Financial incentives for recyclability the way forward, says Co-op

A fiscal system that rewards recyclability and labelling, coupled with reducing the range of polymers available for use, would enable retailers and waste management firms to better tackle the rise of plastics pollution, according to the Co-op's environment manager Iain Ferguson.

Speaking to edie ahead of his appearance at edie Live in May (scroll down for details), Ferguson claimed that Government talks to design economic incentives for recyclability would act as a “step in the right direction” that would allow retailers, producers and the waste industry to overcome barriers to improving the recyclability of packaging.

“Governmental talk about designing a fiscal system that rewards recyclability and labelling would be, in my opinion, a step in the right direction,” Ferguson told edie. “The right fiscal system will make it progressively burdensome to use materials that can’t economically be recycled by the waste management industry. 

“It is clear that there is more that needs to be done – plastics do bring well-documented advantages – shelf life extension and food waste reduction; transport impact reduction for instance – and it is true that this can get lost in some reports. Alternatives need to be scalable and sustainable, and involve multi-stakeholders co-operating which is in our DNA and something that we advocate and support.”

Co-op is one of the many retailers that is tackling resource efficiency as part of a sustainability strategy. The Group pledged to make all of its own-brand packaging recyclable, with an interim goal of 80% recyclability set for 2020, and has backed the introduction of a nationwide bottle deposit return scheme (DRS) to help reduce plastic pollution.

The interim target for 2020 is a different from most recyclability goals as it measures by product line rather than weight. In this case, packaging bags, such as rice, have the same significance as glass packaging “because that’s what the customer sees”, Ferguson said. Recyclability for own-brand packaging currently stands at 71%, but Ferguson notes that the “hard miles are ahead”.

As a co-operative, around 4.6 million members have a say on how the Co-op operates. Plastics is a key debate in the UK following the publication of the 25-Year Environment Plan, but the retailer has proved that packaging can have a positive role.

Co-op has worked with scientific advisors to produce special packaging and vacuum packs that increase product shelf life. On the other hand, Co-op research found that two-thirds of all recyclable consumer packaging in the UK ends up in landfill or being sent to incineration, highlighting how behaviour change and infrastructure are notable areas of the wider plastics debate.

Ferguson also chairs the Rationalisation of Packaging Working Group, instituted by WRAP, aimed at improving recycling. Co-op are also members of RECOUP, which provides a hub of resources on packaging and recycling. Ferguson wants to use these forums to generate “multi-stakeholders solutions” and is an advocate of On-Pack Recycling Labels (OPRL).

In regards to labelling, some brands and retailers have shunned the OPRL scheme developed by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) in partnership with WRAP, which seeks to make it easier for consumers to know what packaging is recyclable.

Brewing solutions

Earlier this year, Co-op became the first retailer to develop a fully-biodegradable paper tea bag – removing all uses of polypropylene plastic as a result. Ferguson believes that a potential solution to reducing single-use plastic production – although a greater understanding of what single-use entails should also be fleshed out in his opinion – is narrowing the range of polymers that brands and retailers use.

“I think a solution may lie narrowing the range of polymers that we (all brands and all retailers) use, to remove multilayers from plastic trays, and to remove colours. All these will make it more commercially viable and therefore more attractive to collect and recycle packaging – making any plastic that is used a resource, rather than a waste. It will also mean that more local authorities are likely to start collecting more packaging formats.

“Switching to more sustainable alternatives is an area we are actively exploring. Some alternatives that have been suggested would also need a change to collection systems – for example, biodegradable (compostable) packaging would need to be accepted into food waste collections, but that is not possible at present.”

Iain Ferguson at edie Live 2018

Co-op’s environment manager Iain Ferguson will appear on the Resource Efficiency theatre at edie Live to discuss the need for innovation and collaboration to catalyse change across the packaging supply chain to drive sustainability.

Running between 22 – 23 May 2018, edie Live plans to show delegates how they can achieve their Mission Possible. Through the lens of energy, resources, the built environment, mobility and business leadership an array of expert speakers will be on hand to inspire delegates to achieve a sustainable future. For more information click here.

Matt Mace

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