Plastic-free future: European retailers in the environmental crusade

7 September 2018

This year, global retailers are leading the charge for reducing plastic. UK-based, major European, and international brands are continuing to drive their own domestic and globally focused programmes forward. Packaging & Converting Intelligence takes a closer look at the companies that are pushing for change and how their objectives will make a difference.

As the world wakes up to the dangers caused by plastic pollution, the demand to limit the material’s use has grown. In response to public outcry, many of the world’s largest food retailers have come up with their own solutions to the plastic problem. Lidl UK, for example, has set itself an ambitious target to make half of its own-brand packaging from recycled materials by 2025. As if this wasn’t enough, the chain removed single-use bags from its shops in 2017 and has also announced that, from the end of 2018, it will only offer £0.09 ‘bags for life’, rather than charging £0.05 for reusable plastic bags. This action alone will remove 67 million bags and 134t of plastic each year.

In March, Christian Härtnagel, CEO of Lidl UK, said the company was “proud of our clear, ambitious targets for the reduction of plastic waste. We have looked at plastic packaging in the context of our wider sustainability commitments and strongly believe that our circular approach will deliver a long-term solution,” he explained. “We want to create a major shift in the way that packaging and plastics are used to ensure that these resources are recovered and retained, eradicating plastic waste and moving us towards a truly circular system in the long term.

“We know our business and the wider industry needs to take big steps to achieve this; that’s why we have set clear and ambitious targets, not only to ensure that our packaging is completely recyclable, but that we are [also] driving demand for this material by driving recycled content.” On top of committing itself to a 20% cut in plastic packaging by 2022, the business has promised that 100% of own-brand packaging will be recyclable, reusable, refillable or come from a renewable source by 2025.

Removing black plastic trays

Since 2009, Waitrose has decreased its packaging by nearly 50%. In 2016, it also became the first supermarket to remove products that contain plastic microbeads; the following year, the brand ditched plastic from its cotton buds, opting for paper stems instead, and made sandwich packets simple to recycle by making the cardboard element easier to separate from plastic film. These changes have already had a big impact, but the company has even more eco-friendly plans on the horizon.

On its website, the retailer said, “By 2025, all our own-label packaging will be widely recyclable (using the widely recycled logo), reusable or home compostable. We believe there is a role that recyclable plastic can play with some products – to protect during transportation and to prevent food waste – which is why we are not planning to remove it entirely from our ranges. Our commitment is a stretching target, but we are determined to achieve it through a mix of innovation and working with suppliers to change how we package the products we sell.”

The company added that further developments will include removing packs of single-use plastic straws from its shelves in September this year, and replacing plastic trays with packaging made from tomato leaf and paper for Waitrose Duchy tomatoes. The supermarket will also stop providing takeaway disposable coffee cups later this year – a move that will save more than save 52 million cups a year.

In addition, Waitrose has said it will begin “phasing out all own-label black plastic packaging – which is difficult to recycle – by 2019”. So far, the chain has removed 65% of this plastic from fruit and vegetable packaging, but it aims to eradicate it from meat, poultry, fish, and fruit and vegetable ranges by the end of the year.

“Tackling the use of plastics across our business is a key priority... Our work to eliminate black plastic packaging from our shops sees us taking a step towards accomplishing this,” stated Tor Harris, head of sustainability and responsible sourcing at Waitrose. “Not many people realise that black plastic is tough to recycle. As a retailer [that is] dedicated to reducing the impact of plastic packaging on the environment, becoming black plastic-free across all our own-label products is the right thing to do.”

A first for France

In May, Carrefour announced that it became the first French retailer to commit to “100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging” for own brands.

The company aims to achieve this by 2025 and is already starting to move away from using a disposable-plastic model. The statement also said, “The group is planning to eliminate non-recyclable packaging of organic fruit and vegetables, and to stop selling plastic straws by the end of 2018, and to gradually replace plastic straws on juice cartons.”

Carrefour’s ambitious goals include introducing recyclable packaging for all of its products by 2020 – starting with organic items – as well as the meat, fish and cheese departments, which currently use polystyrene trays. As part of its ecofriendly transition, the brand will use 50% recycled plastics for juice, fizzy drink and water bottles.

Getting the customer involved

Aldi will follow Lidl’s lead in scrapping £0.05 carrier bags by the end of 2018. The cost-effective retailer will also ensure that packaging for own-label products will be reusable, recyclable or compostable before 2022.

Matthew Barnes, an executive in Aldi South Group’s coordination board, recently confirmed that the chain is committed to including customers on its journey towards becoming an industry leader in cutting plastic waste.

“Our customers trust us not only to offer them high-quality products at unbeatable prices, but to help them lead healthier, better lives,” he explained. “That includes reducing waste, particularly around unnecessary packaging and plastics that damage the environment we live in.”

This announcement builds on Aldi’s determination to reduce its environmental impact, as evidenced by its removal of plastic stems from cotton buds and ban on microbeads.

Policy on plastic reduction

Metro is another European retailer with a clear agenda for plastic reduction. To combat consumer criticism regarding waste, the business has created a packaging policy that states “Packaging is key in the way Metro provides customers with own-brand products... As part of its sustainability approach, Metro is committed to [reducing] the environmental impact of packaging during the whole product life cycle, whilst maintaining the highest quality and hygiene standards expected by our customers.”

In short, the policy strives to promote packaging that fulfils five principles: remove, reduce, reuse, renew and recycle. This means that packaging is designed to use fewer materials, thus generating lower volumes while optimising transport and distribution efficiencies. Furthermore, the five Rs will help to increase the use of recycled materials, as well as the recyclability and compatibility of packaging.

The company will assess the viability of new packaging materials or alternatives, in order to limit its environmental impact. Metro will avoid PVC where possible replacements exist, minimise post-industrial waste and tell customers how to correctly dispose of products. It aims to review and apply these principles to 4,000 own brands by 2020, and will frequently report on its progress.

Taking sustainability directly to suppliers

Last year, US supermarket Walmart launched a sustainability platform under the name Project Gigaton, which urged its suppliers to focus on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions created by their operations and supply chains.

In a statement, Laura Phillips, senior vice-president of sustainability, stated, “Through the years, we’ve seen that integrating sustainable practices into our operations improves business performance, spurs technological innovation, inspires brand loyalty, and boosts employee engagement.” She added, “Our suppliers recognise the opportunity to realise those same benefits in their businesses. By working together on such an ambitious goal, we can accelerate progress within our respective companies and deep in our shared supply chains.”

A post on the company’s website, in regard to improving packaging and product design, said, “As we work to eliminate waste in our operations, we also know that, as a retailer, we have the opportunity to engage with suppliers and manufacturers to encourage them to ‘design waste out’ of the products sold in our stores and online. While the primary responsibility to create sustainable products rests with our suppliers, we don’t want our customers to have to choose between affordability and sustainability when they purchase from us… While Walmart is not ultimately responsible for the design of the products we sell, we are actively encouraging our suppliers to factor reuse and recycling possibilities into their designs.”

An example of this comes from Walmart’s UK subsidiary, Asda (which is in the process of merging with Sainsbury’s), regarding complaints made about the packaging used for some ready-to-cook poultry meals that emitted an odour upon opening. The supermarket then created a pack that enabled customers to simply pierce the film, thus eliminating odours and the process of handling raw chicken. This package then goes into the oven and can be recycled.

Walmart is also working with suppliers to help them incorporate more recycled content into their packaging materials. Currently, 23% of packaging on its shelves contain post-consumer resin, but that figure is set to rise.

Supplier collaboration and consumer education are essential, as is making it easier to understand the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s How2Recycle label programme. With this, standardised packaging labels provide consistent and transparent information to customers about what can – and can’t – be recycled. Labels also generate conversations about why a particular item cannot be recycled or why it’s only recyclable in certain areas.

The variety of clothing and shoes presents another challenge when it comes to using the right amount of packaging. Too much creates unnecessary waste, while too little fails to protect an item during transit or in store. However, Walmart solved this issue for the apparel sector by implementing a tool that optimised the size of corrugated cardboard shipping cartons, which is available for buyers, and replenishment and sourcing teams. With this, it reduced the number of boxes used by 8.1 million, saving nearly 6.3 million pounds of corrugate, preventing more than 7,800mt of greenhouse gases and cutting operational costs by $15.3 million.

The US giant also focuses on other areas where it can limit packaging or remove it altogether. Since 2013, 85 million pairs of shoes moved from boxes to hangers. The results have been clear: conserving space saved 16 million pounds of corrugate, eliminated more than 20,000mt of greenhouse gases and lowered costs by $9 million.

Cutting plastic by the ton

Packaging not only protects the safety of consumers’ food, but also slashes food waste and communicates information effectively to customers. Being lightweight allows plastic packaging to limit material use and greenhouse gas emissions; however, most plastic packaging is not recycled or reused, causing a variety of problems, including filling the oceans with non-biodegradable plastic.

On its website, Ahold Delhaize responded to this worry, stating, “We are conscious that we need to move to a more circular system to reduce the negative impacts of plastic. The focus of Ahold Delhaize and local brands to date is on where we can make a direct impact: optimising ownbrand product packaging, reducing single-use plastics used for carrier bags and recycling plastic waste generated in our own facilities.”

In Belgium, the company ditched unnecessary plastic packaging for certain organic products by transitioning to ‘natural branding’, which is the application of labels using a laser. This process decreased the plastic used to package butternut squash by 2t annually.

Delhaize’s Dutch supermarket chain, Albert Heijn, will be working hard to reduce the weight of all the company’s packaging by 5% in 2018, upping its target to 15% by 2020. As well as designing a lighter top seal for readyto- eat fruit – which will help to save 300t of plastic each year from 2018 – the retailer also started using concentrated formulas for its laundry range, decreasing plastic use by 42t annually.

“Our brands in the EU no longer distribute carrier bags for free, and our brands in the US are also taking steps to reduce single-use carrier bags,” Delhaize added. “In 2016, the Stop & Shop and Giant brands in the US reached a milestone of reducing one billion single-use bags over a five-year period through better bagging techniques and promoting the use of reusable bags with customers. All US brands provide and promote reusable bags.

“For plastic waste generated within stores and warehouses, our brands have strong systems in place to collect plastic pallet wrap and packaging for recycling,” the company concluded. “In 2017, we collected over 20,000t of plastic for recycling. Collecting all plastics is part of our overall goal to recycle 80% of total waste across our operations by 2020.”

Dutch supermarket Albert Heijn aims to reduce the weight of its packaging by 5% this year.
Aldi is determined to be one of the front runners in preventing uncessary waste. This year, the brand will remove £0.05 carrier bags from its shops.

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