Reducing the impact of retail waste

Retailers will be expected to cut down on excess packaging under the Government's Waste Strategy. We look at what's in store for the sector.

Nearly half of the household waste that ends up in landfill originates as a purchase from retail supermarkets and convenience stores. In addition, about 20% of all rubbish put out by households is retail packaging. The retail and wholesale sector is the largest producer of commercial waste, producing 12.7M tonnes in 2002-3, of which the retail sector alone accounted for 6.2M tonnes.

The amount of waste produced by the retail sector has increased by 16% since 1998-9. And, while the amount of retail and wholesale waste being reused and recycled has increased (from 36% in 1998-9 to 52% in 2002-3), there is scope to improve this further. The Government is working with the retail sector through the Courtauld Commitment (see box opposite) and also the Food Industry Sustainability Strategy to reduce packaging waste, and there are plans to extend this agreement to non-food retailers.

Measures will be introduced to reduce excess packaging – for example, by setting optimal packaging standards for a product class – and WRAP is working with retailers and manufacturers to increase the amount of recycled content in packaging. Some are already including up to 30% recycled content in plastic packaging following research from WRAP showing this to be economically and commercially viable.

Delivering guidance

WRAP is now considering how best to provide guidance to retailers on which packaging materials – in particular, which types of plastics – should be used, and when, by means of a materials decision support tool. In addition, the Environment Agency is developing a partnership plan with the retail sector. This will cover consumer and transit packaging, identifying company milestones for waste reduction and increasing resource efficiency in stores and operations.

Single-use carrier bags are highlighted as a priority in the Waste Strategy, with an ambitious move to achieve a 25% reduction in the environmental impact of free carrier bags (plastic and paper) by the end of 2008. This reduction will equate to 3.25B fewer bags being used and will save 58,500 tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year. A review of progress towards the target will be completed before the end of 2008, and the Government will be working with retailers on joint planning for a campaign later this year.

In the longer-term, it is hoped that single-use carrier bags, issued free at point of sale, will be phased out completely. The Government will be working with retailers towards achieving this goal, which could involve retailers only selling long-life reusable bags, or charging for disposable bags.

Monitoring product life cycles

Product life cycles and their environmental impacts will also be addressed. There is a growing interest in tackling the environmental impacts created by products, with a vast array of product life cycles not yet understood. This means their environmental impacts are not being measured or addressed. The Government is setting up a new products and materials unit within Defra to drive forward work to improve the environmental performance of products and services across their whole life cycle.

This unit aims be a centre of expertise, linking stakeholders, developing evidence of product life cycles and assessing the range of impacts and successful interventions. A progress report will be published in spring 2008, focusing on four main product groupings which are thought to account for 70% to 80% of environmental impact – food and drink, passenger transport, housing (including appliances), and clothing.

Product design is an important means of achieving waste prevention in manufacture, use, reuse, and disposal. Retailers, along with producers, can reduce waste impacts through designing and marketing products that use less material and avoid the use of harmful substances, last longer and are easier to disassemble and recycle. The Government has recently consulted on new regulations which will set eco-design requirements for energy-using products – these will consider, among other things, their waste impacts.

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