Plastic packaging: Are retailers ready to face the elephant in the room?

Britain's retailers must address "the elephant in the room" that is the use of polyethene plastic for the delivery of products to and from stores, the head of sustainability at outdoor clothing company Surfdome has told edie.

Adam Hall, whose online retail distribution business has replaced polyethene with cardboard for all of its packaging, believes the UK’s recent success in reducing single-use plastic material through the carrier bag charge is “just the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to tackling the mounting problem of plastic waste.

“We’ve got very excited about the carrier bag charge, but virtually every product that is delivered to a store – whether it’s small high-street shops or online retail giants – has been pre-wrapped in polyethene,” said Hall, who is speaking at edie’s Responsible Retail conference in September.

“Some retailers have the ability to recycle or sell that polyethene on, but often it is dispersed to various outlets and the systems aren’t in place to recollect it, so it inevitably goes to landfill. This is the elephant in the room – there is no standardised information or clear guidelines when it comes to polyethene packaging, and nobody has addressed that.”

Ring-fenced budget

London-based Surfdome, which stocks more than 300 surf, snow, skate and outdoor brands including Adidas, Patagonia and Timberland, began its journey away from plastic packaging with an online survey which revealed that 41% of Surfdome shoppers would place plastic pollution at the top of their list of sustainability priorities. It also partnered with the #2MinuteBeachClean campaign to help drive awareness of the issue across the country.

Hall then decided to investigate the feasibility of replacing polyethene wrapping with biodegradable cardboard boxes for the 2.5 million items Surfdome distributes annually. But there was a caveat: cardboard is 110% more expensive than its plastic counterpart. “If you just laid that equation on the table to the finance directors, it would be thrown out straight away,” Hall admitted. “Polyethene is ridiculously cheap, so we went back to the drawing board.”

Hall instead decided to shift his focus to other reductions and efficiencies that could be made across the business – things like cutting packaging tape to exact lengths, swapping bubble wrap for recycled paper, and using refillable ink cartridge. Crucially, Hall had agreed with his bosses that the financial savings of this efficiency drive could be ring-fenced and used for the plastic-to-cardboard project.

The result: Hall was eventually able to achieve his goal of replacing polyethene with cardboard at a net cost to Surfdome of £900 in the first year. And the project is expected to achieve net savings in year two, thanks to some additional efficiency activities Hall has identified which will more than cover the remaining costs.

Environmentally, Surfdome’s plastic-to-cardboard switch has eliminated the equivalent plastic of 1.2 million bottles within the space of two years. And with the embodied carbon of cardboard less than half that of plastic, the project has also led to significant emissions savings, which are yet to be fully calculated.

The business case

Hall hopes other big retailers will follow Surfdome’s lead, but stressed that fellow sustainability professionals must adopt a “can-do attitude” to projects that have a relatively high initial cost in order to see those projects through to the end.

“It’s about thinking outside of the box and overcoming any initial challenges – as businesses do in other departments like buying or marketing,” he said. “Often, when the sustainability department achieves savings, those savings go into a bigger pot – that’s where there needs to be a change in approach.

“I accept that some of the big sustainability projects will cost more, but it’s just a case of finding other savings first – and ring-fencing them – before taking on the more expensive ones. And if you also consider the marketing benefits of these bigger, more ambitious projects, then a much stronger case can be made.”

Surfdome is now working with Plymouth University – which houses the Sustainability and Surfing Research Group – on a research project to explore other solutions to single-use plastics.

“As a retailer, we’re not going to solve the world’s problems ourselves, but we certainly shouldn’t be contributing to any of those problems,” Hall concluded.

“The research project with Professor Richard Thompson will explore the operational and technological solutions to polyethene packaging which could be scaled up, but those solutions must stack up environmentally, socially, financially and operationally.”

Surfdome at edie’s Responsible Retail conference

Surfdome’s head of sustainability Adam Hall is among the expert speakers that will appear on stage at edie’s Responsible Retail conference taking place on 20 September 2017 at the 99 City Road Conference Centre in London.

The conference will equip retailers, sustainability professionals and key stakeholders with the information and tools they need to accelerate the transition to more sustainable business practices, reduce long-term costs, improve brand reputation and increase profit margins.

Find out more and register to attend here.

Luke Nicholls

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