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It’s not just packaging…

In June, retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S) announced that all the objectives relating to waste and recycling, as part of its Plan A sustainability initiative, had either been achieved or are on target. Its How We Do Business report detailed the progress of Plan A, which was launched in 2007. It revealed that, three years on, significant progress has been made by the retailer in relation to waste and recycling.

The report follows an announcement made by the company in March that it was expanding Plan A, adding further targets. All this would seem to suggest that sustainability is an issue of primary importance for the retailer and one which it is continually looking to address. So in view of the new commitments published in March, including the launch of its first local authority recycling partnerships, and the results published in June, how does the retailer feel about its Plan A performance in relation to waste and recycling?

M&S head of food packaging Dr Helene Roberts explains that the company recognises the importance of packaging when it comes to protecting food but it was also necessary to look at ways to reduce it.

She says: “We do need packaging - it is fundamental to sell delicious, high-value, innovative products. However, there are times when we use too much packaging and we needed to redress the balance in getting to an optimal level. So we set out to reduce our packaging by 25%. But we wanted to balance this reduction with making the right decisions environmentally from our customers’ perspective. It would be very simple, for example, to take all our glass and put it into film, but those sorts of decisions just don’t actually make sense. So we also committed to trying to reach 100% recyclable packaging.”

The Plan A journey for M&S has not simply been about recycling and reducing its packaging: the company has also invested in sourcing sustainable raw materials for its packaging from the outset. Working with the Forest Stewardship Council has been key to this process, demonstrating that the cardboard used in M&S packaging is sourced from sustainable certified forests. This is something which had never been done in packaging terms previously.

“We talked with some really forward-thinking councils and said ‘there has got to be an interesting way of working together and creating partnerships’ “

“We want to control our packaging from end to end, so we have full traceability on where it comes from right back to the forest,” says Roberts. But the drive to use sustainable materials did not stop at cardboard, and M&S also focused its attentions on other packaging materials, most notably plastic, where sustainable sourcing is far more complicated.

“Some plastics are collected for recycling, some aren’t, so it is a complicated area,” she says. “When we launched Plan A, plastic for food packaging was being made from virgin material only. So we started working with partners such as Closed Loop, the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) and others to show that you could use recycled materials in food-grade packaging which gave a much higher value to recycling plastic than making park benches or cones out of it. We were really at the forefront in driving recycled content, and we have got to 50% post-consumer waste in PET, we are at 10% for HDPE and we will move to 30%.”

As well as sustainable raw materials for packaging and looking at ways to reduce packaging, M&S also aimed to drive recycling by making it easier for its customers to understand which materials could be recycled. So working with local authorities, WRAP and other retailers under the leadership of the British Retail Consortium, a labelling system was devised to advise consumers whether the packaging on their product could be recycled.

It’s now three years since the launch of Plan A, and there is no escaping the fact that M&S has made some significant steps towards reducing packaging waste and increasing the recycled content of its packaging and the figures speak for themselves (see box). Of particular note is the fact that the retailer has got as far as it believes it can in terms of the recyclability of its packaging, currently 91%.

Roberts explains: “We can’t really achieve 100% without making other decisions that, again, are not necessarily the right thing when you take the broader picture, such as putting everything into tin cans or glass bottles just because those materials happen to be collected depending on where you live. So we have said let’s park that for the moment and then we will take that on in a different way.”

The way in which M&S has chosen to take this on is through the launch of its local authority recycling partnerships. “We could talk about local authorities’ responsibility to remove waste and the local authorities could say to us ‘you generate the packaging, it’s your problem’, but I don’t think that helps anybody,” says Roberts. “So we talked with some really forward- thinking councils and said ‘there has got to be a really interesting way of working together and creating partnerships’, and that is what the local government recycling partnerships is about.”

M&S launched this initiative with Somerset Waste Partnership on 3 April. Roberts continues: “We said ‘okay, we’ve got about 60,000 tonnes of packaging coming into the marketplace - how can we help to recycle 60,000 tonnes in return?’ One doesn’t offset the other, I am not suggesting it does, but there seems to be a natural balance to working with councils to help them increase their recycling rates.”

The company plans to launch a similar partnership with Kent Waste Partnership later this year.

“We had some criteria by which we are helping to fund the extended service in these areas, and part of those criteria is to ensure that we get recycling driven in the UK so that the material collected doesn’t simply get exported,” Roberts adds. “Partly we wanted to be able to take that material ourselves. So there is a money flow and that’s important. But what’s more important is that we can take that material and truly close the loop. We have got to the point now where we work with Closed Loop Recycling in Dagenham, that is feeding our converters with the packaging that is going into our food supplies, and we’re using that with our products and passing that on to the customer. But there was a missing link with the customer, and what we are doing now is that final part of the closed loop chain.

“We’re saying to householders - it doesn’t necessarily need to be our customer - ‘we’ll take that extra material and we’ll do something with it’. So we helped to show that you could take something that wasn’t being collected in Somerset, such as cardboard and plastic, and you can do something with it to create value back to the area.”

According to Roberts, it looks likely that the forthcoming Kent partnership may be more of a challenge to implement than the experience in Somerset. In Somerset, the partnership has had to be co-ordinated across five district councils and a county council and covers a population of around 500,000. But in Kent there are 13 district councils and a population of around 1.5 million. “We haven’t got all of the solutions to everything, but it is about starting and trying to do the right thing.”

In March this year, WRAP launched phase two of its Courtauld Commitment, a voluntary agreement aimed at improving resource efficiency and reducing the carbon and wider environmental impact of the grocery retail sector. M&S was one of the 29 retailers and brands to pledge its commitment to the second phase of the agreement at launch. Phase two, which moves away from solely weight-based targets, and aims to achieve more sustainable use of resources during the entire lifecycle of products, throughout the whole supply chain, is seen as a positive step.

Roberts says: “We want a broader set of metrics in terms of looking at the sustainability of packaging and also understanding how packaging works with product. You don’t buy packaging when you go in to our stores, you are buying a product, and you are thinking about the carbon and energy usage in that product.”

Roberts cites the changes made to the packaging of M&S beef as the best example of this.

“Red meat is quite a carbon-intensive element of our product range. If you look at our carbon footprint, 6% of that is packaging and the rest is product-related, whether that is about manufacture, distribution or refrigeration,” says Roberts. “That 6% of packaging is an incredibly important investment for us to make to protect the carbon footprint of what we’re selling. We wanted to re-think how we sold beef so we worked with Cryovac, which is a sealed air company, and we produced what we call Skin Pack.

“Skin Pack afforded a 34% packaging reduction, which was fantastic to start with. But, even more importantly, it also gives five days of extra shelf life and the eating quality is of noticeable difference, which we had measured externally by a research association for eating quality on food.”

Roberts says that this extra shelf life and reduced packaging is not only a benefit to the customer. The longer shelf life gives the company more time to manage its stock, meaning that less is wasted. It is thinking about packaging in a more holistic way such as this which is central to making the best decisions around sustainability, according to Roberts, and it is this which M&S intends to drive forward through its existing and new Plan A commitments.

As Roberts says: “We are looking at it from a carbon perspective, an energy perspective, we are looking at water and all these parts. And we are linking our packaging much more with product and we will continue to do so.”


  • 20% reduction in packaging, and M&S confirms it is on course to meet the initial Plan A target of 25%
  • 91% recyclability on all its packaging, according to WRAP criteria
  • 84% of cardboard is now sustainable and has a sustainable accreditation. Of this, 70% is from FSC forests
  • 84% of products made from PET: clear rigid packaging and film contain a 50% recycled content and the company intends to drive this to 100%
  • 88% of HDPE sold by M&S has a recycled content of 10% and it intends to drive this to 30%

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