Co-ops answer the call for a war on waste

The zero waste initiatives being pioneered by European retail co-ops

Zero waste shopping is on the rise in Europe. A 2020 report by Zero Waste Europe on packaging-free shops presented a mid-estimate EU market for bulk goods of €1.2bn in 2030.

As management consulting firm Mckinsey points out, regulators around the world are also responding to the plastic waste crisis by introducing regulations to minimise and manage packaging. Its report – The drive toward sustainability in packaging – beyond the quick wins, explains that consumer awareness of packaging waste in oceans and landfills is driving change.

The trend is noticeable among European consumer co-operatives, which have introduced a number of zero-waste initiatives in recent years.

Coop Switzerland’s filling station

In Switzerland, Coop has recently introduced filling stations for beer and mineral water in some of its supermarkets; it is the first retailer in the country to do so. Consumers can already fill their own containers with beer or mineral water at the co-op’s supermarkets in northwestern Switzerland, such as Basel Südpark and Baden Bahnhof.

The co-op is also introducing filling stations for some long-shelf-life food items and dishwashing and fabric detergents. Filling stations for food items such as rice, pasta, pulses and muesli will be trialled from August in several Coop supermarkets. Consumers will be allowed to fill their own containers.

This is the latest in a series of measures by Coop to tackle waste. It wants to eliminate 20% of the plastic from its own-brand packaging and disposable items by 2026, and plans to expand its range of plastic-free alternatives and products without packaging. So far, it has eliminated or optimised more than 30,000 tonnes of packaging.

In Luxembourg, the country’s first packaging-free organic shop is a co-operative which started trading in 2016. OUNI, which stands for Organic Unpackaged Natural Ingredients, was set up by local residents who share a passion for innovative, no-waste approaches. The store sells organic, local and/or Fairtrade food and household products in bulk or in reusable glass jars and bottles. Customers can use their own containers, avoiding packaging waste and buying only the amount they need, reducing food waste.

In the UK, Central England Co-operative opened an 11,000 sq ft store at Boley Park in Lichfield, featuring free water refills, eco-friendly fridges that reduce carbon footprint by 60%, and a zero-waste refill hub.

Central England’s Refill Station inside its Lichfield store

The £3m eco-friendly concept store has large dispensers filled with 100% organic, vegan and Fairtrade products from worker co-op Suma Wholefoods, who was involved in developing the scheme.

Corporate responsibility manager Hannah Gallimore said: “As a responsible business, we are committed to minimising our impact on the environment and doing so in new and innovative ways.”

Johnny Spencer, the national account manager at Suma who worked with Central England on the project, said at the launch of the store: “Zero waste is a big trend for many retailers at the moment. More and more customers are looking to cut unnecessary plastic out of their shopping, and retailers themselves want greener stores and supply chains.

“At Suma we’ve seen a growing number of dedicated zero stores open over the last few years, and now we’re starting to see really forward-thinking retailers like Central England Co-operative incorporate refill stations into convenience stores.

“Central England Co-op have set the bar high with their large, well-designed and well-stocked refillery. Putting principle six into action, we’ve worked closely together to get the offer right, and I think we’re all pleased with such a fantastic outcome. We’ll be watching how it develops, as I’m sure many other retailers will too. There’s no doubt that Central England Co-op are at the start of a trend that will only grow.”

The co-op says customers have so far responded positively to the initiative, with a regular number using the station of a daily or weekly basis. The retailer is currently assessing the success of the trial before deciding to roll out in other locations.

While various retail co-ops are introducing zero-waste alternatives, these initiatives might be difficult to scale up. For now, retail co-operatives are experimenting. Their long-term response will be shaped the attitude of customers and regulators.