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  • Writer's pictureNick Bonney

Refill & Recycle - Is Waitrose concept store a PR stunt or a sign of things to come?

Like most people who have shopped in a supermarket in France, Italy or Spain, the volume of plastic in the fresh aisle of our supermarkets in a source of constant mystery to me. From fruit to veg, it seems that the British consumer has been educated to put convenience and aesthetics ahead of freshness or sustainability. Can’t be bothered to chop your salad? Have it pre-washed and bagged. Scared by the thought of tackling a pineapple? Just buy it chopped

However, it’s not just the volume of pre-prepared options on offer; the range of whole items needlessly wrapped in plastic is endless – from tomatoes to asparagus and from strawberries to broccoli our supermarkets have trained us that for a speedy and convenient shop plastic is clearly fantastic.

However, after many false dawns in the past, could it be that we are now seeing a breakthrough in supermarkets’ attitudes to pre-packed fruit and veg? Waitrose became the latest supermarket to take a stand on single use plastic this week with the launch of a new shopping experience at their Oxford store. From the BBC film at least, it appears the initial reaction is from shoppers is positive.

Whereas Tesco and Morrisons have both announced significant trials to remove plastic from their fruit and veg aisle, the Waitrose concept store has gone one step further introducing a whole range of products which you can purchase using your own containers (or borrow them in store) in addition to removing plastic from its fresh product aisle. There is the obvious move into dry goods (pasta, rice, couscous, cereals etc. ) but also more novel twists with beer available on tap and even wine which can be decanted into re-fillable bottles.

So what’s finally driving our grocers to take action? There is no doubt that, since the airing of Blue Planet II, our consciousness of the impact that single use plastics are having on our environment has changed significantly. Research we conducted last year showed that 84% were now aware of the issues caused by plastics in our oceans, ahead of other notable environmental issues such as climate change (69%) and air pollution from diesel engines (45%). The powerful imagery shown by programmes such as Blue Planet and the more recent Our Planet on Netflix appears to have connected with our consciousness in a way previous campaigns had failed to do.

Just One of the Striking Blue Planet Images (Courtesy: BBC)

Of course reducing single use plastic is just one of the benefits of these new approaches to merchandising fresh produce; it also helps us tackle one of our other key issues with the way we cook and eat today – food waste. It is estimated that UK households throw away over 7.3 million tonnes of food waste each year, according to WRAP in 2015. Whilst we have become increasingly value conscious in our shopping habits in the decade since the last recession, it could be argued that many of us are still far too wasteful in our consumption habits and basic skills of previous generations (meal planning, cooking with leftovers etc) have fallen by the wayside .

Indeed, inequality around food is one of the saddest facts in our society today; whilst organisations like BCG predict a 30% increase in food waste by 2030, usage of food banks continue to rise - The Trussell Trust reported a 19% increase in the use of food banks last year. The figures here are quite staggering with 1.6 million three day emergency packages issued with more than half a million issued to children.

Our Use of Food Banks in the UK (SOURCE: Trussell Trust)

The key question of course is will these changes work and are we, as shoppers prepared to change our behaviour? The plastic bag tax has been phenomenally successful in changing our behaviour. In the 4 years since the 5p charge was introduced, the volume of plastic bags has fallen by 86% in our ‘Big Seven’ supermarkets . However, for every success, there are plenty of examples where most consumers have shown themselves unwilling to change behaviour.

Whilst we may have become accustomed to carrying a shopping bag, we have shown ourselves slower to change our behaviour around coffee cups for example. Despite incentives on offer from most major retailers, it is estimated that over 99% of coffee cups are not recycled. In many cases, this is often forgetfulness or spontaneity trumping best intentions rather than a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the issue. The ‘effort’ required to remember to pack a disposable cup offsets the best intentions for many and with summer just around the corner there are still no suitable recyclable alternatives for those consumers in search of the latest Frappucino/ Frostino etc

One could argue that our current grocery environment makes it even more challenging to drive change. Whilst it’s easy for consumers to plan to take bags/ containers etc for a planned shopping missions, any initiatives which require too much forethought on the side of the shopper will require more thought to succeed when our shopping is broken down into smaller, convenience shops. The shopper journey employed in Waitrose has been successful in smaller, independent shops (e.g. The Refill Pantry here in St Albans ) but can it work at scale on a busy Saturday morning?

It’s critical therefore for the supermarkets to take a much more proactive stand on sourcing alternatives to plastic and finding the quick wins where plastic can simply be removed in addition to these headline-grabbing concept stores. In areas where structural changes to the shopping experience have benefited the bottom line (“unexpected item in bagging area” anyone?) the supermarkets have been swift to act. Time now to apply the same fervour to eliminating plastic. It’s all very well for Sainsbury’s to trumpet from the rooftops about all the good they’ve done for the last 150 years but, in reality, they and others have been more distracted with trading issues to tackle this head on.

But, of course, it’s easy to take a pop at the retailers here. If we are to reduce our addiction to single-use plastic, it requires effort right throughout the supply chain and the large FMCG brands need to step up to the plate. The Loop scheme has support from the likes of Unilever, Coke, Mars and Nestle and has launched with a small pilot with Carrefour in the Paris area. It arrives in the UK later this year and it will be interesting to see how shoppers take to this new way of shopping.

To deliver the kind of step change needed, however, requires clear direction from the leaders o these businesses; the obsessive focus and creativity to remove plastic from the supply chain cannot be underestimated. Perhaps they can take inspiration from other categories here. With a clear mission from the top, Sky have been obsessive about removing plastic from their day to day operations.

Sky Ocean Rescue Strategy (Source: Edie)

There is no better illustration of this than the packaging for the set top box. From the tried and tested cable ties to the odd plastic plug covers and even right down to the small piece of shrink wrap protecting the logo, they have found creative solutions both in packaging and distribution to eliminate the need for plastic.

If we find ways to ship consumer electronics across the world without the need for plastic, surely we can find a way to transport a humble bit of celery?..


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