Co-op's recycled water bottles for the eco-savvy consumer

3 July 2018

Co-op has long been a market leader in bringing eco-friendly solutions to its customers, and its trial launch of ‘nearly clear’ recycled water bottles will gauge how ready the UK public is to go green.

Co-op has unveiled plans to switch all of its bottled water containers to 50% recycled plastic in a move that is set to test whether today’s environmentallyconscious consumer is ready to ditch more aesthetically pleasing packaging.

The bottles themselves are 100% recyclable and sourced in the UK – appear darker, greyer and cloudier than those using less or no recycled plastic, and so the community retailer will ‘test the water’, throwing down the gauntlet to gauge whether ethical consumers will turn the traditional psychology of shopping on its head when it comes to making their buying choices.

Iain Ferguson, environment manager comments, “The slight grey colour is due, in part, to the tiny amount of PVC that goes through in the recycling process to create recycled PET. This has no effect on the quality of the product or the packaging that meets rigorous testing and standards. This type of colouring through recycled content has less impact in the trays, where up to 80% can be recycled content, as the colours are darker or less apparent. Bottles are more noticeable to consumers who are conditioned to see anything less than transparent or clear white as impure.”

As well as being the first retailer to make this move, Co-op estimates that it can save almost 350t of plastic annually when it makes the change on all of its own-brand still, sparkling and flavoured water later this year. This will be in conjunction with an earlier announcement by Co-op that it was in favour of a deposit return scheme (DRS) to increase the overall recycling of packaging.

Reinventing the tea bag

Reducing the environmental impact of products is at the core of Co-op’s efforts. It has around 4.6 million active members and last year, they overwhelmingly backed its ambition for 100% of its product packaging to be easily recyclable.

Recent examples of successful environmental impact of packaging reduction include a fully biodegradable paper tea bag for its iconic 99 tea brand, making it the first retailer to find a solution to the problem of hidden plastic waste caused by the nation’s favourite beverage and saving 9t of plastic every year from being dumped into household rubbish and compost collections.

“Composting is an incredibly technologically complex process, and there are a number of external factors that we have learned will impact an effective solution,” explains Ferguson. “Even making the decision to try and reclaim through improved recycling, or try for compostable or biodegradable packaging requires a number of factors – with potential intended and unintended consequences. Does the pack need a seal? Does it need shelflife extension or improvement? Can I ensure it is safe for food? How do we make sure it is easy to use, convenient to store and simple to dispose of? Are the instructions clear so that anyone can understand them? The list is endless. This is why it is so important to work with the waste management companies from the beginning, to truly understand their needs and provide them with the best quality product.”

In 2006, Co-op changed plastic stems in Co-op’s cotton buds to paper ones – it has taken other retailers 11 years to follow suit. Co-op has never produced own-brand products containing plastic microbeads, and no longer sells branded products that contain microbeads. And, last year the company successfully changed its pizza packaging to cardboard to prevent 200t of polystyrene boards going to landfill.

The cardboard discs are manufactured by Stateside and weigh more than 60% less than their nearest competitor, making them the lightest on the market. Co-op has already changed its mushroom packaging from black to blue plastic, which can be widely recycled, and has changed the plastic used for cooked meat trays to a single material. The retailer has also moved from plastic to card packaging for tomatoes as it works towards an aim of ridding its aisles of black plastics.

It is so important to work with the waste management companies from the beginning, to truly understand their needs and provide them with the best quality product. – Iain Ferguson, Co-op

“From extensive discussions with waste management, the key requirements are volume and single materials,” says Ferguson. “The more of the same material they can acquire, the better the outgoing material they can return to the market. Single materials are valuable as they can be in some cases endlessly recycled without affecting taste, function or colour.

“It is also important to understand that as things stand, the recycled material for bottles is more noticeably expensive than virgin material.

The key consideration for packaging companies and retailers is that they are not responsible for the waste renewal system. – Iain Ferguson, Co-op

Returning to the bottles, Ferguson continues, “Suppliers are working hard to make the bottle clearer – and they already have, in the meantime, our bottles will wear this dark, greyish colour, which I see as a ‘badge of honour’. We are part of the market for recycled products and are proud of that. We are also very pleased that plans for the proposed deposit return scheme have been formally unveiled. It’s a vitally important move in encouraging greater rates of recycling across the country and we welcome any measure that is designed to make recycling simpler and more accessible for consumers. We would like to see the same system applied across the UK to keep it simple for customers and business – the Co-op is aiming to make 100% of its own-brand packaging recyclable and set against this move; we can look forward to an increase in packaging sustainability and a reduction in plastic waste across the UK.”

Black plastic: the enemy of recycling

The retailer has also waged war on black and hidden plastic. It plans to rid its aisles of so-called ‘vanity’ black – and dark coloured – plastic by 2020. Black plastic is harder for sorting machines in recycling facilities to detect due to the pigment, and it also contaminates the recycling stream, reducing the usefulness and value of the recovered material. It is estimated to add at least 30,000t of plastic waste each year to landfill.

Co-op water also makes a difference in communities at home and abroad. The retailer donates £0.03 for every litre sold of Co-op branded water to The One Foundation and, £0.01 for every litre sold of branded water to Water Unite.

Last year, this amounted to over £1.7 million to fund clean, safe, water projects. Furthermore, the Co-op’s membership scheme gives members a 5% reward when they buy own brand products and services, with the Co-op donating a further 1% to local good causes. Last year, the Co-op shared £20 million with around 8,000 community groups across the UK.

Ferguson concludes, “The key consideration for packaging companies and retailers is that they are not responsible for the waste renewal system; there are highly qualified companies and experts working in the field and driving innovation. However, we believe that we have a responsibility for what we present to the waste management system in terms of packaging. If we work closely with our waste management partners, and ensure that they are getting products that are single material, high volume and presented in a way that they can efficiently sort, we can help them do their jobs better, which in turn benefits us with a better recycled product going back into the market. We do not own the waste disposal, we only support it, and the better we fulfil this responsibility the greater the benefit to environment, supply chain, consumer and environment.”

Co-op set to be first in its field as it launches reverse vending machines at UK summer festivals

Co-op will become the first UK retailer to trial a Deposit and Return Scheme (DRS) with reverse vending machines, as part of its commitment to increase recycling and reduce marine pollution.

The landmark pilot initiative will see the DRS unveiled at a pop-up Co-op store at four major music festivals this summer. The reverse vending machines will be installed on-site at Co-op pop-up stores at Download (8-10 June), Latitude (12-15 July) and Reading and Leeds festivals (24-26 August). The move has been facilitated through a partnership with Festival Republic.

Plastic bottles sold at the Co-op pop-up stores will have a mandatory deposit added to the price, with revellers able to return them to the reverse vending machine in exchange for a voucher to spend in the on-site stores. To close the loop in this trial, the bottles collected at each festival will then go on to be recycled to create bottles for Co-op’s own brand bottled water.

Jo Whitfield, Co-op’s retail CEO, said: “As the UK’s leading ethical retailer, there’s nowhere better for us to start our trial of reverse vending machines than at some of the UK’s most well-loved festivals.

“Reducing the amount of plastic that makes its way to landfill is really important to us and our members. I’m excited that, in partnership with Live Nation and Recycling Options, we have the opportunity to bring these machines to the UK only a few months after they were officially given the green light by the Government. We’re committed to giving our customers ways to make more ethical choices, so this is a hugely exciting milestone in our sustainability journey to achieve our future aim of making all of our food packaging 100% recyclable.”

Melvin Benn, Managing Director of Festival Republic, said: “We welcome over 350,000 revellers across these four iconic festival sites. It’s absolutely fantastic to think that they will be amongst the first people in the UK to have the opportunity to recycle their plastic bottles simply and easily using the reverse vending machines, in addition to the existing deposit return schemes at the festivals.”

The Co-op has pledged to make 100% of its own-brand packaging easy to recycle by 2025 and will also eliminate the use of black and dark plastics from its shelves by 2020.

Co-op donates £0.03 for every litre of branded water to Water Unite

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