Editor’s comment: Time to act on plastics

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A staggering 13 billion plastic bottles are thrown away in the UK each year and a hefty 15% of those come from drinks that are consumed out-of-home. That means the convenience sector bears a large degree of responsibility for the growing problem of plastic waste, an issue that has rocketed to the top of the political agenda over the past six months.

While in the UK we are reasonably good at recycling plastic bottles and other packaging used in the home, it’s in the on-the-go arena that things really start to fall apart. Provision of on-street recycling bins is miserably inadequate, and there is zero incentive for consumers to recycle.

It now looks inevitable that Britain will introduce some form of deposit return system, or DRS, for plastic bottles, probably within the next two years. In Scotland, first minister Nichola Sturgeon has made a personal pledge to do so, while south of the border environment secretary Michael Gove also appears to have nailed his colours to that particular mast.

There’s no doubt DRS would be difficult for independents to operate. Most of our stores are under 2,000sq ft and every inch counts in the battle to remain profitable and successful. A manual returns system would be particularly difficult. That does not mean we should stick our heads in the sand. The tide has turned on this issue and independents must ensure we become part of the solution, not part of the problem. We must engage positively with politicians and policy-makers to help come up with a scheme that works for everyone.

There could even be positives for the sector – increased footfall, advertising and promotional opportunities, a possible handling fee – but above all customer goodwill. An illustration of this is the situation faced recently by Manchester retailer Mital Morar, who started to receive criticism from his customers on Twitter over the amount of plastic packaging on his fresh produce. Morar reacted positively, sourcing loose, unwrapped produce and bringing his shoppers back on side.

What this story also illustrates is that this debate is not going to stop at drinks containers. We are going to have to look at all kinds of packaging, as well as peripherals such as disposable coffee cups and plastic straws, if we use them, and begin to engage with suppliers to find alternative solutions.

Whatever the case, it’s time for retailers to do the right thing.

David Shrimpton, Editor

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