Not every sustainable venture means starting from scratch

* 5 min read
Do you remember the days when you were woken by the milk float every morning, or when the highlight of the week was waiting for a delivery from the pop man?

Those memories may not be gone forever; according to research by the BBC, dairy firms across the UK have seen a surge in demand for milk in glass bottles since the start of 2018, with 17 out of 20 seeing a rise in sales of glass milk bottles to homes and businesses amid concern over plastic waste. Increases ranged from seven to more than 10 per cent. This is fine if deliveries are local, but larger retailers’ plans to go back to glass could have a detrimental effect, due to increased complexity and weight in transit and the risk of damage to product.

Despite this move back to glass milk bottles, soft drinks manufacturer Barr controversially scrapped its bottle return and refund scheme back in 2015 following a drop in the number of bottles being returned, from 90 per cent in the early 1990s to only about 50 per cent in 2015. The company also cited fill speed increases because of decommissioning its bottle washing function as a driver of the change.

“You might notice, when you’re on holiday in Europe and the US, how returning your wine and beer bottles to the supermarket is part of everyday life. And while it would be great to see this behaviour replicated in the UK, the fact is, we just don’t produce enough ‘glass bottle’ products (e.g. wine) to make it worthwhile. Reusing glass bottles also has other environmental implications, such as water usage, which is likely to become more of a focus for sustainability policies in the coming years. Glass is great, but it isn’t always the most responsible option."

Gillian Garside-Wight - Packaging Technology Director

It’s not just at a production level that old-fashioned ways are seeing a resurgence. In May this year, Morrisons announced that it would allow shoppers to bring their own containers for meat and fish, to reduce the amount of single use plastic being used in its Market Street counters. Date and price stickers are applied to your container by store staff to ensure the same food safety policies are applied.

Trialling new in-store experiences linked to sustainability can also offer significant brand building opportunities, especially if your brand values are built on sustainability in the first place. Household cleaning brand Ecover has been offering refillable bottles since its launch nearly 40 years ago, and has continued to innovate, recently redesigning its washing up liquid bottle to be made from 100 per cent recycled PET and making it 100 per cent recyclable.

To increase awareness of their brand and ethos, Ecover trialled a pop-up café in London at the beginning of 2018, accepting customers’ recyclable plastic waste as payment. Open for two days, the café served a zero-waste menu that could be paid for with a piece of recyclable plastic waste, in return for freshly-made food made with misshapen produce many supermarkets reject. All these interventions not only act as positive PR for the brand by building on their solid values but create a wider understanding of some of the broader issues that impact the planet – not just product and packaging.

Ecover Pop Up London BDA London Clo Tomalin 1

Taking a more traditional view on food lifespan is also a trend we’re seeing emerging, with junk food cafes and ‘pay as you feel’ pop-ups for food on the turn becoming a common sight on our high streets. Discount retailer Lidl recently launched a £1.50 food box featuring 5kg of food no longer ‘at its perfect best’ in a bid to cut food waste. Boxes are on sale in 122 Lidl stores in the first two hours of daily trading, with any remaining being donated to good causes.

“Proportionately, we sell the most fruit and veg in the sector, but we know from our data that fresh produce is one of the biggest contributors to food waste in stores, so we’re excited by the difference our Too Good to Waste initiative will make,” said Christian Härtnagel, CEO of Lidl UK.

Not only will it help customers consider items that they might have previously dismissed, it will also provide an opportunity for them to make further savings.

"Throwing away edible items can be avoided by simply offering consumers clear information to enable them to make their own decisions. Use By or Best Before has always been a source of consumer confusion. We recently conducted a poll of consumers and found only 15 per cent knew the difference between the two and, to be safe, would get rid of items with a label which has gone past the date in both instances, contributing to food waste by throwing away edible items."

Phil Dalton - Head of Regulatory

Sometimes to change behaviour in the long-term, you must emphasise the imperative, and there’s no better way to enforce it than with a financial penalty or reward. This year, the French government announced plans to place higher tax on goods using non-recycled plastic, which could mean those products cost up to 10 per cent more.

Brune Poirson, secretary of state for ecological transition, said it was one of several initiatives to encourage both businesses and consumers to think differently about the impact their behaviour has on the environment, including a deposit refund scheme for bottles and cutting taxes for recycling operations.

Charging for single use carrier bags has also helped drive significant changes in UK consumer behaviour, according to Government figures. They state that the seven main retailers issued around 83 per cent fewer bags (more than six billion bags) in 2016 to 2017 compared to 2014. This would be equivalent to each person in the UK using 25 bags during 2016 to 2017, compared to around 140 bags a year before the charge. Figures indicate that at least 80 per cent of shoppers now use bags for life.