David Penfold is a driven man: he has to cut Sainsbury’s waste to as close to zero as possible. And given the amount of activity that the store engages in, he needs good ideas and even better suppliers.

By day, David Penfold is a 43-year-old director of Sainsbury’s supermarkets. But when his super senses detect a way to cut waste, he finds an excuse to dive into a store cupboard, where he changes into … Captain Carbon. Actually, he doesn’t. The nickname was given to him by his colleagues in recognition of Penfold’s untiring efforts to recycle what’s left over from the retailer’s store construction operations, and, once they’re built, from the stores themselves.Unlike many owners of nicknames, Penfold likes his. “Lots of companies have someone on the team doing a job like mine, but I’d like to think I’m the only Captain Carbon. Every time I get spoken to here I’m referred to by the nickname because my mind is constantly whirring with thoughts about biomass burners, zero-energy targets and how to reuse bricks or plastic or soil. It drives my wife mad!” What’s more, as he points out himself, it beats being associated with Dangermouse’s rodent sidekick.

From trolley-pusher to director
Penfold doesn’t have a single qualification - a fact he is quite proud of. He began his career in retail by pushing trolleys around the car park in Croydon Safeway: “I used to bunk off school to earn money being a trolley-pusher because I was saving up to buy a Sinclair ZX80 - one of the original PCs invented way back yonder. What I realised was that I actually really enjoyed the job. I worked my way up to the tills, then I managed the tills before becoming meat manager, deli manger and then wines and spirits manager. In 1987 Safeway was bought by Argyll Foods, which owned the Presto chain. I went around the country converting them all to Safeways. I then ended up at head office managing space and designing stores. When Morrisons bought Safeway in 2006 I ran the conversion programme. I planned to take a year off after that and go travelling, but I only lasted three months before I was itching to get back to work. Then I was phoned up by Sainsbury’s and I joined in May 2007.”

Penfold’s official job title is head of sustainability and innovation, and he is quick to clarify that he is not “any sort of tree hugger”. His ideas and strategies are intended to save Sainsbury’s money. Sainsbury’s also has a commitment to be a zero-carbon business by 2020 and Penfold believes that recycling and reusing waste materials efficiently will increase the group’s chances of hitting the target. For this reason, waste management is top of his agenda, particularly on the construction side of the business. He plans to develop ways to reuse soil and other building materials such as bricks and rubble, which combined make up about 90% of the retailer’s construction waste. In 2008/09, 64% of store waste was diverted from landfill. In 2009/10, this increased to 78%, but Penfold wants to make it 100%. “Everything that gets sent off in a skip has a value to it,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, it can all be reprocessed and resold. So it’s just about working out how we get value for Sainsbury’s from it rather than paying for it to be taken away.”

Captain Carbon’s plan
What is interesting, and unusual, about Penfold’s approach to waste is that he sees it with a retailer’s eye. Waste, for him, is just another commodity: someone, somewhere will want to buy it. The starting point for Penfold’s soil exchange idea was the successful recycling of 11,500m3 of earth from one Sainsbury’s site in Staffordshire to another 10 miles away. The soil was carted by Vinci from a site in Biddulph, where the ground needed levelling, to a site in Newcastle-under-Lyme, where it was needed to raise one side of the development area before construction could begin. This operation was the first time Sainsbury’s had moved construction waste from one site to another, rather than sending it away to landfill.

My mind is constantly whirring with thoughts about biomass burners, zero-energy targets and how to reuse bricks or plastic or soil. It drives my wife mad

As a retailer, and therefore a logistics expert, Penfold wants to spend as little money as possible on storing and transporting waste. So, the best way to follow up the Staffordshire experiment is to set up a national soil and building materials exchange system, which would obviate the need to transport the stuff over long distances. “My idea is that a company is set up to offer a soil exchange service. I don’t think there is one out there yet. It would work so that if you deposited a load of soil at a depot in the South-west, but you needed some soil for something in Scotland, then there would be a Scotland branch where you could withdraw the same amount as you deposited. There would be collection and drop off points all around the UK to make this work. It makes so much more sense than transporting soil up and down the country.

“Lots of soil is needed for road building for example, and if other people need it and we don’t, why can’t we do a swap? We have got to find a different way of using soil rather than send to landfill.”

Recycling to elimination
Penfold’s other main push is to “design out” waste. “What I might do over the next couple of years is adapt our target so it’s not about how much is recycled but the volume generated in the first place,” he says. “Our contractors are expected to recycle 90% of materials but I want to make sure they start to think along the lines of generating less in the first place.” As an example he points to buildings that can be disassembled and reused, rather than knocked down and sorted. “At the moment I’m trying to see if I can build a building out of reused steel,” he says. “The idea is to take one building down carefully, keeping all the steel intact before using it straight away to build another structure rather than putting it back into the melting pot to make new steel.”

Supermarkets have run into a lot of criticism over the past few years for the amount of packaging they enclose their produce with; there’s not much sign of improvement there, but at least the stores are doing what they can to reuse their own operational waste. Plastic is being melted for fencing and bollards, and food waste is sent to digestion plants. The gases given off as the food is “digested” are then used to generate electricity.

This is all stuff that Penfold wants to integrate into Sainsbury’s internal structure. Along with the soil exchange network, he would like waste management services becoming “localised”. And he believes that other clients might follow suit:”At the moment everything goes into a general product but it would be great to have a closed loop set up. That way we get best value for it. I think a shift away from this general system towards big clients having their own miniature systems is absolutely the future. We have central company centres for things like recruitment and HR, so why not for waste?”

Penfold does appreciate just how ambitious a plan this is, referring to it as “a massive task”, but he insists that it is only by thinking big that the industry will move forward. “We have to get there as a nation. Landfill prices will go through the roof soon and I imagine it will take firms until then to actually do something about it, because then it will make even more commercial sense. So we’re trying to push some of this stuff now. But look at the landfill business model. It’s genius. They get paid to take waste away and then paid to return it. It makes no sense.”

If you deposited soil at a depot in the South-west, but you needed some more in Scotland, then there would be a Scottish branch where you could withdraw it

What Sainsbury’s wants
One of the best ways for potential supply chain members to impress Sainsbury’s is to demonstrate that they have at least some understanding of waste management, says Penfold. It would also come up with some good solutions to the problems facing the client: “We want supply chains with new ideas that don’t wait to be asked. Plus we want them to understand what their site works impact is in terms of water, waste and energy. We have been very impressed by our current contractors. A couple of guys are up and running on site doing rain water harvesting for toilets in site cabins. That’s pushing the boundaries. We like that.”

This article appeared in Building magzine with the title Why nothing matters to Sainabury’s