As concern mounts over the environmental impact of plastic waste, the Co-op Group is to switch all its bottled water to 50% recycled plastic (rPET).
The bottles, which will look greyer than those using less or no recycled plastic, will be sourced in the UK and be 100% recyclable, says the Group. The change will be introduced for all its own-brand still, sparkling and flavoured water later this year.
It is the first retailer to run this initiative, which it estimates can save almost 350 tonnes of plastic annually.
Jo Whitfield, chief executive at Co-op Food, said: “We know that by working closely with our supply and waste-value chains we can find new ways of sourcing sustainable alternatives. Our customers expect us to respond to this challenge and help them make more ethical choices, and we’re dedicated to doing just that.
“Making these changes will also create new uses for recycled materials which in turn gives our customers greater confidence in recycling. We’re constantly listening to our members and customers, understanding what they need, where and when they need it, and we’re committed to continuing to explore the opportunities.”
In his 29 years with the retailer, environment manager Iain Ferguson has led a number of radical changes to the way it packages food and produce.
He said: “Suppliers are working hard to make the bottle clearer – and they already have. In the meantime, our bottles will wear this greyish colour which I see as a badge of honour – we are part of the market for recycled products and are proud of that. We’re also very pleased that plans for the proposed deposit return scheme have been formally unveiled.
“It’s a vitally important move in encouraging greater rates of recycling across the country and we welcome any measure which is designed to make recycling simpler and more accessible for consumers. We would like to see the same system applied across the whole of the UK to keep it simple for customers and business – the Co-op is aiming to make 100% of its own-brand packaging recyclable and set against this move, we can look forward to an increase in packaging sustainability and a reduction in plastic waste across the UK.”
Under his leadership, the Group has hit several recycling milestones: in 2005 it changed its plastic diaphragms to paper ones – and Co-op tissues are still the only product with this feature. A year later the Group replaced the plastic stems in its cotton buds with paper ones – and it took 11 years for other retailers to follow suit.
In 2012 Mr Ferguson led the way on lightening the colour of the Group’s milk bottle tops, making them easier to recycle and ensuring less contamination. This has created an extra 4,500 tonnes of extra recyclable plastic per year. And in 2015 he led the introduction of compostable carrier bags in 400 stores, another first for the Group.
“I like to think that I’ve made a difference,” he said.
The Group was the first retailer to sign up to the Plastics Industry Recycling Action Plan (PIRAP) in 2016. Last year it replaced polystyrene pizza boards with cardboard ones, saving 200 tonnes of poly-board from landfill.
The retailer has set a target to make 100% of its packaging recyclable with an interim goal of 80% by 2020. It also plans to get rid of black and dark coloured plastic. This cannot be identified by sorting plants, which use optical sorting techniques to identify polymers, and contaminates the recycling stream, reducing the usefulness and value of the recovered material.
It is estimated that this adds at least 30,000 tonnes of plastic each year to waste.
Key to the Group’s approach has been changing how recyclability is measured.
“We used to measure it like everybody else – by weight, but the customer sees each individual product in its own right, not in terms of the weight of the material,” said Mr Ferguson.
“If we measure it by weight we get to 90% recycling but a lot of that is made of glass. We now measure it by product line, which means that if you take a bag of rice the packaging of that is counted exactly the same as the package of a bottle of wine. We found, using that measure, that 46% was easy to recycle – and now we are at 71% easy to recycle.”
But investment in recycling imposes cost on retailers, and Mr Ferguson argues that financial incentives should be put in place, which would reward recycling, use of recyclable materials and the labelling of recyclability. Retailers who put products in the market that are not easy to recycle and are not labelled should be penalised.
“What is needed is guidance, which we’ve been working with the industry to produce,” added Mr Ferguson, who also chaired the Rationalisation of Packaging Group.
Last week, the government announced that customers would receive small cash sums for returning plastic, glass and metal drinks containers. The Co-op welcomes the deposit return scheme.
Plastics use in general is another aspect of the retailer’s environment policy.
“We are concerned that there are products on the market that will be disposed of by customers without realising there is plastic in them, which will lead to plastic being spread widely,” said Mr Ferguson.
“Tea bags are a main example – people put them in compost bags but once gone they have through the waste management processes, the material left over is spread on land as soil improvement, which means we are spreading pieces of polypropylene on land. We want to stop that,” said Mr Ferguson.
The Group is currently working on developing a fully biodegradable paper tea bag for its 99 tea brand.
And on its blog, it has asked for ideas to improve its recycling and environmental performance, after a survey found that 76% of its members believe waste to be an “absolutely critical” issue.