Waitrose Unpacked: Supermarket unveils next steps for plastic-busting refill scheme

After trials of packaging-free, refillable products proved popular with shoppers and reduced the supermarket's plastic footprint, Waitrose & Partners is planning to make the format easier to use - and to roll it out to more stores in future.

Image: Waitrose & Partners, taken pre-Covid-19

Image: Waitrose & Partners, taken pre-Covid-19

The retail giant, a subsidiary of the John Lewis Partnership, first began trialling its ‘Waitrose Unpacked’ offering in 2019 at its Botley Road store in Oxford. Customers were encouraged to bring their own reusable containers for dozens of loose products including coffee, wine, beer, pasta, grains, cereals, laundry detergent, washing-up liquid and frozen fruit.

This format proved so popular that it was added to additional stores before the initial trial finished. It was found to reduce single-use packaging by 98%.

Waitrose & Partners had not made any public announcements around ‘Unpacked’ for several months – partly because lockdown restrictions in the UK prompted many retailers to pause their in-store refill offerings over hygiene and social distancing concerns.

But it has now confirmed plans to begin integrating refillable options – previously all kept together in a separate aisle – alongside pre-packaged versions of the same products. It will trial this approach with 51 lines at its Wallingford, Oxfordshire, branch, to see whether it encourages behaviour change.

Waitrose & Partners said in a statement that it has an “ambition” of “exploring the potential to scale-up Unpacked in the future” after fine-tuning the format.

“Waitrose Unpacked requires a fundamental change in shopping behaviour that has been ingrained for years,” Waitrose & Partners’ executive director James Bailey said. “This next phase will help us to understand if we can make refillables a routine part of customers’ shopping trips that would allow us to roll out Unpacked further in the future.”

Plastic strategy

In 2020, Waitrose & Partners used 6.1% less plastic across its own-brand and branded ranges than it did in 2017. Greenpeace believes this is the broadest and most rapid plastic reduction of any major UK supermarket.

The retailer’s ambition is to reduce single-use plastic by 20%, in absolute terms, by the end of 2021. It also has a 2025 target to halve single-use plastic packaging on own-label lines. Both targets are set against a 2016 baseline.

Aside from refillable packaging, Waitrose & Partners is switching to plastic-free materials implementing lighter weight packaging where this is less feasible.

It has also set a number of targets for removing hard-to-recycle “problem” plastics. All PVC will be phased out by the end of 2021, for example, while polystyrene and polyvinylidene chloride will be removed by the end of 2023. Waitrose & Partners has already removed all expanded polystyrene.  

Sarah George



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