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Chain reaction

For some years now, the retail sector, by and large, has been focused on reducing its environmental impact. And many retailers have taken great steps to minimise the amount of waste they generate while at the same time increasing recycling and recovery rates.

For instance, Tesco has diverted 100% of its waste from going directly to landfill, while M&S is well on the way to achieving its Plan A goals in 2012. These achievements aren’t just confined to the big five. Indeed, up and down the high street, retailers large and small have made significant achievements in minimising the waste they generate and ensuring that what does arise is recycled rather than going to landfill.

This positive momentum is backed up by the British Retail Consortium’s recent report ‘A Better Retailing Climate: Towards Sustainable Retail’ and WRAP’s Courtauld Commitment which recognise the breadth of activity that the sector is undertaking to tackle environmental impact. Indeed, since retailers committed to the BRC project, they have exceeded the target to send less than 15% of waste to landfill by 2013 two years early – sending just 14% of waste to landfill in 2011 (down from 45% in 2005).

However, the focus for both the BRC and WRAP moving forward is the supply chain as this is the one area where retailers are behind target, having only achieved a 0.4% reduction from 2009 to 2010 against a 5% target. One element of reducing the supply chain impact is looking at packaging, as well as other areas such as transport, production, waste management and water conservation. 

Packaging has long been a bug bear of consumers. While excess packaging is clearly bad practice the important role that packaging can play in protecting goods - performing a waste reduction role in its own right - is often unrecognised. The grocery sector is exceptionally fast moving, with often fragile goods piled high and moved across the country from manufacturing hub, to distribution centre until finally reaching the shelf.

The packaging for products needs to be robust to withstand this process and it is packaging that enables the UK to have exceptionally low figures for waste caused by product damage - less than 3%. Compared to developing nations this figure can be as high as 50%.

Indeed, while many focus on the grocery trade supply chain, one area often seen as less wasteful is online retail. However, the reality can be very different, with packaging received from suppliers delivering in bulk requiring recycling while more packaging is then produced to ship goods to customers. Earlier this year online giant Amazon announced a high-profile change to its packaging and supply chain.

The need to recycle more effectively was a key part of the reasoning, but the issue given more prominence in the press release was the desire to thwart so-called ‘wrap rage’ – the fury that customers experienced when they could not get at their online consumables. Examples of scissors coming wrapped in impenetrable packaging and requiring scissors to get into it were quoted in the press materials.

Interestingly, online retailers don’t need to rely on packaging to attract their customers. While a company website allows it to construct the brand virtually, individual product packaging is less important as the customer has already chosen and purchased from the brand. There is a huge opportunity here for brand owners to make sustainability their primary focus, rather than aesthetics. For example, looking for closed loop opportunities make an important difference as does material choice. Through the Courthauld agreement there is advancement in designers making more sustainable material choices that enable easy end-of-use recycling or reduced packaging at the outset.

There is a reason why corrugated cardboard makes up 30% of the packaging used in the UK and this is its easy recyclability. Householders recognise the material as recyclable, whereas when it comes to plastics there is much confusion. As a result, there is an 84% recovery rate for fibre packaging.

What’s crucial to achieving change in the supply chain is for the sector to work closely together. There are many examples of this already happening and alongside this has to be retailers educating consumers on packaging change. Fears among the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) brands will be the impact material change could have on product price points. This is a critical point when it comes to developing more sustainable products.

Manufacturers spend a great deal of time and money on focus groups to understand the impact of product development. At a time when food prices are rising almost week on week, sustainability improvement has to go hand-in-hand with customer buy-in. Price, not the environment, is top of the list when it comes to consumer spending.

To combat this issue, brands can look at how to minimise supply chain packaging and its impact, rather than the end product. At DS Smith Packaging, much work has been undertaken in creating packaging that uses the right amount of material, while making the best use of space, whether on pallets, lorries or the retail shelf. Good design can save money and reduce environmental impact at many points in the supply chain; from faster packing, less waste through damage or spoilage, fewer lorries, lower fuel costs, reduced storage space, better stock rotation in store and so on.

The right type of design can achieve all of the above while helping to increase sales. It may sound simple, but just designing boxes that maximise loads that can fit on a pallet or enable pallets to be double stacked on a vehicle can have significant carbon impact. Maximising transport efficiency helps reduce carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, the growth of retail ready packaging is helping to reduce waste with branded boxes going straight from manufacturer to pallet to shelf without having to be packed in separate boxes during transit.

Tackling the environmental performance of the retail supply chain, is actually a much more difficult challenge than tackling waste at a store level. Food and goods are imported from all over the world from places where the environment is at the bottom of the priority list. Therefore, the sector needs to focus on small steps perhaps at a UK level. Some of the changes are simple and easy to achieve such as thinking and designing products a little differently. But other challenges are more difficult and require the end consumer to embrace – and be happy to pay for – greater sustainability. hrough collaboration and the sharing of best practice, then the goals of the BRC are certainly achievable.

Garden centre gets greener

Dobbies garden centre chain has appointed DS Smith Recycling to look after its recycling and waste management with an ultimate aim of diverting all its waste from landfill.

The move has seen the 32-strong chain introduce recycling of mixed materials such as paper, cardboard and plastics. The recycling specialist is currently working with Dobbies to help it achieve closed loop recycling for its green waste. Eventually all green waste produced in the maintenance of the garden centres will be turned into compost by one of Dobbies’ approved suppliers. It will then be used in products that Dobbies sells.

DS Smith Recycling is trialling sending separated food waste produced in Dobbies’ cafes to anaerobic digestion plants to work out whether it is commercially viable.

“Dobbies faced the problem many businesses see when they produce relatively small quantities of different types of waste,” says DS Smith Recycling national commercial manager Tim Price. “Identifying how best to handle such mixed waste can be challenging and costly.

“Our offer to businesses and retailers means that we take away this headache. By working with our own group’s recycling operations and our partners we put in place an effective recycling system within our customers business and ensure that all material goes to more sustainable treatment options than landfill.”

Tim Price is national commercial manager at retail recycling specialist DS Smith Recycling.

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