The war on single-use plastic is as emotive as it is important. TV programmes like Blue Planet have stirred the public conscience and opened global eyes to the impact of plastic waste on marine life. But beyond the rhetoric and the outrage, has the media focus on the scourge of plastic done enough to change our behaviours to protect tomorrow’s world? There’s a long way to go. Whilst efforts to reduce the use of disposable plastics are encouraging, their impact to date is a figurative drop in the ocean. We must dive deeper. It’s time, quite literally, for a sea change.
Getting to the root of the problem is no easy task; environmental sustainability is a collective responsibility and individual behaviours – good or bad – all play their part. But some parties have a more wide-reaching influence. Take the grocery sector, for instance. In the UK, the packaging practices of mainstream supermarkets are commonly highlighted as a major driver of avoidable plastic waste. It’s a fair cop. Earlier this year, the Guardian estimated that Britain’s supermarket chains create more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic waste each year – over half of all annual UK household plastic waste. Their purchasing decisions fuel a powerful chain reaction; when supermarkets stock products wrapped in single-use plastic, those same materials ultimately travel through the consumer and into household waste. A high percentage will end up in a landfill.
It’s a costly repeat cycle but we’re all complicit. Don’t believe me? Try this. Next time you unpack your weekly shop, separate the product from its packaging. You’ll likely find that the plastic outweighs the perishables. It’s an unsavoury revelation that we need to challenge. Yet we’re most likely to repeat the process the next time we run out of milk. That milk – metaphorically – is turning sour. We must find another way.
However, changing consumer behaviours in a world of choice is difficult; when a bag of pre-packed apples is cheaper than buying them loose, value-focused customers will generally base their purchasing decisions on price, not principles. The cost to the planet rarely enters the equation. Whilst recent research suggests the public is slowly beginning to prioritise the environment ahead of price when buying food, perhaps this is one choice we shouldn’t be asked to make. Why? Because although the earth’s wellbeing is a collective responsibility, the problem of plastic waste begins long before it reaches the consumer; it’s buried in the supply chain. And it’s an area where, in the journey from truck to trolley to trash, supermarkets play a huge role.
So what are they doing to combat the problem? In April, many UK supermarkets signed up to the ‘Plastics Pact’, vowing to remove ‘problematic or unnecessary’ single-use plastic by 2025 and ensure 100% of plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable. In addition, the major chains have introduced their own measures to tackle plastic. From biodegradable cotton buds and redesigned milk bottles to deposit return schemes and recyclable bag bonuses, the grocery sector is awash with high-profile innovations to curb waste. This month, one supermarket launched a scheme allowing customers to use their own plastic containers at the deli counter. These initiatives, and many more are underpinned by bold goals to eradicate plastic packaging within a decade. The ambition is commendable, but if we really want to make a difference, we need to do more – and we need to do it together.
UK supermarkets wield significant influence. Whether we’re shopping online or in-store, grocery chains are embedded in our everyday behaviours and have a powerful reach into consumers’ lives. They exert a similar power over manufacturers, brands and suppliers, all of whom operate at the behest of supermarkets in the battle for shelf space. This far-reaching influence gives the grocery sector an opportunity to lead on environmental change. Supermarkets are optimally-placed to drive a conversation around how packaging practices can be redesigned to eliminate throwaway plastic.
That discussion must be collaborative. It should bring together all stakeholders – supermarkets, manufacturers, suppliers, logistics providers, waste management, consumers and regulators – and facilitate an open dialogue to identify supply chain efficiencies and uncover innovations that fuel sustainable packaging. The collaborative approach would allow supermarkets to play an active role in managing – and removing – plastic packaging, rather than relying on reactive solutions that treat the symptoms not the cause. Prevention is the best cure.
It won’t be easy. Supermarket supply chains are inherently complex, bridging multiple players in the production, packaging and distribution of products. But these complexities cannot – and need not – become a barrier to progress. Innovation is possible – and we see it being applied in adjacent sectors. For example, Aldi has recently announced that it will ensure all of its own-branded packagings is recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2022. This move has come after the discount supermarket began removing black plastic from its fresh produce range and redesigned its plastic pasta pots to include 95% post-consumer recycled (PCR) content. And there are more opportunities for similar innovation too.
A good example of ground-level innovation is in the vital field of waste management. The perceived value of waste management is all too often minimised by a misconception that it’s simply the practice of collecting bins. Many organisations view it as little more than an operational cost. Yet it can deliver so much more. Evidence shows that progressive companies who have taken an innovative approach to waste management are unlocking value that goes beyond the price of taking waste away. They’re saving money – and they’re protecting the planet.
A good waste management partner won’t just ‘lift your bin’, they’ll ‘lift the lid on your bin’ to show you what’s inside. This is a subtle but important nuance. The true cost of waste in a business is not in the price of removing it, it’s often driven by inefficient practices that create the waste in the first place. That’s why innovative waste management partners don’t focus on the end-game of collection and disposal, they work with you to identify wasteful practices that fuel avoidable waste.
By scrutinising what your business is putting in its bins and where it’s coming from, it’s possible to pinpoint the parts of the supply chain – or internal processes – where a change in behaviour can reduce costs and eliminate waste. This proactive approach is not only a catalyst for improvement, it yields insights that can enhance the collaborative conversation with other players in the value chain. A good waste management partner won’t just help supermarkets meet their environmental responsibilities in the disposal of waste, they’ll help inspire and facilitate change earlier in the supply chain to remove avoidable waste from the system altogether.
Throwaway plastic packaging is a global scourge. Its existence, in volume, is the culmination of a chain reaction in which everyone is complicit. The solution will depend on a similar chain reaction: where stakeholders from the supply chain to the supermarket chain unite to find interventions that protect the value chain of planet earth.