Welcome to this monthly column within our broader sustainability section which focuses on what retail is doing to address the issues in its industry.
Recycling is an unglamorous but necessary element within sustainability – the bit that closes the loop and the bit that retailers and consumers alike can do without having to think too much and then feel good that they have done their bit.
So in theory an interview with the boss of a major corporate recycling firm should be full of easy wins and ticked CSR boxes for retailers. However, talking to Retail Insider, founder of leading UK recycling firm First Mile, Bruce Bratley had an unlikely plea for retailers – please stop developing so many new materials.
“My message to retailers is that the UK has an incredible recycling industry which keeps materials firmly in the circular economy and retailers need to promote this and worry less about inventing new products,” he claims. There are hundreds of different types of plastic and only a few can be re-used meaning that most are used in one-off, low value applications and then incinerated immediately after their single-use.
Bratley, who has a background in environmental academia, explains that most business recycling involves the secondary packaging consisting of shrink wrap, plastic sleeves, cardboard boxes and end-of-life stationery as opposed to the bottles, cartons, tins and other primary packaging, which make up most household recycling.
“There has been a massive shift from paper to plastics over the last 30 years,” he notes, adding: “Coke used to be only in glass bottles but customers said they loved plastic and now it’s mainly bottled in plastic.” And there are, of course, sound reasons for this in terms of its cheapness to produce, preserving capabilities and lightness.
In fact, Bratley is not particularly anti-plastic and argues that the so-called ‘Blue Planet’ effect is a bit too knee-jerk. It is not, he feels, so much a problem with plastic as a material but a problem with waste containment in South East Asia where people have traditionally thrown their, largely organic, rubbish into the sea and now do exactly the same with their increasingly westernised, and therefore plastic, waste while these countries are also a dumping ground for the world’s unrecyclable waste.
But now consumers in the UK have seen the destructive effects of plastic in the oceans and demand retailers do something about it which often leads to anomalies such as retailers turning to paper packaging, which might have a larger carbon footprint to produce than plastic and is often not recycled either.
Worse still, egged on by marketing departments with an eye on corporate comms, many retailers start trying to invent or ask for whole new packaging categories that provides the recycling industry with an even bigger headache.
“There is only really one type of glass and one type of paper in recycling terms,” Bratley explains, “but there are seven main polymers making up multiple plastic types and they require recycling in different ways”.
First Mile allows retailers to easily differentiate between different plastic waste streams in a way that is far beyond most householders uneducated in the finer points of polyethylene manufacture. “Most retailers would, of course, like a Utopian world with no plastic but behaviour change is a mix of carrot and stick,” Bratley finds.
His own favourite materials are those that can be endlessly recycled. “Glass – it’s brilliant, it comes back exactly the same,” whereas something like paper degrades slightly each time and goes from writing paper “to egg boxes and then to hospital bedpans and then nothing.”
(Part 2 of this column will run later in March)