By Steven Howell/director of business development, Solutions for Retail Brands
As awareness of the environmental impact of plastic bags grows, cities and states across the U.S. are stepping up their efforts to deter retailers and customers from using them. It’s a sign that the U.S. can offer valuable environmental lessons to the world—but there is still plenty to learn from other countries too.
News that U.K. supermarket Morrisons is set to cut down on plastics waste by bringing back traditional paper bags will surely take many on this side of the pond back to the days when groceries were brought home in brown paper bags.
These bags are now a distant memory, having been replaced with durable, easy-to-carry and cheap-to-produce plastic. But while convenience is crucial for consumers, the tide of public opinion is changing. The phenomenally successful “Blue Planet” documentary series, produced by the BBC in the U.K. but broadcast around the world, laid bare the harm that dumped plastic bags cause to marine wildlife. Images of a mother whale cradling her calf after it had died, apparently poisoned by her contaminated milk, left viewers shocked and saddened, prompting many to rethink their own plastics use.
Across the EU, member states have been taking action as part of the “Plastic Bags Directive.” There are charges for single-use bags in many countries, including the U.K., while Italy and France only permit ones that are biodegradable and compostable. These measures are clearly having a positive impact; in Ireland, for example, where a tax has been in place since 2002, the use of throwaway bags has dropped from an average of 328 per person a year to just 18.
U.S. stepping up its efforts
Growing numbers of U.S. states are, however, taking a harder line approach on disposable plastics that could prove even more effective.
San Francisco banned plastic bags back in 2007, and Hawaii became the first to introduce a statewide ban in 2015, followed by California 12 months later. Plans are underway to ban single-use plastic bags in New York, while Seattle, which banned them in 2012, now is waging war on straws and utensils, bringing in a citywide ban on their use in bars and restaurants at the start of July. Starbucks also has announced ambitious plans to replace all single-use plastic straws with recyclable, strawless lids and paper straws by 2020.
Seattle’s move, in particular, is a big step forward on the road to raising public awareness of the impact and consequences of using plastics in incidentals such as straws and packaging more generally. This ban in Seattle does two things: it supports the fight against discarding plastic items and, perhaps more importantly, it raises public awareness of the potential consequences of managing trash poorly. These movements will drive our industry to find more appropriate and less harmful alternatives; it is an area where private brand retailers can and should take a lead.
Furthermore, 44 per cent of Americans say they would rather see plastic bags banned completely rather than pay a levy—possibly because it forces the good habit of taking fabric bags to the grocery store and doesn’t leave them out of pocket.
Not surprisingly, federal bans and charges go a long way to reducing plastics consumption and the damage it causes, although it pays for retailers to be one step ahead. The German supermarkets, Aldi and Lidl, have always charged for bags, and it’s certainly not dented their popularity. The two supermarkets have since gone even further by banning single-use bags completely, instead pushing people toward more sustainable options.
Rather than waiting for regulation to be enforced, retailers should listen to what customers are saying, on social media or product reviews, and ensure their practices are aligned with current attitudes. The powerful Millennial market, in particular, is acutely aware of the environmental harm that plastic causes, and its mindset has been adopted by many outside the 18- to 34-year-old age group.
Product packaging is next
Single-use plastic bags are, of course, only the tip of both a proverbial and real ‘iceberg’, and it won’t be long before food and drink packaging comes under even greater scrutiny. In the U.K., the grocery retailer Waitrose has started to eliminate disposable coffee cups from its stores, while the frozen food specialist Iceland is trialing a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), a vending machine that rewards customers with coupons if they recycle empty containers.
Looking ahead, retailers in both the U.S. and elsewhere will have to work closely with their private brand suppliers to ensure product packaging meets changing customer expectations. New laws may well force a rethink of how plastics are used, but it makes more commercial sense to be an industry leader on sustainability before that happens, drawing lessons from what others are doing around the world but, more importantly, finding out what customers are likely to respond to most.
Howell brings more than 30 years of global experience in retail, CPG manufacturing, consulting and technology to the private brands industry. He specializes in product lifecycle management process design, supply chain management, organization design, business process improvement, project management, and system design and implementation. He has worked with organizations in North and South America on business development, sales, organization structure, business process, technology implementation, and supply chain issues by understanding their business needs and translating into process designs, requirements and solutions, building key business and organizational capabilities.
Headquartered in Dallas-Fort Worth, S4RB Inc. is a private brand specialist providing solutions and consultancy services for major U.S. retailers, including Walmart, Sam’s Club and Walgreens Boots Alliance.