By Iain Ferguson, Environment Manager

I’ve worked as our Environment Manager for 14 years, and it’s my job to ask difficult questions and to keep pushing our packaging and waste agenda, to protect the planet we share.

The issue of plastic use is a complex one and can cause heated debate. On one hand, the material has revolutionised the grocery market – it’s cheap, it can help protect food better (thus reducing food waste) and makes packaging much lighter and more convenient. However, if it’s not properly recycled or disposed of, it can cause significant harm to our environment and wildlife. Together, we must find better ways to reduce single use plastic consumption and increase recycling.

In this week’s episode of our In it together podcast, I joined Yasmin Evans and Anita Rani from the BBC to talk plastic: the good, the bad and the ugly.

The little ways you can make a difference

During the podcast, we had a great discussion about how you can reduce your plastic consumption and recycle smartly with some easy and simple wins anyone can do at home.

We shared some simple ideas such as switching from plastic soap dispensers to classic soap bars and remembering to take your bags for life / cotton bags to the supermarket with you when you go shopping, so you don’t have to rely on single use plastic bags.

At Co-op, we’re leading the industry in terms of plastic and recyclability. It’s something our members and customers are passionate about, and through our AGM voting, we know they want recyclable or reusable packaging. In my role, I’ve been working to remove unnecessary plastic from products for years, and we’ve already made such great progress. We removed plastic sticks in cotton buds in 2006 and replaced the plastic disc that was used in our tissue boxes with cardboard a year later, doing the same thing with our pizza trays in 2018.

We were also the first national retailer to introduce compostable carrier bags in 2008 (with a relaunch in 2018). We’ve made some incredible leaps and big strides, but there’s always more we can do and need to do.

Change takes time and co-operation

As a business, we need to balance our use of good vs bad plastic. We need to think carefully about where and when we need to use plastic, and constantly ask ourselves if it adds value and, if it doesn’t, remove it.

As consumers, we need to challenge ourselves to think about our own plastic consumption and how we use it. If you have something made of plastic in your possession, reuse it as much as possible. If you plan to buy something new, think carefully about its future use and how often you can reuse it.

My final call out is if your council doesn’t collect or recycle all types of plastic or even food waste, speak to them and push them for answers as to why. If we want to co-operate for a fairer world, we need to do it together with everyone behind us.

I hope you enjoy this episode. You can listen now by streaming on personal devices via Apple, Spotify and on Acast. If you enjoy them, please feel free to share the podcasts with your social networks via Social Hub too.

Next week Yasmin is discussing all things veganism with chef Rachel Ama and YouTuber Gaz Oakley with our very own Katharine Shipley, Head of Innovation of our Delicious Food Team.

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. Bags for Life are an improvement on single-use plastics, but are harder to break down and can only make limited journeys because they deteriorate and collect germs – Morrisons have just abandoned these in favour of paper. I still have two organic cotton carrier bags which were given away in a promotion by the Co-op around 10 years ago which have served me really well – they fold up really small, and now and then I stick them in the washing machine to keep them clean. Is it a good time to relaunch these to replace plastic bags-for-life? They surely don’t cost any more to make, they last for years and are fully biodegradable when they do reach the end of their lives.

    • Hi David – we’ve had the below response from Iain for you.

      Carrier bags are really complicated because the problem we face is how to change behaviour. This is why any decision retailers make around changes to what they provide needs to be very well thought through.

      Bags for Life, if used as intended, are an improvement on single-use bags. That intended use is to reuse them until they wear out, which will be more than 60 times from my experience, and then take back to store to be replaced and recycled. That way, we recapture the material used to make the bag. Even when we have a very big message on the bags, we got hardly any returns; something around 1%. What other retailers have found is that, when they remove single-use carrier bags, a significant number of customers migrate to the cheapest available bag, and continue to use them as if they were single-use, pushing the plastic footprint up. We tested this in some of our stores back in 2017, and found just that. That’s one of the reasons we didn’t make the same change as other retailers.

      As to the bags collecting germs, this is a very valid challenge. However, if that was a major problem, we would have seen a spike in food poisoning in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland as charging was introduced and more people used reusable bags. This didn’t happen but we will of course keep monitoring as part of our work.

      In our view, paper is not a good solution. The carbon impact of paper is such that it would need to be used 3 to 4 times to have the same impact as a single-use bag. Despite what is claimed around the water resistance of their bag, if you were to put one down on wet ground (never happens in Manchester 😂), the bottom would fall out when it was lifted up. I had our supplier test just that.

      I also have 2 Co-op cotton carrier bags (Fairtrade, not organic). We stopped selling these because unfortunately sales were low and customers weren’t buying them. However, they are definitely a better solution than paper alternatives.

      Going back to the idea of behaviour change, what we have is a balanced offer, trying to take into account shopping missions. We are trying to progress further with our compostable carrier bag as our entry price point bags because this offers a valuable second use for the customer while helping local councils with their food waste collections. Where we can’t offer that yet, we still have the single-use bag. We offer the Bag for Life, but we would prefer customers to buy into a fold-away bag for convenience shopping, and the large shopper for destination shopping. All the reusable bags are made using recycled plastic, and all can be recycled at the end of life. The Bag for Life in store, and the rest in textile banks. However, I have some of the first large shoppers from when we did the brand relaunch over 4 years ago, and they still look almost new! I’ve used them at least once a week in those 4 plus years.

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