Can consumer co-ops make a difference in a world of plastics?

'We see the development of circular packaging as necessary given the large volumes of daily goods that are delivered to customers today'

Each year humans generate around 350 million tonnes of plastic waste. According to Eurostat data on packaging waste, in 2020 each person living in the EU generated 34.6kg of plastic packaging waste on average, with only 13kg of this recycled. Food and beverage packaging accounts for 40% of plastic packaging in the EU.

In 2019 the EU adopted the Single-Use Plastics Directive  to prevent and reduce the impact on the environment of certain plastic products and promote a transition to a circular economy. The European Commission also put forward a revision of its Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD), in November 2022, as part of the European Green Deal.

Some of the steps suggested in the Commission’s draft proposal include a requirement for all packaging placed on the EU market to be recyclable by design by 2030, the introduction of harmonised criteria for ‘recyclable packaging’ and the establishment of recyclability performance grades on all packaging with fees charged to producers varying based on the recyclability of their products. While the proposal is being debated, it is clear that it will bring big changes to the food retail industry. 

Supermarkets can play their role in helping to reduce plastic waste. In 2020 Greenpeace released a report on how supermarkets can achieve a minimum 50% reduction in single-use plastic packaging, via reduction and reuse.

The study was carried out by sustainability advisor 3Keel, which worked with the UK supermarket sector to explore how effective reduction and reuse models could be at cutting down the amount of single-use plastics used by supermarkets. According to the report, half of this reduction (25%) should come from a shift to reusable packaging systems. Other actions include refilling in-store, selling loose fruit and vegetables and removing unnecessary plastic in packaging.

Greenpeace warns that not enough is being done. A 2021 study conducted with the Environmental Investigation Agency found that in 2019 the 10 biggest UK supermarkets put 896,853 tonnes of plastic packaging on the market. Greenpeace warns that only 9% of all of the plastic ever produced globally has actually been recycled and argues that cutting back on the plastic produced in the first place is the real solution, not recycling. 

Many consumer co-ops have already implemented measures to address packaging waste. To meet the Single-Use Plastics Directive, Slovakia introduced a deposit return scheme in January 2022. The measure aims for a return rate of 90% by 2027 – ahead of the targets of the directive (which requires the same return rate, but by 2029).

All single-use plastic beverage bottles and cans with a capacity from 0.1 litre up to and including 3 litres can be deposited. When purchasing a plastic bottle or can, every customer will pay an additional fee of 15 cents which they can get back when they return the undamaged packaging to the supermarkets that have joined the deposit system.

Since the law does not specify whether the store is obliged to take back deposited beverage containers manually (at the cashier) or automatically (through reverse vending machines, or RVMs), it is up to retailers to choose how they want to implement the scheme. Coop Jednota, a consumer co-operative, chose to comply by launching a system to recycle PET bottles and cans with a total of 1,100 collection points in its stores. The co-op’s reverse vending machines are supplied by TOMRA. At the end of its first year in operation, Slovakia’s national deposit return system (DRS) reportedly received 820 million returned containers and exceeded its expected return rate by over 70%.

A Co-op Group recycling unit

Similarly, in the UK, the Co-op Group enables customers to recycle soft plastics like crisp packets and bread bags at over 2,200 of its food stores across the country. These can include packaging of products bought somewhere else. The Group is also ahead of other UK supermarkets when it comes to own-brand recyclable packaging. According to a 2022 study by Which?, 94% of the Co-op’s own-brand plastic is already recyclable at home, with the remainder recyclable in-store.

One success story has been the drop in the use of single-use supermarket plastic bags, which fell 98% since retailers in England began charging for them in 2015. The UK government also introduced a tax on plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled plastic in April 2022. As the UK implements a new Plastic Packaging Tax, Deloitte, a global consultancy firm, encouraged supermarkets to have a plastics packaging strategy that would take into account on-site waste, own product packaging and value chain plastics.

Meanwhile, Coop Sweden is introducing circular reusable bags for home deliveries. Rolled out in July in collaboration with delivery company Gordon Circular, the pilot project sees Coop Sweden consumers receive their home deliveries in a circular package that replaces paper bags. 

Related: EU plans to tackle waste packaging meets mixed response from the co-op sector

“We see the development of circular packaging as necessary given the large volumes of daily goods that are delivered to customers today.” said Niklas Zeitlin, responsible for e-commerce at Coop Sweden.

The products are delivered in an outer, hard box that protects the goods before they reach the consumer and a soft reusable bag. Gordon delivers the crates of food to the Coop’s customers, who can then return them to Gordon on their next delivery. The boxes are then washed and made ready for new delivery from Coop.

A customer receiving their Coop Sweden order in reusable bags (image: Coop Sweden)

The retailer says the system has environmental benefits. A life cycle analysis by Linköping University found that the bag only needs to make five loops for the entire system to have a lower climate impact than a paper bag that is only used once. If the box is used a further 20 times, its total climate impact is reduced by 65% compared to that of a paper bag.

“The Coop’s goal is for us together with Gordon to better understand how we can find the best ways to make it easier for our e-commerce customers and reduce resource use. We are doing this to be able to adjust our operations and then scale up the way of working so that more customers at coop.se can take part in the solution”, said Mattis Bergquist, sustainability manager for Coop Sweden.

So far, Coop Sweden customers have shown interest in the scheme so the retailer plans to scale it up across the country.

“Being able to demonstrate so early in the development that consumer benefits can be combined with environmental benefits is incredibly fun. Our hope is that consumers will find it easy to receive and return these reusable bags and we are so happy that Coop wants to test this with us,” said Catherine Alsén Gelfgren, project manager for Gordon Circular.

Coop Sweden staff member sorts out online shopping orders (image: Coop Sweden)

Cost, however, remains a big impediment to progress. In a recent analysis, ING Bank warned that a lack of available recycled material and subsequently high costs currently is preventing more companies from replacing their single-use solutions. According to the bank, a European beverage manufacturer would have to pay 20% more to only use recycled and 100% recyclable plastic, Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), for its bottles.

Another report by PwC argues that whole-scale business model change will be required across the entire supply chain in order to achieve a 20% market share of Ref-PET soft drink beverage packaging in the EU member states, “from the manufacturing of production machinery and bottle inputs, through the bottling process and distribution logistics, to wholesale and retail outlet set up, and operation of reverse logistics for bottle return and refill.”

Raising awareness of the importance of recycling and circular consumption can also help to drive changes in customers’ behaviours. Spanish consumer co-ops are trying to do this by running an online Circular Consumption School (Escuela de la Consumo Circular – ECC). Launched in 2022, the project is run by Hispacoop, the Spanish federation of consumer and user co-ops, which includes co-ops from various sectors, from retail to energy or housing. The school’s main aim is to raise awareness to generate change in customers’ behaviour and drive the transformation towards a circular model. 

The project is funded by Spanish Ministry of Consumer Affairs. Via its web platform, the school makes a variety of resources available, including video tutorials. The educational materials include four guides which can be used to teach at different primary school levels about circular consumption. For now, the activities suggested focus on four different themes: video games (8-9 years old), sports products and accessories (9-10 years old), electronic tools and gadgets (10-11 years old) and clothes and shoes (11-12 years old).

The tools are also being distributed to schools, educational centres and youth centres across the country as part of ECC’s dissemination and communication strategy. All these materials can be accessed for free by any user, not just teachers. They teach consumers to valorise available resources, encourage responsible practices when it comes to shopping and consuming and encourage sustainability in production and consumption.

Carmen Redondo Borge, director of Institutional Relations at Hispacoop, says her organisation is unique in Spain. “We defend consumers through consumers’ co-ops”, she said.

Having led campaigns and competitions on the circular economy since 2019, Hispacoop already had a lot of information and training tools available. 

In this process of educating consumers, it also engaged with teachers and found that the majority did not have the knowledge necessary to teach about the circular economy or carry out educational activities on the topic. The school was started to meet this need and help teachers raise awareness through practical and dynamic activities. 

The school’s logo

“The children are learning through playing,” added Redondo Borge. Methods include exchanges of clothes, sports equipment, gadgets or video games. Instead of buying, using and throwing they get taught about sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling. They also get taught how to find out more about products and research brands before buying from them to see if they are sustainable.

“As consumers, we need to consume products and food in a more responsible manner,” adds Redondo Borge. “The consumer is the one that has to close the circle of the circular economy.” Co-ops are at an advantage since their own values and principles resonate with those of the circular economy, she thinks

While the initial four guides focus on specific products, Hispacoop aims to touch on other areas/products in the future. The project is funded until the end of the year, but Hispacoop says it will continue to run the online platform to enable consumers to find out more about the circular economy.

Another co-op adopting a circular economy approach is Coop Italia. The retailer replaced 10,000 tons of virgin plastic with recycled plastic between 2018 and 2021. And in 2019 it launched a campaign to remove plastic from Italian seas by installing trash-eating devices, using offshore drones and employing scuba diving teams. The campaign saw the collection of 42 tons of plastic between 2019 and 2022.

As part of its efforts, Coop Italia installed 46 seabins which float in water and can capture around 1.5 kg of waste per day, equal to over 500 kg of debris a year each. Another innovation was the installation of Trash Collec’Thor devices on floating docks of ports and marinas – these are capable of collecting up to 100kg of waste. The co-op also uses Pixie drones, which enable the recovery of 60kg of floating waste for each mission. As an extra step, Coop Italia has been working with a team of expert divers who have gone down to the seabed at ports to manually collect waste from the sand.

Other international developments could also help to promote more sustainable consumption patterns. In March 2022 the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi endorsed a historic resolution to End Plastic Pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024. Due to be completed by the end of 2024, the draft global legally binding agreement could play a key role in curbing plastic pollution. Nation states are currently debating whether to adopt treaty decisions by a majority vote or a consensus, which gives an indication of how difficult it will be to come up with a resolution that is endorsed by all 170 countries that have agreed to develop the first draft.

Until such a resolution is adopted and nation-states start implementing drastic policies to end plastic pollution, consumer co-ops and their members will have to strive to make a difference in their own way.

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