Why Co-op hasn't signed up to the UK Plastics Pact

EXCLUSIVE: The Co-op is one of the two major supermarkets yet to commit to WRAP's collaborative agreement to tackle single-use plastics, but the company's environment manager Iain Ferguson believes that an "enterprising" approach to innovation will enable the retailer to rethink approaches to packaging.

edie spoke with Ferguson as the Co-op launched its new Future of Food ethical strategy

edie spoke with Ferguson as the Co-op launched its new Future of Food ethical strategy

In April 2018, signatories from 42 businesses that are responsible for more than 80% of the plastic packaging on products sold in UK supermarkets signed up to a new collaborative programme to make unnecessary single-use plastic packaging "a thing of the past".

The UK Plastics Pact had just been launched by WRAP, setting four key targets for signatories to reach by 2025. Over the next seven years, members of the UK Plastics Pact will need to guarantee that 100% of plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable, ensure that 70% of plastic packaging is effectively recycled or composted, use at least 30% recycled content across all plastics packaging, and eliminate unnecessary single-use plastics through redesign, innovation and alternative delivery models.

The UK Plastics Pact has now been signed by 99 organisations, ranging from manufacturing heavyweights such as Unilever and Danone to consumer-facing supermarkets including Waitrose, Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s. Many highlight membership to the Pact as proof that they are committed to reducing the 41.9 million tonnes of plastic waste generated in the commercial and industrial sectors annually.

Of the 99 signatories, there are two notable omissions. Both Iceland and the Co-op are yet to sign up to the pledge, noting that the targets aren’t ambitious enough.

Frozen food giant Iceland has committed to becoming the world's first major retailer to remove plastic packaging from its own brand products by 2023, while the Co-op has pledged to make all of its own-brand packaging recyclable by 2023 and 80% recyclable by 2020. It has also promised to use a minimum of 50% recycled plastic (PET) in bottles, pots, trays and punnets by 2021.

Speaking exclusively with edie, the company’s environment manager Iain Ferguson noted that the Co-op had a “history of delivering” on necessary packaging and product changes, which set the tone for plastics phase-outs ahead of the industry targets.

“We’ve been working on plastics for a long time, and we want to make a difference on them quickly,” Ferguson told edie. “It’s such a concern to our members and we’re stretching ourselves by balancing out what we can achieve, and by 2023 we have a plan to do that.”

Collaboration concerns

Exclusive interviews with the likes of Coca-Cola European Partners (CCEP) and Unilever have highlighted that companies view the UK Plastics Pact as a collaborative playing field, that allows big businesses to discuss solutions to the plastics phase-out in a pre-competitive environment and lobby for policy change.

It could be argued that the Co-op is missing out on potentially game-changing discussions that lead entire sectors out of a linear approach to consuming and disposing of plastics. However, Ferguson was quick to note that Co-op has an “enterprising” history when it comes to much-needed alternatives to plastics.

Co-op replaced the plastic stems on cotton buds with paper, back in 2006, and removed plastic microbeads from Co-op brand products “at least as early as 2001” - well ahead of the Government’s pledge to the ban the materials back in 2016.

Ferguson revealed that many of these changes happened because of strong communication with suppliers, including Coveris and Klockner Pentaplast. But as some Plastics Pact members team up to tackle more problematic issues like black plastics, Ferguson doesn’t believe Co-op is missing out on collaborative opportunities.

“Because we’ve been so enterprising on [plastic phase-outs], we get a lot of suppliers come to us with solutions,” Ferguson said. “We have led the way with innovation on these things and we challenge our suppliers. We have a history of delivering on these solutions.

“We still have conversations with WRAP and are part of the Courtauld Commitments – and I still chair a group on recyclability for WRAP, there’s no huge issue there. We’re also talking to local authorities and other retailers, but these things have to be pre-competitive. We share information where appropriate and we’ll stand up and share information on the technology we’re using.”

Thinking outside of the bag

Earlier this year, The Co-op became the first retailer to roll out a fully biodegradable range of tea bags across its own brand products, phasing out those which contain plastic. It has recently switched all of its own-brand water bottles to ones containing 50% recycled PET – well above the 30% target of the UK Plastics Pact. However, it is the company’s latest innovation that has taken collaborative approaches to a new level.

The Co-op is swapping around 60 million plastic carrier bags with compostable alternatives that can be used as food waste caddy liners. Ahead of a national rollout later this year, 22 of the Co-op’s Greater Manchester stores will be the first to offer compostable bags instead of single-use plastic bags. The bags will be accepted by the local authorities - notably Oldham Council – as part of food waste collection to be turned into peat-free compost.

For Ferguson, the compostable alternatives align to a way of thinking at the Co-op. It is no longer a case of phasing-out plastics from a company’s own operations, he noted, but rather what solutions can be introduced that also helps the waste management industry. Finding a “second purpose” for packaging is something the retailer will consider for future innovations, with black plastics, plastic films and crisp packets all on Ferguson’s “hit list”.

Ethical Strategy

The Co-op last week released an all-encompassing, “hard-hitting” new ethical strategy called “The Future of Food – a recipe for sustainability”. Alongside a goal to ensure all own-brand black and dark plastic packaging, including black ready meal trays, will be eliminated by 2020, the strategy covers food waste, energy and sourcing ambitions.

The plan provides a brief update on how much of the Co-op’s packaging is fully recyclable. Over the last 12 months, the percentage of recyclable packaging has increased from 46% to 72%. But rather than measure traditionally by weight, the Co-op has taken the step to measure recyclability by product line – meaning 28% of the products on Co-op shelves are still seeking new packaging solutions. Perhaps surprisingly, if the Co-op had measured recyclability by weight, the amount of recyclable packaging would increase to 95%.

Ambitions to improve energy consumption, lower emissions, source from ethical growing strategies and cut down on food waste are all mentioned in the new strategy. Unlike plastics, these ambitions are yet to have tangible targets set alongside them. Whereas the plastics targets have a timeframe of 2023, the wider ambitions are focused on aligning to the Sustainable Development Goals and have 2030 deadlines.

The Co-op has stated that more information and clarity on these targets will be issued over the coming weeks and months, noting that many would focus on the plastics target if they were all published together.

Matt Mace


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