. Instead, a special recycling system takes the heat given off by the chillers and sends it out the back of the store into what is called a 'frogbox'. It is then recycled as air conditioning whenever it's needed.
The frog box also cuts noise pollution because it has been built in an acoustic enclosure.
Keith Maloney, general manager for environment & technical services, says: "The equipment is more expensive but the savings on energy use and air conditioning make it viable. All of the equipment has been assessed by the Carbon Trust and it's very efficient compared to the existing equipment."
Lighting for the store was designed using a 3D model of the shop before it was even built. "This is low-energy lighting," explains Maloney. "Rolling this out to all stores will mean a phenomenal saving across the group. A typical store's lighting uses 30W per square metre, but Sandbach is 21W per square metre, which is fantastic, and it's not dim. We haven't compromised standards by being energy efficient."
The store has been wired so that a manager's key will automatically switch off the alcohol chiller when the manager leaves. "Many retailers leave the beer, wines and spirits fridge on overnight and it's criminal, really," says Maloney. There are light sensors in the back of the store so the lights come on only when someone is out there. And Sandbach was the first store in the society to implement electronic shelf-edge labels, which reduces paper waste.
While the Sandbach store takes being green to another level, United Co-op has been recycling for many years. The amount of waste, cardboard and plastic it recycles from its stores and properties tips the scales at almost 6,000 tonnes a year - a 78% increase on its 2003 baseline figure. This has meant investment in a new recycling plant at its Talke Distribution Centre in Staffordshire and two recycling trailers.
"Landfill waste is a massive issue," says Maloney. "It's a long-term environmental problem and we will run out of sites. The government is going to tax waste to the hills so the more you can recycle, the less tax you're going to pay.
"Even a single convenience store could separate their card and plastic and there are companies that will take it away free of charge. A single c-store could get a small baling machine for £2,000 to £3,000 and could see payback in less than three years. You're reducing waste costs and selling on, so after the payback you'll be making money."
Maloney says United Co-op's store managers have fully embraced recycling. "It's amazing what you can do when you start to look at things - 90% of waste can be recycled."
The recycling programme has saved the group £190,000 a year on waste removal costs and generated revenue of more than £350,000 a year from the re-sale of cardboard and plastic. But Maloney says you need to be careful about who you sell recycling waste to. "Some companies offer better rates, but when you ask where it's going they are very sheepish. It can end up in South-east Asia where people are paid peanuts to peel the paper off plastic. We follow the trail of where all of our recycling waste goes."
On top of the recycling efforts, all of United's electricity requirements are being met by electricity generated at hydro-electric power plants in Scotland. The deal is one of the largest renewable energy contracts in the UK, providing green energy to more than 950 properties. The contract will reduce the society's CO2 emissions by an amount equivalent to all the houses in a town the size of Macclesfield or Milton Keynes.
The group has also developed an electronic utility meter reading system through its intranet, which allows store managers to submit readings that can be monitored and assessed. This has led to improved billing by energy suppliers and the development of utility league tables for stores.
Other green initiatives include the Fair Share scheme, through which the food group gives food that's past its display date to hostels for the homeless, and it is currently testing the use of bio-diesel in its delivery fleet. Trucks leaving the 24-hour distribution depots near Bradford and at Talke, near Stoke, will be powered using bio-diesel.
The bio-diesel has been produced from recycled vegetable oil blended with low-sulphur diesel. The scheme will run for 12 weeks and United hopes a successful test will allow it to increase the proportion of recycled vegetable oil within the blend, further reducing the environmental impact of transport emissions. Delivery lorries also never run empty. Once they have dropped off their goods they collect cardboard and polythene for recycling.
The work on environmental issues has also been taken outside the
society and into the wider community. A project supported by Manchester City Council, United Utilities and other energy suppliers raised awareness of the three Rs (Reduce, Recycle and Reuse) at a school in Wythenshawe, where United has its Food Group and Funeral Group Head Office.
A longer-term initiative sees the society, school and community collaborating on a scheme to recycle printer cartridges using recycling bins provided at stores, offices and at the school. The recycling of cartridges generates revenue which is being used to provide IT equipment for the school. This programme has not gone unnoticed, receiving 15 national and local awards since 1999, including a recent Gold Environmental Award from Manchester City Council.
United Co-operatives has earned another 'green' first in the Co-operative Movement after it was recognised by the Carbon Trust for its achievement and commitment to energy efficiency. The society is the only one in the UK to belong to the Energy Efficiency Accreditation Scheme after successfully seeking re-accreditation for the independent award which will run until 2009.
The society was scrutinised by an independent assessor on a wide range of criteria, including management commitment to its energy policy and the levels of both staff training and awareness.
While the 'greening' of United Co-op is great news for the environment, it's good for its bottom line, too. Its energy awareness programme has resulted in a saving in utility costs of £3.48m a year, and that's something not to be sniffed at.