Retailer Pick n Pay has removed all plastic ‘barrier’ bags from its till points — this is expected to prevent 20 million of these small bags from entering the environment. Barrier bags are traditionally used by stores to separate selected products such as fresh produce, toiletries or cleaning products from other groceries.
The Pick n Pay barrier bag ban follows in the footsteps of competitor Woolworths, which removed all single-use bags from its stores, replacing them with recycled black bags. However, public jokes about Woolworths’ black bags that customers kept forgetting to take back to the store with them, led to the retailer rolling out an initiative where consumers can bring unwanted bags back for other consumers to use.
“The objective of our reusable shopping bag initiative is to change consumption behaviour and to reduce our reliance on single-use plastic,” says Latiefa Behardien, Woolworths Foods chief technology and sustainability officer.
“All our food markets are single-use plastic shopping bag-free, which has resulted in a substantial increase in the demand and use of reusable shopping bags.
“We are committed to circularity and reducing single-use consumption, so we challenged ourselves to ensure that the broken or worn reusable bags are disposed of responsibly and given a new life, and for excess bags to be reused, reducing the need to purchase more.
“Last year, as part of our vision for zero packaging waste to landfill, we started engaging with local recyclers to test various second-life products for our reusable bags and started trialling recycling ‘drop-offs’ at our tills in selected stores.
“The objective of the trial was to test our reverse logistics system, as the bags need to be returned with our other recyclable store waste to our distribution centres where it is then sorted before moving on to recyclers for second-life trials,” confirms Behardien.
With the roll-out of the reusable bag recycling drops-off to an additional 100 stores, Woolworths and the recyclers are hoping to have the opportunity to test various second-life options on a bigger scale to finalise the best option for the worn reusable bags and close the circle.
The “Bring a Bag/Take a Bag” initiative has been exceptionally well received by customers, as it offers them the opportunity to drop off their excess reusable bags that are still in good condition for other customers who have forgotten theirs, to use and return thereafter.
“Based on our customer feedback and a great suggestion from ‘The Good Things Guy’ – Brent Lindeque – we trialled a ‘bag share’ initiative – ‘Bring a bag/Take a Bag’ in four stores and we are delighted to be rolling it out to an additional 100 stores across the country.
“An additional win-win is that the in-store equipment to house the bags has been made locally by a black-owned shopfitting company that we have been working with for over 10 years, and the in-store structures are made from 100% recycled content, which used to be yoghurt tubs, toothpaste tubes or chip packets, and would most likely end up in landfill,” said Behardien.
“While recycling alone cannot solve the world’s pollution problems, it has significant potential to impact cleaning up our waste systems, creating jobs and reducing the use of virgin plastics. Every step of the way helps to bring about a cleaner, safer country for all,” she said.
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Vaughan Pierce, ESG executive at Pick n Pay, says the company has been on a journey to reduce problematic single-use plastic packaging.
“These small, clear, plastic barrier bags are not currently recycled effectively, and by removing these at till points, we can play a part in reducing reliance on unnecessary single-use plastic.”
Pick n Pay will still have barrier bags in its fruit and vegetable section for loose produce, but continues to encourage customers to use alternatives, such as reusable netted produce bags, which it stocks in all its stores nationwide.
This significant step is in addition to the tonnes of plastic it already prevents from reaching landfills and the ocean, as it works towards its 2025 plastic waste reduction targets.
Over the past five years, more than 10,000 tonnes of plastic have been removed from the environment to make Pick n Pay’s 100% recyclable blue plastic bags. Over 11 million plastic bottles have been recycled to manufacture its reusable shopping bags since 2018.
These are some of the retailer’s achievements as it assumes a leadership role in local and international collaborative efforts to work towards common long-term targets for the plastics value chain.
Pick n Pay is a founding member of the SA Plastics Pact, launched in January 2020 to establish a collective commitment to ensure plastic never becomes waste or pollution.
As part of this, Pick n Pay committed to various 2025 targets, which include ensuring that 100% of its private label packaging is reusable or recyclable. This number has shifted from 67% to 80% in the past two years through various changes.
“We all need to accelerate the transition from a linear to a circular economy of packaging, as this will drive positive change on a much larger scale,” says Pierce.
“Packaging, particularly plastic, plays an important role in protecting products and reducing food waste. By committing to creating a system where packaging is treated as a valuable resource that can be used, reused, collected and recycled in a closed loop, it supports the principles of a circular economy.”
Pierce adds that Pick n Pay’s commitment to recycling extends to increasing the use of recycled materials in clothing products and store refurbs. In 2021, Pick n Pay Clothing sold 1.5 million items of clothing that included recycled content.
“We regularly introduce new reusable plastic bags, which are 100% made from locally recycled plastic bottles. Each with a unique design, these promote sustainable shopping habits as customers reuse the same shopping bag. But the designs also create awareness and funding for local non-profit organisations as proceeds from these bag sales go to selected charities,” Pierce says. BM/DM/OBP