Woolworths dips a toe into the war against plastic pollution
Group plans to have none of its packaging end up in landfills by 2022
Humans produce nearly 300 million tons of plastic every year – more than eight million of which find their way into oceans, according to the Plastic Oceans foundation. The United Nations has worked out that if production and population rates continue as is, another 33 billion tons of plastic will have piled up on planet earth by 2050, a horrifying statistic.
Cynics would say it’s a clever way to capitalise on a mounting environmental crisis, announced as it was on World Environment Day earlier this week, but Woolworths plans to have none of its packaging end up in landfills by 2022. Given the extent of our plastic problem, we asked group head of sustainability, Feroz Khoor, why take the “phasing out” approach?
We want to ensure that we do it correctly. If we have something that needs to be replaced – let’s assume it’s plastic straws by paper straws, it’s easier to do a hard switch-over once we find the right supplier and can secure supplies.
In the case of carrier bags, that’s phased out because we’ve done customer research, they understand it’s the right way to go, but there’s a reticence for it to happen immediately because of how used to the way of shopping we are.
What we’ll do is make it easier to get used to this changeover because at a certain point in time there are going to be no bags. We’ve set the date: 2020. The behaviour change needs to happen, in that we need to also get customers comfortable and introduce alternatives to them. We know the price point (of existing reusable bags) is quite high so we’re working on introducing lower cost reusable bags.
Bags are one thing, what about plastic packaging? Woolworths seems to have loads of plastic in its products, yet you say you’ve cut packaging by almost 700 tons to date?
These things are very lightweight, so you can exchange the entire range of something and it might work out to two tons, or not even. Let’s be clear: we’re not saying we’re not going to have plastic in our business, what we are saying is we want to get rid of problematic single-use plastic. The 2022 commitment is to ensure that everything we use is recyclable.
Is the ideal of a plastic-free packaging world possible?
There’s always going to be some degree of packaging, especially in the food space, because packaging has so many roles, be it safety or to preserve food security, or for transport. The issue is: is it appropriate packaging for the product, and are we using the right amount? We’re not blind to it and there are a number of items that may be overpackaged.
Who has the power and the responsibility for doing away with unnecessary packaging? Retailers, or groups like Unilever?
It’s all of us and all of us working with the packaging industry and recycling industry. It’s a massive value chain and our target is for our own packaging, but the companies you’ve mentioned are coming up with similar targets because it’s a global problem.
Ultimately when we say we want all our packaging to be recyclable, it’s our choice. But that doesn’t guarantee it’s going to be recycled. There’s an entire industry of recyclers out there and we have to work with them to ensure they up their capacity.
Do you think SA is missing a trick in recycling waste?
Absolutely, there’s space for more capacity. We’ve got really big players and really good ones as well. With PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic, glass, and aluminium cans we have some of the highest rates (of recycling) in the world. Interestingly enough that’s because of the waste pickers we have in SA. But in the formal side there’s a huge opportunity and that’s where the challenge lies. A lot of things aren’t recycled because the recyclers are not seeing the commercial value in it.
How would you change that?
It’s us working with industry. A recent example would be the polystyrene trays that you get in products which are recyclable, but not often recycled because they’re very lightweight. If you want to collect 100 or 200 kilos you need to have a big truck, so the economics don’t make sense. We’re talking to them about finding ways of perhaps compacting on collection so that 500 kilos will now sit in a bag instead of a truck. But that requires investment in equipment. It’s also about talking with government on what their plans are.
What percentage of your packaging is recyclable now?
Approximately 85% of our packaging is recyclable at the moment. The problem is the 15% and even for that 15%, 2022 is an aggressive target because these are polymers which globally are a problem.
Does this come at a cost to Woolworths? Or is it a cost you can’t NOT bear?
There’s a bit of both: we must be doing this because it’s the right thing to do and ultimately it fits in to our approach. But it doesn’t come easily. It’s something we must do if we want to be a responsible business.