Plastic pledges provide gateway to circular economy, says John Lewis

The recent focus on plastic pollution has given sustainability professionals an opportunity to "reframe the narrative" on resource efficiency to move business models towards the circular economy, John Lewis's sustainability manager Ben Thomas has claimed.

Pledges to reduce plastic are sweeping the retail industry following the rise in consumer awareness and the publication of the Government’s 25-Year Environmental plan, which seeks to eliminate all “avoidable” plastic waste in that timeframe. The John Lewis partnership has been no exception to this movement, with Waitrose – which joined the partnership back in 1937 – announcing that it will stop selling packs of plastic straws at all supermarkets by September 2018.

The announcement builds on the retailer’s commitment to make all own-label packing, which includes plastic food trays, widely recyclable, reusable or home compostable by 2025, a target which is also held by John Lewis.

Speaking exclusively ahead of his appearance at edie Live (scroll down for details), John Lewis’s sustainability manager Ben Thomas claimed that renewed focus on packaging will enable retailers to explore new business models that champion the circular economy and collaborative efforts to improve resource efficiency.

“The recent focus on plastic has absolutely given us the chance to reframe the narrative [on resource efficiency],” Thomas told edie. “You’d be naive to think there’s no legislation to come in off the back of this; there’s huge discussions around producer responsibility already and if you don’t start to react to these conversations you’ll be in trouble in the long term. We need to be pre-emptive of what is coming our way and certainly other brands are thinking along the same lines.”

Towards zero waste 

The John Lewis Partnership has a dedicated resource and waste strategy. Goals are in place to divert 100% of waste from landfill by 2021, as well as achieving 100% closed-loop recycling of cardboard, plastic and glass in the same timeframe.

Since July 2016, the Partnership has diverted 98.2% of waste away from landfill, while more than 67% of operational waste was recycled. Progress was largely achieved through supplier engagement and Waitrose’s involvement in collaborative forums such as the Courtauld Commitment 2025 and the Partnership’s participation in the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group (PCRRG).

For Thomas, it is these collaborative approaches that hold the key to tackling waste and embedding the circular economy as a “business as usual” approach.

“There’s a huge push to making more packaging recyclable and removing avoidable plastics,” he said. “We have a lot of aspirations and generally were going to move towards the circular economy sooner rather than later.

“We can only do this across the industry. One retailer can’t change it all and a collaborative approach is the only way of tackling it. As a collective, retail has such a strong voice to lobby and this will be paramount to shifting the agenda on these issues. It would be naïve of one retailer to think they can do it by themselves. Retailers share so many suppliers, it makes sense to tackle this collaboratively.”

Industry bodies have warned retailers that plastics and packaging are becoming “competitive issues”, but the Partnership has expressed a willingness to work with other retailers to promote the circular economy.

In 2016, Waitrose launched a range of packaging made from 15% waste peas and pulses that don’t make the grade during the pasta production process. Alongside reducing the use of virgin tree pulp, the new packaging will lower emissions by 20% and negate the need for an inner plastic sleeve within the pack. A statement on the Partnership’s website notes that “Waitrose is working to develop first-to-market solutions for new, more sustainable packaging materials that can be shared with the industry”.

Servitisation approach

For the John Lewis Partnership, resource efficiency extends well beyond plastics and packaging. The organisation is trialling numerous service-based solutions to engage with consumers and create value from second-life items.

The Partnership is utilising takeback schemes to give second life to furniture, for example. Around 10 million items of furniture are discarded in the UK annually, despite one-third of them being suitable for reuse. John Lewis’s sofa reuse scheme reused or recycled 2,000 customer returns in 2016.

A similar scheme is running for mattresses. The Partnership is working with the Furniture Recycling Group (TFRG), diverting around 1,500 tonnes of waste from landfill in 2016 by recycling around 60,000 items.

Research from WRAP suggests an overwhelming majority of British consumers have a desire to embrace circular business models when it comes to unwanted electrical and electronic products. The Partnership collects waste electronical appliances from consumers, with more than 370,000 items collected over a 12-month period.

“Reuse is an area where we realise there is a real value proposition for our customers as a service offering,” Thomas added. “Reuse is a real key thing for us and there is a massive opportunity for John Lewis to extend the life of those items.”

John Lewis at edie Live

Benjamin Thomas will be speaking at the Resource Efficiency theatre on day two of edie Live. This session will hear from some of the industry experts and organisations that have been championing closed-loop collaborations to drive resource efficiency.

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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