It’s almost two years since the television series Blue Planet II ignited a long overdue debate which captured the nation’s attention, pricked our collective conscience and brought a focus to tackling the problem of plastic. The proliferation of plastic in society remains a challenge, and something everyone involved in the consumer goods industry must tackle. But plastic is part of a bigger packaging conundrum, one that we need to address in full.
And as we move into the second phase of our packaging plan, that’s what we are trying to do.
At Tesco, our approach to packaging is based on 4Rs – remove, reduce, reuse and recycle. The order of these words matters. In the first quarter of 2018, we audited all packaging materials in our business and we’re taking action to: remove all non-recyclable and unnecessary packaging; where we can’t remove, reduce it to an absolute minimum including excess packaging; explore new opportunities to reuse it and if we can’t, then ensure it is all recycled as part of a closed loop.
Some packaging and some plastics can be extremely useful to help prevent other kinds of waste, like food waste. Where this is the case, we’re finding recyclable or re-usable alternatives. In January 2018, we set a target to eliminate hard-to-recycle material in our business by the end of 2019. Over the last year we’ve changed the packaging for 800 Tesco brand products, removing 4,000 tonnes of hard-to-recycle packaging. By the end of this year, we will have removed the hardest-to-recycle materials from Tesco products and are working with our branded suppliers to do the same.
We’re also exploring new technologies to make sure things like film lids and pouches can be recycled. And we’re experimenting with different ways to help colleagues and customers to use less plastic and recycle more.
We’ve turned one Tesco Extra, in Cambridge, into a trial store to reduce waste. Customers are helping us understand how we can make it easier to use less packaging – from multi-buys for the same price as multipacks to a loose-only fruit and veg aisle. When we understand what changes work best, we’ll roll them out to all our 2,658 UK stores.
At scale, this will be transformational. We could remove 490 tonnes of plastic by scrapping multipack tins; 50m plastic binders on beer cans, and 44m sporks from our “on the go” food range. The opportunity is huge. And we’re already well on the way in other areas. This month, we scrapped plastic bags with home delivery orders, removing 250m bags a year.
Now we’re taking the next big step: we can’t overlook the fact that for too long, packaging on consumer goods has been excessive. We have all looked at the settled contents of a cereal packet and puzzled over the comparative size of the bag and box. Or opened a bag of crisps and wondered why the packaging is twice the size of the contents.
This month, we brought together our partner suppliers to look for truly efficient solutions, ones that might require different materials and new designs. In some cases, it will mean going back to the drawing board.
All of this will take a huge amount of effort. Overhauling every piece of packaging in a business is hard, but it has got to be done. The potential to make a positive impact is significant given the breadth of our supply chain. We’ve already shown what can be achieved through partnerships with our work on food waste: we are now more than 80% of the way to delivering our commitment that no good food goes to waste in Tesco. There’s no reason we can’t achieve the same with packaging.
For that reason, we’re setting ourselves and our suppliers a challenge. The need is urgent, and so from next year we will assess the size and suitability of all packaging as part of our ranging decisions, and if it’s excessive or inappropriate, we reserve the right not to list the product. We’ll look at this category by category so every product is treated fairly and we’ll give sufficient time to make these changes.
There is no doubt that the efficiencies we create make good business sense. And if we get this right, the progress we make will reverberate through the whole supply chain and drive meaningful change across the food industry.
But to close the loop on packaging so it can used, re-used, collected and recycled continuously, more needs to be done. We need a standardised national collection and a truly complete and national recycling infrastructure. Today, recycling rates vary across local authorities from 65% to 14%. Without a national infrastructure, industry efforts to improve the recyclability of materials used in packaging will not have the impact we need.
To make such a step change requires considerable work from all stakeholders. In January 2018, we called on the government to introduce a national recycling infrastructure and offered to help, including giving space in our car parks for recycling and testing the collection of materials not currently recycled by local councils. That invitation stands. The need for action has never been more pressing.
If we don’t work together, we will miss the opportunity to tackle one of the biggest challenges facing us.
Dave Lewis is chief executive of Tesco