How can retailers minimize the environmental impact of their post-consumer packaging on the South African landscape?
This was the question explored in Cape Town during a ‘Retailers for Recycling’ meeting hosted by PETCO (PET Plastic Recycling Company ), together with Woolworths and Pick `n Pay.
Both Pick ‘n Pay and Woolworths have made commitments to a business strategy based on sustainability and increased environmental awareness, and Massmart, the country’s largest supplier of food with stores like Jumbo and Makro, is also getting in on the bandwagon. Woolworths call it their ‘Good Business Journey’ and Pick ‘n Pay has introduced a Sustainable Development Management Framework aimed at ensuring a co-ordinated and systematic approach towards the planning, implementation, monitoring and reporting of their sustainability strategy and performance.
All of these commitments are unquestionably major undertakings that will impact on perceived best practice across many corporate sectors. If these companies and others are serious about sustainability, they could impact their supply chains for the good and drive change across the board by forcing their suppliers to clean up their acts too.
During the workshop, PETCO examined the implications for Woolworth, Pick ‘n Pay and other retailers to reduce waste and sell sustainable products and asked if retailers have really taken the green gospel to heart?
Retailers play outsize green role
‘Retailers occupy a unique space between a multitude of suppliers and consumers and although they have a relatively small footprint themselves they play an outsize role in making the whole system work. We believe that retailers have a prominent role to play in creating awareness amongst consumers of recycling issues and can also work with their own suppliers to ensure that packaging is designed with reduction, re-use and recycling in mind,’ said Cheri Scholtz, CEO of PETCO (pictured below).
At the workshop, attendees were asked to consider the following questions:
- How can any container that is used once and tossed be considered a great product?
- In Europe many stores have in-store recycling facilities. Why not here?
- Why can I not buy in bulk, and save money and packaging?
- Why can I not refill my salt, olive oil or detergent containers in-store?
- Why do the labels not inform us of the products carbon footprint and where the item come from?
- Why is the recycled content of packaging (or lack thereof) not declared and why are retailers not putting pressure on suppliers to include recycled content in packaging?
- Why are plastic carrier bags displayed at the tills and why are they made of industrial waste and not post consumer waste?
- Why can I not recycle used batteries at retail stores where I bought them and why is there no information on the packaging about where the items can be recycled?
Recycling is generally considered as the optimal solution for the proliferation of household packaging. However, it depends on the recycling infrastructure and distances between collection sites and reprocessing facilities. It can sometimes cost more to sort, recover, and reprocess materials than to use virgin materials in the first place.
Sustainable consumption is key
At the top of the scale is sustainable consumption, where we strive to change the way in which consumer needs are met in the first place. This reduces environmental impact. An example of this would be bulk containers, where consumers can purchase whatever quantities of the product they need by weight instead of in individual containers.
The vast majority of containers are not designed with recycling in mind. This is problematic, and retailers must work closely with brand owners and packaging designers to ensure that design for recycling becomes the norm.
Although retailers had made some progress, there was still a disappointing low level of engagement with customers on green issues in-store and in educating consumers about the environmental and social impacts their choices make. For example, there is scant or no information on greener choices (seasonal produce, sustainable fish) or green behaviour (recycling or reducing carrier bag use) and very little has been done by retailers to engage with the public to support behaviour change towards more sustainable consumption.
Dramatically improved labelling is needed
In addition, labelling on containers needs to be dramatically improved to indicate what materials containers, labels, closures, are comprised of and whether they are recyclable or not. Retailers can now support and drive the uptake of recycled materials into new food containers by adding a percentage of recyclate.
PETCO will continue to work with retailers and has established a Retailers for Recycling Forum, with founding members being Pick n Pay, Woolworths and Clicks.
The Forum’s objectives are the following:
- Promote in-store consumer education and awareness and encourage consumers to recycle
- Liaise with suppliers to ensure product packaging is designed with recycling in mind
- Achieve sustainable growth in post consumer recycling
- Support existing and encouraging new collection and recycling networks
- Drive the use of rPET (recycled PET) and other recycled material to help stimulate demand
- Assist in the collection and sorting of post consumer packaging by motivating suppliers to ensure that packaging materials (especially plastics, and specifically PET) are clearly identified.
Thus far, the Forum has been able to achieve the following:
- Conducted best practice research on global retailers involved in recycling
- Used their influence to encourage packaging suppliers to pay appropriate recycling levies
- Reviewed the New Waste Management Act that came into effect in South Africa on 01 July 2009 and especially how it affects retailers and their suppliers
- Arranged talks on topics associated with recycling to retailers and suppliers, for example the talk on wine packaged in PET bottles (Backsberg Tread Lightly) and the carbon savings associated with this initiative
- Discussed appropriate in-store awareness campaigns aimed at consumers
- Reviewed what role government and other stakeholders can play in the Forum
According to Bronwen Rohland, Pick n Pay’s Director of Marketing and Sustainable Development and vice chairperson of the PETCO Board, the Retailers for Recycling Forum is an opportunity for retailers to share insights and best practise with respect to recycling and consumer awareness.
Retailers must motivate suppliers
‘We recognise that retailers play a significant role in motivating suppliers to reduce packaging wherever possible and also to use materials that can be adequately recycled,’ she said. ‘The other opportunity for retailers is consumer awareness and we plan to use this platform to educate and inform our customers about packaging and recycling.’
Justin Smith, Manager of Woolworths Good business journey said the establishment of this Forum is testimony to the fact that retailers are taking responsibility for the packaging they sell and willing to co-operate with each other to this end.
‘Woolworths is delighted that we are working collectively to advance packaging reduction, re-use and recycling. We recognise that retailers are the interface between production and consumption and who better than us to lead awareness amongst consumers,’ he said.