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When a Co-op Member deposits plastic film packaging at Co-op’s collection point, what happens next? That’s what Co-op Member Saul Deeson wondered, so he spoke with Co-op’s Packaging Technologist Rob Thompson to find out. Rob explained the importance of recycling film, the challenges of recycling, and the future of sustainability.
Given my interest in sustainability, I was already aware that various types of plastic feature on Co-op shelves. But until I spoke with Rob, Co-op’s Packaging Technologist, I’d never considered the logistics behind the scenes that customers don’t see.
Local councils provide us with the means to recycle most plastics, but not plastic films such as polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) bags and wrappings, typically because it’s not cost effective to do so. I found this concerning as much of my weekly shop includes food packaged in such soft plastics. Fortunately, Co-op has recognised the issue and is offering a solution.
From 9 July, a signposted collection point ready for our used clean, soft plastics will greet us in 1,500 Co-op stores across the UK. Rob told me how important film is for the packaging industry, so this roll out of collection points will support Co-op in meeting its goal of using recyclable materials in 100% of own-brand products by the end of 2021.
But before we deposit our used film into the bin, we must make sure it’s clean. This is particularly crucial for packaging that contains wet produce, such as pet food pouches. I asked Rob why this is, and I was fascinated to hear about the recycling process once the film is collected in store.
First, it’s taken to a facility for sorting. This is where cleanliness factors in. If the film is dirty, it will contaminate the output, and enough food waste amongst the film will make the material unusable. Similarly, I learnt plastic that isn’t film will adversely affect the process, meaning it’s crucial we only put soft plastics into the bin.
When I heard this, I considered how a shampoo bottle is much denser than a bread bag—this is because the plastics are different on a physical level. Co-op is using the term ‘soft’ to describe the accepted plastic—fruit and veg bags, for example. We’ll see ‘Clean it, Scrunch it, Co-op it’ along with posters at the in-store collection points to help ensure only appropriate packaging enters the recycling point.
Once sorted, the recycled film is refined into pellets, which are the raw material for new products. Unlike food waste and plant-based materials that decompose, plastics only break down into smaller pieces. This is why plastic waste is such an issue—it doesn’t disappear. But because plastic doesn’t decompose, that allows Co-op to reuse the smaller pieces.
In this case, Rob told me the pellets are melted then formed into bin liners for use in store. Previously, Co-op used recycled materials for its ‘bags for life’. However, in line with Co-op’s ambitious 10-point climate plan, it has stopped selling the plastic bags in favour of compostable carrier bags. It’s anticipated this will remove around 870 tonnes of plastic—equivalent to around 2.7m bags of crisps—from circulation each year. It’s an incredible figure and one which is hard to put into perspective.
At this point, I was curious if it was possible to recycle already recycled materials, and if so, how many times. The key factor is durability, and I was impressed to learn current research suggests plastic can be recycled at least eight times. That means the film recycling scheme is not only saving material from landfills and incinerators, it’s reducing the consumption of new materials.
As more manufacturers and organisations follow in Co-op’s footsteps, market forces will reduce the cost of recycled materials, making products produced from recycled materials more prevalent. This scheme has the potential to influence substantial change, and it’s exciting to be a part of that as a Co-op Member.
To accelerate that journey, we can help by having conversations about the scheme with those around us, encouraging them to use the store collection points. As everyone becomes more familiar with ‘Clean it, Scrunch it, Co-op it’, there should be fewer contaminants in the recycling unit, improving the scheme’s efficiency. It should also help reduce litter in our communities.
In the future, as Co-op continues to lead the fight against climate change, Rob suggested we’ll see more plastic reduction in store. Glass lightweighting, the process of producing thinner glass, is another possible avenue for reducing emissions.
Finally, Rob was keen to highlight the impact of food waste, which can sometimes go under the radar. “If food waste was a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of climate change gases after the US and China.”
With that in mind, by shopping responsibly and returning soft plastic to Co-op, we’re ensuring a more sustainable world for everyone.
Find how Co-op Members have championed recycling and sustainability at Co-op by clicking here.
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