Co-op Group launches recycling scheme for plastic food packaging

'Soft plastic' items - such as bread bags and crisp packets - will be handled by a UK recycler to guarantee they are properly dealt with

The Co-op Group has today (9 July) announced the launch of an ambitious in-store recycling scheme for plastic bags and product wrapping. 

The Group says the scheme will be the most extensive in Europe and will make it the first UK supermarket to have fully recyclable food packaging by the end of this month. It hopes this will “help tackle the confusing postcode lottery of kerbside collections”.

Recycling units for ‘soft’ plastics will launch in 1,500 Group stores this month, followed by a rollout to 2,300 stores by November.

It says this will make all its own food packing easily recyclable by establishing an accessible disposal route for materials which are unlikely to be collected by UK councils, including: crisp packets, bread bags, single-use carrier bags and bags-for-life, lids from ready meals and yogurt pots, biscuit wrappers and pet-food pouches.

The in-store units – which also accept packaging for food products purchased in other retailers – means that all of the Group’s own food packaging is easy-to-recycle either via kerbside collection or through the in-house closed loop system. The retailer estimates that 300 tonnes of plastic bags and food wrapping could be collected per year once the bins are fully in place.

The national rollout of the scheme follows a 50-store film collection trial last year which found that 86% of shoppers were likely to use the service. It is also designed to reassure people that the plastics collected will be recycled in the UK – following recent news reports that not all material sent abroad by the UK is properly dealt with.

Instead, the recyclable material is turned, by Jayplas, into post-consumer plastic granules which are then made into useful secondary products – including: bin liners; rigid products such as buckets, and material for the construction industry – rather than flooding landfill sites, going to incineration or, being shipped overseas.

In some areas, less than 30% of waste from households is currently recycled, with systems which can vary from council to council adding to the confusion. Estimates from WRAP suggest that just 6% of plastic bags and wrapping from UK households is recycled each year, while (by weight) it makes up around a fifth of all plastic packaging.

A recycling bin and signage inside a Group store

The elimination of unnecessary plastics is balanced against the need to minimise food waste.

Jo Whitfield, Co-op Food CEO, said: “As we face into an environmental crisis, we know from our feedback that there is a universal appetite for change. Which is why we are making it easier for thousands of households to recycle all of their plastic food packaging. This will not only prevent unnecessary waste but also reduce plastic pollution. By offering a simple and convenient solution to an everyday issue, we believe we can help communities to make small changes, that together will add up to a big difference for our environment.”

Related: Co-op Group unveils ten-point plan to hit zero-carbon by 2040

Helen Bird, strategic technical manager from WRAP, said:There’s no doubt that unnecessary plastic needs to be reduced; including bags and wrapping which is a fifth of all consumer plastic packaging. However, where it is necessary it is urgent to design it for recycling and ensure recycling systems are in place.

“It’s great to see the roll out of collections across Co-op’s stores significantly contributing to the goal of The UK Plastics Pact for all plastic packaging to be recyclable by 2025. Not only is the Co-op ensuring that the service is widely promoted, it is processing the material within the UK, demonstrating how we can build back better for the economy and environment.”

The roll-out will be supported by a nationwide, multi-channel marketing campaign – as part of a new partnership with ITV, a new Co-op TV ad will debut during the Coronation Street ad-break this evening.

Previous actions on plastic by the Group include removing plastic stems from cotton buds – 14 years ago, before any other retailer – banning microbeads, and removing black plastic from shelves in 2019.

In May, the Group unveiled its new ten-point climate plan which sets out a blueprint for the retailer to achieve net zero for its direct and indirect carbon emissions by 2040, including offsetting the greenhouse gas emissions from its products and services.

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