| Eva Sturt | Décembre 2019 |

 

 

Packaging has become one of the major environmental and ecological problems of the 21st century and supermarkets have started to take their own actions. Most UK chains have subscribed to the “Plastic act” which inspired different PR think-tank models to reduce plastic wastage and increase up-cycling, thus minimising accumulation of newly produced materials. Others, such as Waitrose in Oxford, have decided this spring to “unpack”. But are they really?

 

A very media-friendly campaign

Waitrose & Partners at Oxford Botley Road are actually extending elements of their 11-week project (which ended in August) to a further three stores in Cheltenham, Abingdon and Wallingford, due to reportedly overwhelming popularity. Plastic has been a “media friendly” subject over the last year, following an increased public awakening to accumulating and shocking environmental predictions and reports. Outspoken schoolchildren like Greta Thunberg trending on Instagram are becoming invaluable mascots for populist politicians. Teenagers leaving schools in the thousands across Europe to join protests are forcing governments to act. Radical movements in London such as Extinction Rebellion receive high-calibre media support including Dame Emma Thompson.

It is not surprising that the high-end “partner-schemed” supermarket of the UK, who seems to have its finger reliably on the trend-pulse, unravelled the yet most ambitious trial: bring or buy containers to refill anything from rice to wine, dried to frozen fruit. All offered in the well know, comfortable and very alluringly modern-meets-vintage style of Waitrose – which we all love but that unfortunately only so many can afford.

 

“Why did we stop doing it like this?” Headline of Waitrose Weekend newspaper, 27th June 2019.

The “Good old days” concept has a strong pull-factor and much resonance within the public, as a BBC-report interviewing a variety of customers about the Oxford-project revealed. As a matter of fact, why wrap a cucumber in plastic, as someone acclaimed it is ridiculous that so often you need a PhD to work out how to remove the plastic [remove?] wrapping…

Unfortunately, as with any other consumer items – including the majority of foods in the western “convenience diet” – the marketing factor of labelling is many times more important than the item itself – thus the packaging is key to success. In contrast, “real-food” groceries, such as fish, meat, fruit and vegetables are subject to the practicalities of transport, shelf-life and attractiveness for consumers – which has made plastic packaging invaluable for large scale retail.

 

Romanticism vs realities in the middle class’s anti-packaging crusade

Packaging materials account for 44% of the plastic industry and produce 2 Million tonnes of waste per year in the UK alone. A first political attempt had been made by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) in spring 2018 to share the cost of disposal, proposing earlier this year a “Plastic Packaging Tax” on the producer. However, this is still in its infancy and may also be criticised for not being determined enough – since only packaging consisting of more than 70% un-recycled plastics would be eligible. Clearly the UK government remains reluctant to bite the hands that feed them…

Whoever asks the question – pupils raising banners to save the planet, parents worrying about their children’s future and health, producers protecting their businesses, supermarkets trying to keep the wheel spinning – the answers are not comfortable. Re-thinking on all levels is inevitable. Reality is: it is not if but how all supermarkets will choose to be radical.

“Waitrose unpacked” addresses one of the most urgent matters of our time. Yet currently it is rather an attractive small-scale trial serving and pleasing those who are privileged enough to afford it. As Tor Harris, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility of the Waitrose Unpacked trial, reminded their loyal clients: “we are trying to find practical answers to customer needs”. Whether this has true impact on the problem per se is at the moment unsure. The question is: might this project further inspire a different awakening to old/new ideas and ways of “consuming” to support our genuine desire to create a culture which can better manage and protect a nourishing environment? Wouldn’t that be nice?!

 

Eva Sturt

 

 

Can the plastic-Pandora’s box be affordably and effectively challenged on the grocery-retail level?
We asked two critical consumers about their opinion, experience and verdict.

 

Caroline, Teaching Assistant in Oxford, married with 3 children (aged 50)

 

What was your experience and impression shopping at the Waitrose “unpacked” branch in Oxford?

Firstly, I was interested in this, as we try as a family to do our share for the environment, recycle and reduce plastic in many places at home. To be honest though, I was not too convinced about this project. The main “unpacked” items were fruit and vegetables, yet there were still more available packaged groceries as usual at the same time. It felt a bit half-hearted. Tomatoes in carton-trays were lovely, but disproportionately expensive and I was surprised, that especially that Waitrose’s exclusive Dutchy Organics groceries were still all packaged. The re-usable containers for purchase were overpriced – also heavy and unpractical. I support the idea of reducing packaging but I have not been convinced by this particular experiment.

 

Do you think there is a future potential?

I think, this is an unrealistic interpretation of “old-fashioned market-style shopping”. I grew up in Germany, and going to a greengrocer or butcher with your own bags was normal. You had the service of freshness paired with low running cost of a business and I don’t think you can translate this “small-enterprise” idea to the supermarket – it just doesn’t work. I am sceptical how this could be unfolded as a general concept, as it seems unmanageable for most home-deliveries, and be very complicated and unpractical for larger weekly-shops.

 

How do you think packaging should be reduced by a supermarket?

I feel that some very simple concepts which have worked in Europe for a long time, and helped control unnecessary packaging, just aren’t picked up in England. It took way too long, until a charge was put on plastic bags and many products like beer, milk and other drinks are available in Germany in Pfandflaschen – bottles you can return and get money back for. I think this also helps to support independence and consciousness in the consumer.

Sasha, GP in West London, married with three children (aged 40)

 

Are you a Waitrose shopper?

No, not really, it is too expensive for us as a family. I only go there for a few, more pricey and special items, as and when I need them. It is more of a treat to shop there.

 

Would the “unpacked” project entice you to go there more often?

Only if it was reflected in the price ! Out of curiosity, yes, but not in general, if the costs are too high. This is the main drive for most families, I think. I am doubtful, too. I fear fruit and vegetables are still packaged with lots of plastic for transport and then just presented “unpacked”. I don’t trust this.

 

How do you think reducing packaging should be handled by supermarkets? Is it even their responsibility?

I think everyone has responsibility. This is a difficult global problem as part of our “consumer culture”. Supermarkets, I think, could try to be honest and offer real options to reduce packaging. They could for example clearly indicate, especially with fruits and veg, that products which come from further away and aren’t seasonal, need to be packaged, whereas local stuff can be purchased loose and may be cheaper. People can make a choice. They [Supermarkets] could help to educate by informing that this means less “perfect shaped and sized” products – also offered at a better price. This could help people make sensible and sustainable choices.

If “unpacked” food is expensive – I feel as a GP – this might reflect badly on people’s options to be able to make healthy choices. They may be even more driven towards cheap, packaged, processed foods.

 

In other countries packaging, recycling and food culture are different to the UK – have you got any experiences?

We lived for some years in New Zealand. Because of its remoteness import of many items was restrictive and more expensive, especially fashion – one of the world’s greatest environmental polluters by the way! Fruits and vegetables are dominantly seasonal and cost a bit more, variety being limited.

 

What could be learned from that?

This is a bit of a contradiction to what I said before, but it was actually not such a big deal: you adjust and get used to it. You buy less, waste less, think more and that is ok. It has got a lot to do with our mind-set…

 

Considering a recent multi-national European study by the Austrian Environmental Agency and University Vienna which revealed up to nine types of microplastic in the participants stools, and a research by the WWF showing that we ingest an average of 1 credit card of plastic per week… How important is the health aspect of plastic for you as a doctor and mother?

So far I have not had a patient who actually presented with health problems – which are scientifically related to systemic plastic contamination. I believe research is still very young in this area.

I do worry about our throw-away-society and am very aware of the accumulating problem of rubbish, especially plastics, globally as an environmental issue. As a family though, it has not really been on our health agenda and my children (aged 9-12) so far have relatively little interest in this subject.