Eliminating waste

We’re committed to eliminating and reducing waste, so have set an ambition to become a 'zero waste to landfill' organisation by 2030. This includes all waste produced by RNLI people at all RNLI locations of operation.

Our range of products made from upcycled red lifejackets, including a tablet case, wash bag, wallet, bumbag and duffel bag.
Our range of products made from upcycled lifejackets

We all need to move away from the linear model where we take, make, use, dispose, to a circular model where materials are recovered and re-made. 

The UK Government’s Resources and Waste Strategy, the commitments in the UK’s 25-year Environment Plan and the Industrial and Clean Growth strategies, are all designed to move us to adopt a more circular and zero-waste approach, which keeps resources in use for longer. In addition, these strategies aim to double resource productivity – making more from the same amount, or less, and eliminating single-use plastics (SUPs). The devolved administrations all have similar goals and timelines.  

At the RNLI we’re committed to eliminating and reducing waste and have set an ambition to become a 'zero waste to landfill' organisation by 2030. The scope of this ambition includes all waste produced by RNLI people at all RNLI locations of operation.

To help achieve our ambition, we apply waste hierarchy thinking at the earliest stage possible in our planning, projects and decision making:

  • Eliminate – avoid producing waste in the first place.
  • Reduce – minimise the amount of waste produced.
  • Reuse – use materials and equipment as many times as possible.
  • Recycle and upcycle – have new items made with existing or reprocessed materials.
  • Recover – have energy recovered or compost created from waste.

Turning waste into resource

Unavoidable waste can be a potential resource. By embracing innovation and working with recycling and upcycling partners, we aim to maximise the return for the RNLI from these resources where viable. 

This not only helps to reduce our environmental impact but also helps maximise the use of supporter’s donations. 

A view from the water looking back at the RNLI College in Poole, Dorset.
The RNLI College in Poole, Dorset

At the RNLI College we’re reducing carbon emissions by just over 3 tonnes each year.

We have food waste recycling. And we have cardboard compaction with free collection for recycling.

Our food waste recycling is close to cost-neutral and our cardboard compactor paid for itself in 17 months, going on to save us approximately £3,000 every year.

We’ve installed a much larger mill-sized cardboard baler and a smaller one for plastics at our Support Centre in Poole, Dorset, so that volumes are reduced and recycling is increased – reducing costs and generating an additional income. 

We return collected coffee grounds from the RNLI College to our coffee supplier, which creates fuel pellets to use in roasting its future batches of coffee. 

We have a strong recycling ethos across the RNLI. Recycling bins are installed at our Support Centre in Poole and we’re working with our regional bases, support centres, lifeboat stations and other locations to ensure as much waste as possible is eliminated, recycled and diverted from landfill.

When they reach the end of their service lives, RNLI lifejackets are decommissioned. But to save them from going to landfill, we upcycled them into a hard-wearing and water-resistant product range, complete with many original lifejacket features. 

This pilot sustainability initiative saved the RNLI £17,000 in disposal costs and has generated tens of thousands of pounds’ income over the last 5 years – with 100% of the profits going directly back into our lifesaving service.

Read more about our 235 Made for Life story in our article: The double life of a lifejacket.

While this range is now gradually coming to an end, we’re actively exploring other opportunities to upcycle RNLI materials into useful products and items, and aim to have new ranges to offer in the future.

What to do with a 27-tonne lifeboat

Over the next decade several our all-weather lifeboats will come to the end of their operational lives, including the Mersey class lifeboats.

A Mersey class lifeboat breaking through the swell. The wake is breaking around the sides of the boat and the sky is hazy.
Mersey class lifeboat

In previous years, our asset sales manager has sold off lifeboats – extending their useful lives and recovering as much value as possible for us. We’ve also taken lifeboat parts back into stock as spares, where appropriate. We’ll continue to do all of this wherever possible. 

But there’s no guarantee that we can sell every single lifeboat in future. Our biggest challenge is that modern composites used in lifeboat construction are very strong and notoriously difficult to recycle. The recycling infrastructure in the UK and Ireland doesn’t really exist at scale yet. 

Our lifeboat decommissioning challenge is twofold:

  • To recover best value from the lifeboat materials, components and systems onboard and find a recycling solution for the composite material.

  • To ensure future lifeboats are designed for life extension, disassembly, recycling and reuse.

The Severn class life extension programme is a great example of where we’re actively reducing waste and extending all-weather lifeboat use from 25 years to 50, through upgrading and modifying this class of lifeboat.

As we’ve all seen, single-use plastics (SUPs) become a big pollution problem in the environment. The UK Government has banned several types of SUP products from 1 October 2020 and the 25-year Environment Plan aims to eliminate all avoidable SUPs. The devolved administrations all have similar aims. 

At the RNLI, we’ve set an ambition to achieve zero avoidable single-use plastics by 2024, our 200th anniversary. 

This is going to be a challenge because we can’t always control where SUPs come from – such as supplier packaging. Some of the available alternatives also present their own environmental or safety issues, so the choices between alternatives are not always simple. However we’re working with our suppliers to eliminate, reduce or replace SUPs wherever possible and we ask all our people to diligently recycle or dispose of all SUPs they currently use, to prevent them from becoming litter. 

We’ve already made some good progress towards our goal:

  • From 2021, all our supporter magazines will be delivered in certified FSC or PEFC sustainable and recyclable paper wrap and envelopes, not plastic wrap.

  • Our 2020 Christmas cards are all SUP- and glitter-free. We may still have some older stock packaged in SUP and with glitter, but these will soon be sold through. 

  • Our 2021 calendars are all SUP-free. 

  • Working with our suppliers, the Retail Team have removed or replaced SUP packaging on some of our products and have swapped out some plastic products with alternatives. This process is ongoing.

  • We’ve stopped mailing out annual plastic membership stickers marked with the year – saving tens of thousands of bits of plastic each year. 

  • 2 years ago, the RNLI College removed plastics bottles, straws, cups and stirrers and registered as a water refill station.

  • 2 years ago, plastic cups were removed from all the offices at our Poole campus and people now use their own refillable mugs, glasses and bottles. 

While this is a good start, we know we have much more to do. We’re now focussing our efforts on gaining a better understanding where the biggest volume of SUPs are coming from and then prioritising eliminating them, or finding alternatives where available and affordable. 

Some SUPs are not currently avoidable – for example, those around sterile medical dressings and PPE. So, for now, we have no choice but to continue using them. Our people ensure that this packaging is recycled or disposed of and does not end up in the environment. 

Fresh water is an important resource, and we encourage all our people to use water efficiently.

A view of the RNLI All-weather Lifeboat Centre and RNLI College from the water
All Weather Lifeboat Centre and RNLI College Poole

Aerators are fitted to all bathroom taps and showers in the bedrooms at the RNLI College to reduce water use. 

The use of water and chemical-dosing in our Sea Survival Centre training pool is carefully controlled. 

Our All-weather Lifeboat Centre has a licensed water treatment plant to ensure waste water from blasting and cleaning our lifeboats is filtered and cleaned before being discharged.

By definition, many of our activities are on or near water and we strive to ensure we don’t pollute or contaminate it.

As part of our risk management process, we require our people at all locations to consider the potential for spills and leaks to occur and cause pollution of the aquatic environment. As part of our safety management approach, we take proactive action to eliminate or reduce spill risks to as low as reasonably possible. We also ensure our people have the knowledge, skills and equipment to respond quickly to prevent pollution occurring or limit environmental damage and safely clean up spilt substances. If the worst does happen and substances enter water, it’s reported immediately to the relevant authorities and through our own internal incident reporting system. This is then reviewed for lessons learned after the incident has been dealt with and any required changes are implemented. 

Our lifeboat stations

A view across rocks towards Porthdinllaen Lifeboat Station

Dave Custance

Sustainability is at the forefront of all our building projects. When new lifeboat stations and other sites are built, we endeavour to use sustainable building materials and install the most suitable and cost-effective renewable technologies as standard.

To keep costs down, where possible, we use consistent designs and specifications for building and maintaining our lifeboat stations. However, many of our lifeboat stations are in exposed locations where there are environmental and planning restrictions, so we inevitably have to customise our plans, resulting in unique designs, architecture and construction techniques.

The sensitive nature of some lifeboat station sites – whether as listed buildings or located in designated conservation areas – can also result in protracted, and sometimes controversial, planning processes.

All-weather Lifeboat Centre

A view across Holes Bay towards the All-weather Lifeboat Centre (ALC) in Poole, Dorset. The photograph is taken from a tarmac path lined by rocks, with the ALC in the background.

RNLI/Nathan Williams

RNLI College and our All-weather Lifeboat Centre in Poole are set on Holes Bay in Poole Harbour, which is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Protection Area (SPA) due to the wetland habitats and wintering bird population.

As such, during the building of our All-weather Lifeboat Centre, one of the environmental requirements was to closely monitor the local bird population over the two winters that building work was taking place to ensure bird numbers weren’t impacted.

Working closely with ecological consultancy Jonathan Cox Associates, bird monitoring surveys were carried out. These included baseline surveys and subsequent surveys to coincide with the noisiest and most intrusive activities on site. 

The counts included the number of different species of birds at different states of the tide, and their approximate locations. There were also normalisation counts, or recounts, when demolition of the site began at the end of March 2013 and when building work got underway in November 2013. 

This procedure ensures any significant changes to the local bird population are identified and is similar to that used to survey the migrant bird population during the construction of Poole's Twin Sails Bridge in 2011.

The results of the surveys were positive and the construction of our All-weather Lifeboat Centre had no impact on the wintering bird population.