Approx 860 words.

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.  
There are always ways for you to get involved with your Co-op. Head to your member account to see what opportunities are available now.  

Saul Deeson 
Co-op Member 

Join the conversation! 42 Comments

  1. I applaud the Co-op for their initiative to collect soft plastics for recycling, but they have immediately lessened the impact of the scheme with the size of the collection bins.
    Every time I go to my local store with my soft plastics, the bin is full to bursting (and I gather from the staff that they are having to empty it with monotonous regularity). There is no way I am going to take my rubbish home again, so I then have to plunge my hand in to push down what’s already there in order to add my contribution. Surely that constitutes a health hazard! It’s just lucky that at present there’s plenty of hand sanitizer available…
    So please, Co-op, if you’re going to do something and make a big song and dance about it, then do it properly. If you really want to encourage customers to recycle, you need GIANT bins.

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  2. Vdvpvysklobrvpobct

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  3. It does yes Bill! We do ask if you could pop it before bringing it in though! 🙂 ^Ryan

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    • A questioner on bubble wrap was told yes include it – but pop it first WHAT ? every single tiny bubble ? oh come on that would take forever

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      • Give it to a child to jump on!,

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        • we do not all have children available and anyway that would be inefficient.- there would always be some missed ones. I think the Co-op cannot possibly have meant – or been referring to – the sheets with thousand of tiny bubbles.

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  4. I can’t find any mention of the ubiquitous bubblewrap. Does it qualify as thin film?

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  5. The Co-op has closed all of their large shops round my way and sold them off to other retailers. The only large store left is at Ryton and I was told by a member of staff there recently that when it is modernised, that too will be reduced in size.

    I’m totally perplexed because the Co-op sold 298 of its smallest stores to McColls in 2016 with the aim of providing a more consistent shopping experience by focusing on stores primarily in the 2000–4000 square foot bracket where a greater range of own brand products could be sold.

    In the north east, however, this does not seem to have been followed. Selling off the much larger Jesmond store to McColls and keeping possibly one of the smallest Co-op’s in the country in Fenham being a prime example. Converting the Co-op in Fawdon to a NISA, which does not accept Co-op loyalty cards seems totally baffling.

    In Newcastle City Centre, allowing a franchise Co-op to open in the University, while at the same time, shutting the directly owned store on Market Street, which in turn, had replaced the much larger Food Hall in the iconic Newgate Street Department store.

    So, this initiative on recycling rings rather hollow to my mind, as all of the small Co-op’s are excluded from it, presumably on the grounds of cost.

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    • Hi Kevin, this is just the beginning of the scheme and we’re rolling it out across more stores over the year. We are planning to have another 800 stores with this by November. ^Cat

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  6. Hey Ben, if you go to https://coop.uk/3zddgX3 it will give you a full list of stores that have the recycling points at the moment. We are planning to have another 800 stores with this by November! ^Ryan

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  7. Hi Linda, while going plastic free may, on the face of things, seem the right thing to do, changes have consequences, both intended and otherwise. Co-op is committed to the elimination of unnecessary plastics, and this is balanced against the need to also minimise food waste. ^Fi

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  8. All of the Districts/Boroughs in Leicestershire apart from North West Leicestershire also accept soft plastics for recycling. It is included in their mixed (co-mingled) recycling collection and is separated at the Casepak plant on Sunningdale Road. However, their’s is mixed material so likely to be less efficient than your similar materials. Also they have a size limit. Nothing smaller than say a bread bag or a salad bag would be separated. Does your scheme have a similar size limitation?

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  9. I went to co-op on Nottingham road in chaddesden and this branch is listed on your website as having a soft plastics recycling point but to my disappointment I could not see one anywhere!

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  10. Hi Amber, we’ll only accept soft plastics, please remove labels where you can. ^Scott

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  11. Hi Lorna, thanks for the comment, we’ll recycle all the plastic that you’ve mentioned 😊 ^Scott

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  12. Although this is a giant step forward, would it not be easier to stop using so much plastic? Since I first shopped at the Co-op, the amount of plastic has increased dramatically. Isn’t it possible to only stock drinks in either glass or cans, and re-introduce loose fruit and vegetables? Should the argument against the latter be waste, I’m sure there is more waste having to buy packs of fruit and veg which goes off before being used! And why not completely stop plastic bags altogether?

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    • Totally agree Linda. The range of fruit and vegetables wrapped in plastic is ridiculous; even individual swedes, a tough vegetable, are wrapped in plastic – why? This didn’t used to happen. As for the argument about waste|: I have shopped recently in a self-serve greengrocers – nothing covered in plastic and very little waste. The staff told me that any ‘bruised’ produce is offered in a discounted section.

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  13. Hi there, there is no simple answer to this. It depends on the type of plastic, how it is being recycled and what it is being recycled for. The material we collect is turned by an organisation called Jayplas into post-consumer plastic granules which are then made into useful secondary products – including: bin liners; rigid products such as buckets, and material for the construction industry – using specialist plant located at a number of its UK sites, rather than flooding land-fill sites, going to incineration or, being shipped overseas. ^Ryan

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  14. Where exactly and by whom is the downcycling process carried out.
    What by products or energy input is required for the process, how much does it actually cost.
    How much CO2 is produced?
    Does the end product re-enter the recycling process.
    These question should be answered too.

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  15. While going plastic free may, on the face of things, seem the right thing to do, changes have consequences, both intended and otherwise. Co-op is committed to the elimination of unnecessary plastics, and this is balanced against the need to also minimise food waste.^Ryan

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  16. Hi Martin, the plastics collected will be recycled in the UK and, turned into useful secondary products – including: bin liners; buckets, and material for the construction industry – rather than flooding land-fill sites, going to incineration or, being shipped overseas. ^Fi

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  17. That’s great to hear. Thanks for supporting us! ^Fi

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  18. Hi Gulia, thank you so much for your suggestions. You can see a list of items which can and can’t go into our soft recycling units here ➡️ https://coop.uk/2VBkky5 ^Fi

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  19. You continue to use brown paper bags with a plastic window for bakery items such as rolls, Danish pastries and the like. the use of plastic in such bags surely prevents them from being recycled? why not simply use brown paper bags?

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  20. Excellent, Co-Op, well done for this initiative! A couple of suggestions:

    1) The article is very informative. For those who do not get Co-Op emails, it will be good to place posters in the shops with clear infographics on GREEN and RED items i.e. the ones that can and cannot be recycled through this initiative.

    2) Co-Op should reduce sale of packaged fruit and veg. Please offer them loose and let people take the quantity they want into paper bags (like in farm shops). This will reduce both food waste and plastic.

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  21. I am surprised at your definition of soft plastics. Bread bags, fruit bags etc are truly soft and when scrunched do not really spring back , these I understand are LDPE . Other film packaging which is more springy I understood to be PET or PS ?like biscuit wrappers , crisp packets etc. But certainly different to bread bags. Can they really be recycled together?

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  22. I was excited to see a bin for this in our local Forres store! I hate putting soft plastic to landfill. Thank you, Coop.

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  23. Hi – sounds good in principle! Agree better not to have plastic packing in first instance!

    What guarantees can co-op give that the soft plastic taken to store is actually recycled and not exported to a developing country and burnt/ placed in landfills etc?

    Interesting Greenpeace demonstration highlighting this issue:
    https://act.greenpeace.org/page/86295/data/1?source=EM&subsource=OCPOPSOAEM02JC&utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=Plastic+drifter+twitter+tool++OA+20210712&utm_term=Full+List

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  24. “In this case, Rob told me the pellets are melted then formed into bin liners for use in store.”
    And where do those bin liners end up?
    I would be far more impressed with your efforts if so many of your products weren’t wrapped in soft plastics or contained in plastic trays which no one seems to want for recycling.

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  25. I collect my scrunchable plastic in a plasric bread bag, or similar, and when full take them to the Co-op to put in the recycling bin. What about plastic that has paper labels on it, like price or reduced labels, can it be recycled?

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    • Hi Amber, yes is the answer. The plastic goes through a “wash plant” that removes labels, glue etc before being processed into the pellets for re-use.

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  26. Hi there Margaret, yes! We will take materials bought from other retailers! 🙂 ^Ryan

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  27. Fantastic. I don’t want to clog the bins with the wrong stuff. Tesco crisp packets say ‘not recyclable’, do you want them?

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  28. Hiya
    I’d like to know where in the world this process of making soft plastic in to pellets takes place please?
    Is it shipped or flown out to other countries, for example India?

    Thank you.

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  29. Very interesting, but It would be helpful if Once sorted, the recycled film is refined into pellets was further explained.

    Regards

    Henry Emblem

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  30. “It’s what we do.”

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  31. This is a very well put together and informative article which should have a much wider circulation.
    I will mention that of course several supermarkets have been offering containers in-store for the thin plastic carrier bags for a very long time, Lately, produce bags from Waitrose all have a sign on saying they can be recycled at larger stores.

    The key in all this is how the customer recognises the different types – and a MUCH clearer universal marking system needs to be established. (rather like the traffic lights for sugar levels etc) . .And what about those produce bags made from vegetable matter ? They have a very different feel to them,. and will home compost; but if they get into this new Co-op plastic bag collection will they contaminate it ? .

    Can someone from the Co-op comment please ?

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  32. Well done Co-op! We’ve been waiting for this for a long time!

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  33. Thank you for this article; it’s good that Co-op will allow us to recycle the plastic that my local council doesn’t accept.
    Why not take it further by reducing the amount of plastic bags used? Quite a lot of the bags are not really providing protection such as those used for apples, pears, etc, so why not just stop using it?

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  34. Thank you for the ‘sneak peek’ of the recycling scheme 😊

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