2021 was a big year for Tesco’s packaging sustainability efforts, as it embraced reuse schemes, launched a pilot to encourage the collection of soft plastics, and continued its drive to disincentivize the usage of single-use plastic. To learn more about these projects, and look ahead to 2022, we spoke with James Bull, the retailer’s head of packaging.

Broadly speaking, what is the role of retailers like Tesco in the packaging sustainability space?

All retailers have an important role, but Tesco has a unique position as a market leader. We listen to customers and have links to a vast selection of experts that help inform us of how best to improve the sustainable performance of packaging. Then we feedback to suppliers and support them to make positive changes that improve sustainability and help customers.

Our strategy is based around 4Rs: Remove, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. This means we remove where we can, reduce it where we can’t, reuse more of it, and recycle what’s left. The 4Rs are issued B2B with suppliers as a simple principle, and to customers to signpost opportunities to use less packaging and recycle more.

To date, we have improved the packaging for more than 1600 products and saved over 6000 tonnes of material in the process. This includes the removal of nearly one and a half billion pieces of plastic. We have also launched a reusable shopping service with Loop in ten stores and soft plastic recycling collection points in all larger stores.

We’d like to get some more information on Tesco’s preferred materials list – what is it, and how does it work in practice? It’d be great if you could also give some reasoning for why different materials are ranked in certain ways.

Our preferred material list was first launched in 2018 to simplify our packaging portfolio and drive circularity. The list shows suppliers the materials and formats we want to see in our packaging in a visually clear way, simply describing materials and formats as ‘green’, ‘amber’ or ‘red’.

Today’s ‘green’ preferred list stipulates nine easy-to-recycle materials that are encouraged for all packaging. These materials have the highest probability of being recycled and in nearly all cases can include high amounts of recycled content. This drives demand and endorses another loop of circularity for the materials used.

Amber materials are not so easy to recycle but we recognise that categorising these materials and formats as red would have larger negative impacts somewhere else in the chain, with food waste being the biggest factor to consider. We need to use amber materials for now, but ideally, we can work together to find alternative material or recycling solutions.

We don’t want ‘Red’ materials and formats in our packaging as they have a low probability of being recycled and better alternatives are commonly available.

The preferred materials and formats list has evolved as we discovered more and found new packaging solutions. We regularly work with material sector experts and reprocessors to assess the probability of packaging materials and formats being recycled by customers – technically recyclable is not enough, we need to help stack the odds in the favour of our customers, helping them to recycle.

A complex laminate is a great example of a changing categorisation - in 2018 this was an amber material. Removing it overnight would have driven up food waste dramatically, but as we have found new solutions and the sector has advanced with mono film solutions, most laminates can be removed from our packaging. As a result, the categorisation has adjusted to red. Other materials have shifted towards green as we have advanced in recycling solutions.

The primary aim is to encourage the design of packaging that can be widely accepted at the kerbside for recycling – we want to use packaging that is collected, sorted, and proven to be recycled in a majority across the UK ideally 75% or more.

To drill down further into this subject – Tesco has banned compostable and biodegradable plastics altogether. Why is this?

We have two key filters that help guide our decisions, the first being probability of customers handling the material in the intended way, and the second is circularity.

Firstly, looking at compostables, we must consider what customers will do with them in practice. How easy is it today for a compostable piece of packaging to end up in the right place? Right now, only a small proportion of customers are composting, either at home or composting via garden waste council collections.

If customers do send compostable materials to be composted with garden waste, in most cases it will be separated from food waste and incinerated as it cannot be guaranteed to be compostable material.

That said, in some cases compostable materials make sense. We use it, at our head office when a reusable container or plate is not a helpful solution as we manage it within a controlled food waste stream. Teabags and fruit stickers are other examples where it could work.

Big questions remain about the use of biodegradable plastics and whether they will be handled correctly by consumers. Biodegradable plastics need certain conditions to biodegrade and it’s not always clear how customers should dispose of them. Like compostables, only a small percentage of people will know to send them to industrial composting facilities and are ready to ensure this happens. If they end up in the natural environment or in landfill, they are unlikely to break down so they do not effectively tackle the problem of plastic waste. They are likely to be sent to landfill where they will not break down effectively.

In September, Loop officially launched in Tesco’s UK stores. Could you talk about this project, and give us some insights into Tesco’s overall thoughts on the potential of reusable packaging?

Reuse is the way to unlock the shackles of single-use and that is why Loop is so exciting. It is an amazing project - it’s a great example of collaboration, lots of suppliers working together to help develop a compelling range of products in a reusable container.

There are 88 products in total – 35 own brand and 53 branded – this includes popular brands, including Persil, Fever-Tree, Carex, Tetley Tea, and BrewDog. The pre-filled nature of the product means it’s about as easy as reuse can be for customers.  

The potential of the Reuse agenda is enormous. Even if people buy just a few products in reusable packaging, it can have a big impact. For example, if customers in our 10 selected stores switched their recyclable tomato ketchup, cola, and washing-up liquid bottles to the reusable Heinz Tomato Ketchup, Coca Cola, and Ecover alternatives, the packaging would be used and reused more than two and a half million times a year.

We’ve sold more than twenty thousand items already, but a lot of work is needed before it’s ready to scale. It currently costs more to sell food in this way, and we know customers are reluctant to pay a premium for reusable packaging. As a result, we’re fine-tuning and developing our proposition to find ways for it to operate efficiently and perform at scale.

Shoppers at Tesco’s larger stores are now able to bring back soft plastic packaging for recycling. Can you tell our readers more about this project, and talk about what you learned from the initial trials?

We learned in the trial that it was a popular concept. We were the first retailer to test the concept in 2019 and quickly went from emptying the collection points weekly to several times a day. The popularity meant we scaled and now have collection points in around 900 stores. We’ve recently hit the milestone of 500 tonnes of soft plastic collected in our stores.

Working with our recycling partners, we oversee the process of collection, transport, and recycling to ensure we understand and minimise the environmental impact. We will always find the best possible use for it and keep it out of landfill.

Our existing distribution network is used to transport the soft plastic to our partners, who clean and sort it. We then direct and monitor the sorted material to recyclers and wherever possible, bring it back into our supply chain.

We were able to recycle over 80% of the soft plastic returned by customers in a recent trial and are working with recyclers to explore what can be done with the remaining 20%. Some of the collected soft plastic has already been recycled into food-grade packaging for our own brand cheeses and sold in store.

We are currently exploring other products and packaging that the recycled soft plastic can be used in, considering a range of environmental impacts as we develop solutions. We’ll announce more examples of Tesco products that contain the collected material when they arrive in store in the new year.  

What does it say about our recycling infrastructure that this project even has to exist in the first place? In an ideal world, how would soft plastics be dealt with, and how can we make this a reality?

Soft plastic will continue to be an important part of our packaging portfolio for some time. While we have made considerable progress removing and reducing packaging – and we will keep minimising, there is more to do. The films, bags and pouches that make up a large proportion of a customer’s shopping basket play an important role. The properties of soft plastic are often unique in its ability to prevent food waste. 

The pending legislation about consistent collections in the UK is a valuable and extremely important piece of the environmental puzzle, there is a need for consistency which is now recognised, so what we do now is to help customers today, whilst government works with industry to design a consistent collection and recycling solution that collects all the material that needs recycling.

Soft plastic collection in-store is a stop-gap until consistent collections can be achieved at the kerbside. Kerbside is preferable as we know this will lead to a greater percentage of plastic being sent for recycling. We have found ways to manage these materials - it is possible to recycle with the right investment.

Looking ahead, what does the future hold for Tesco’s packaging sustainability efforts?

We’re proud of what we have done so far and thankful for the growing collaboration and transparency that has got us this far in our journey. We will continue in the same manner, focus on circularity, identifying and working with industry to tighten loops and create new ones, whilst continuing to challenge our entire portfolio, removing where we can, reducing where we can’t, looking for ways to reuse more and recycle what’s left.

One of the key challenges is unlocking the reuse operating model to lower the dependency on recycling. We will continue to accelerate change and drive innovation where required. This means we can tackle the issue of plastic waste without switching to materials that have different negatives from an environmental point of view.

We will continue to work together to make better use of our resources, prevent leakage and waste and do what is needed to protect our natural environment. Packaging plays an important role in protecting products and reducing food waste, but it must not come at an unaffordable cost to the planet and should never find its way into the environment.