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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Removing Plastic: far from an easy fix

Real headway is being made in the drive for sustainability. But how much, asks James Butcher

James Butcher

Managing Director

Solutions for Retail Brands (S4RB)

Given public sentiment around single-use plastic – and black plastic in particular, it’s no wonder grocery retailers are pledging to remove it from shelves. Ticking both CSR and PR boxes, it’s a quick win for brands to show they’re in tune with their customers’ values around sustainability.

With the huge amount of influence exerted by major supermarkets over their suppliers, it’s only a matter of time before they insist all products are packaged in widely recyclable PET plastic or glass – or even compostable packaging. Indeed, Morrisons has just announced the launch of its plastic-free fruit and veg section. The pressure currently being placed on grocers by consumers is even more frustrating given that black plastic is recyclable, but most centres cannot separate it from other materials, so it’s sent to landfill. It’s not easy to relay that message to consumers though – it’s a far simpler message to malign black plastic. But simply eliminating materials could risk creating further challenges elsewhere in the supply chain.

One way to reduce food waste is to use small pack sizes, yet this increases packaging waste

What happens to recycled coloured plastic if it can’t be made into black plastic, for example? And what if an over-reliance on other materials, like cardboard or glass, drives up production costs, which would almost inevitably be passed onto retailers and consumers? Glass, which is energy-intensive to produce and challenging logistically, and cardboard, which could increase in price if demand changes, are both far from easy fixes. The problem is, as well as an environmental conundrum, packaging is also problematic for retailers in terms of cost. One way to reduce food waste is to use smaller pack sizes, yet this increases packaging waste. To avoid these unintended consequences, own brand retailers have to look beyond quick marketing gimmicks, and instead engage suppliers in their mission. 

It should also prompt us to question tried-and-tested ways of doing things. Why, for instance, do UK manufacturers use foil discs on plastic milk bottles when countries like Australia, with bigger transport and contextual challenges, do not? How much packaging could be saved by removing this one simple item?

It’s not about forcing change from the top but asking manufacturers how they could introduce fully recyclable, or reusable or fully compostable packaging within say, three years, then supporting them on the journey to solve any problems. However, by working with suppliers to create a strong business case for single-use plastic, the solution might not be replacing it with another material but changing pack sizes and volumes. In some cases a certain type of plastic is used for a reason. Consumers expect plastic water bottles, for example, to be sold in high-quality, crystal clear bottles, rather than dull-looking recycled ones. Compromise is inevitable.

A move towards sustainability is always welcome and, if executed well, has the potential to deliver strong returns, as well as better experiences for consumers. Retailers must therefore empower their suppliers to become experts who can advise on the best packaging for their product with the guard-rails of the relevant brand guidelines. Rather than focusing on a single material in isolation, such as black plastic, any viable strategy must have collaboration and high-level changes – like removing multi-material packaging and developing alternatives to single-use plastics – at its core. Grocery brands have a responsibility to support their suppliers at every step, be ready to commit to longer-term contracts if they are restructuring their manufacturing processes and, most importantly, communicate any changes to their customers.

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