Bag for a second life

As the Co-op removes plastic bags for life from all its 2,600 stores, the retailer’s environment manager, Iain Ferguson, explains why compostable carriers with a sustainable second use are a low-cost, low-impact alternative.

In April this year, the Co-op published Bag to rights, a major report on carrier bags. This recognised the immense progress this government has made on carrier bags, while also making proposals to mitigate some of the unintended consequences.

In developing this report, we reviewed our entire carrier-bag offer to reflect our asks. We analysed evidence from a number of sources, looking at: customer behaviour and resource use for carrier bags; reducing costs faced by local authorities to introduce food-waste collections; and the impacts of the use of non-compostable liners in existing food-waste collections.

In addition, we gathered evidence of the biodegradability of our compostable carrier bags in soil, sea water and landfill. This led us to radically change our offer, and to call on government to further strengthen its carrier-bag charging policy.

We want the government to make it a requirement that all single-use bags be certified to EN13432, that reusable bags have a minimum price of 50p, and that large retailers report on all the bags they sell to provide government with evidence to support policy development. This is what we do; we are the only major retailer to publicly report on all the bags we sell.

This was not an attempt to generate headlines, although they are very welcome. From its foundation in 1844, the Co-op has been a campaigning organisation. We are doing this because we believe it is the best approach to deal with three major problems: reducing the impact of carrier bags; preparing for universal food-waste collections; and reducing plastic contamination in those collections.

Cooperation, and the input of so many valued partners from across the waste sector, has been essential to the development of what we believe to be a truly market-leading approach.

In looking at the compostable carrier bag, it’s best to think of it as a caddy liner that has a first use for carrying shopping. That is what the entire Italian food-waste collection system is now based on. That system is bigger than all the rest of the food-waste collection systems across Europe. One plant in Milan alone collects more than England as a whole. This is an approach that works – very, very successfully.

When building this plan, we engaged with key external stakeholders, focusing on the compostable carrier bag part of the proposal. These stakeholders included the Environment Agency, Renewable Energy Association, Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association, and the Environmental Services Association, as well as CIWM, whose opinions we value highly. All these organisations are concerned about plastic contamination in food-waste collections, and we know compostable carrier bags can be part of that solution.

The Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association commissioned Sancroft to produce a report on the environmental and economic outcomes of liner choice in food-waste collection systems. Its assessment was that a polythene-liner system had the lowest headline cost, closely followed by compostable liners. However, the use of compostable liners reduces the risks of plastic pollution in land spreading.

The use of compostable carrier bags more than closes the gap in costs; to reach parity, only 30 per cent of the liners used would need to be compostable carriers. If all single-use bags were EN13432, as in Italy, there would be no confusion, and the cost of treatment for the council would drop by 39 per cent, and be around 32 per cent cheaper than using polythene liners. You need only look to Oldham to see a council that is successfully promoting compostable carrier bags instead of liners, getting high engagement and low contamination.

I’m proud of the approach that we’re taking at the Co-op, helping our members and customers do the right thing in engaging with food-waste collections. Cooperation, and the input of so many valued partners from across the waste sector, has been essential to the development of what we believe to be a truly market-leading approach.

This article first appeared in the July/August issue of Circular. 

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