Problem with plastic bag ban
SHOPPERS must be willing to sacrifice convenience for the environment in giving up harmful single-use plastic items such as plastic bags, but they should also be careful not to "demonise" plastic.
That was the message delivered by industry leaders and experts during sustainability event at the Woolworths Bella Vista headquarters today, which came as the supermarket giant announced it would phase out the sale of plastic straws by the end of the year.
Woolworths group chief executive Brad Banducci said the four main issues customers cared about were food waste, reducing plastic, a sustainable supply chain and energy efficiency.
"Very important for us is the journey of taking plastic out of fruit and veg," he said. "We know our customers don't like it; we do however know that there's a complex trade-off between keeping the product fresh and [reducing] plastic.
"If we end up throwing things away because we've taken plastic out, that is a very false economy given only 10 per cent of the energy to grow a fruit and veg product on average is plastic.
"It's quite a complex balance but we are working on it, and we have taken plastic out of a number of products already. We're working through it product by product."
With supermarkets around the country preparing to phase out single-use plastic bags later this month, Mr Banducci said he didn't know if he "would have been quite as brave" in making the decision last July had he known "what a headache" it was to take 3.4 billion plastic bags out of the business.
"One of the things that actually upset me a little bit at the time was there was sort of an innuendo that we will profiteer, because we will be charging for a 15c or 99c bag," he said.
"Actually [with] the incremental amount of time in store to actually service the customer, certainly it is not a profit driver and we never did it as a profit driver. We did it to do the right thing."
Harris Farm Markets CEO Angus Harris said now that most states and major retailers had banned plastic bags, it was time for the federal government to follow up with legislation.
"We went to paper bags, our consumers all really got behind it - sorry, most of our consumers got behind it," he said.
"A lot of people now take boxes rather than bags. We've gone from using two-and-a-half plastic bags per customer to half a paper bag per customer.
"I still think paper bags is a bad idea. It's one of those things you just don't need. You can bring your own recycled bags. Consumers, they're funny - they like convenience and we're trying to tell them you've got to do something that's less convenient."
Peter Skelton from not-for-profit sustainability organisation Wrap UK said there was a complex dynamic between food waste and packaging.
In the UK, 50 per cent more food waste is thrown away than packaging, but 67 per cent of packaging is recycled or recovered, compared with less than 20 per cent of food waste.
"The environmental impact of food waste is far, far higher than the average carbon impact of a tonne of packaging," Mr Skelton said.
"We need to get the balance right. We need less plastic. We need to make sure the plastic doesn't go into the oceans, but actually what we mustn't do is cause more food waste by the unintended consequences of maybe a knee-jerk reaction on plastic."
Mr Skelton said the UK Plastics Pact, a pledge last month by businesses to ban single-use plastics, was "about saying, we need to tackle plastic but in a way that we don't demonise it".
"We need to prevent those unnecessary single-use items such as straws," he said. "What are those items we actually don't need? Let's get rid of them, let's find those alternatives.
"We want a world where plastic is valued, but doesn't pollute the environment. Valued from a consumer's point of view so they see why we use plastics, valued from an economic point of view so they're seen as a resource, not just as a waste."
Mr Skelton said for every two tonnes of food consumed, another tonne of food was wasted. In the UK, 53 per cent of all food waste occurs in households, compared with 19 per cent in the supply chain and 17 per cent in-store.
"This is actually more complex than the packaging challenge because the packaging issue is less about the consumer," he said. "It's down to millions and millions of small actions - planning your shopping trip, knowing how to store food properly."
To that end, Woolworths has done a bit of in-house recycling of its own, repurposing Jamie Oliver - whose Created with Jamie range has shown signs of struggling - to be its food waste ambassador, offering tips on cooking up leftovers.
"We're working a lot with our marketing team on food savers, teaching customers how to use leftovers," Mr Banducci said. "In fact, you'll see the repositioning we've done with Jamie Oliver on the topic of leftovers and it really does resonate with our customers."
Meanwhile, billionaire Anthony Pratt, executive chairman of cardboard box giant Visy, said China's so-called "Green Sword" ban on foreign waste could actually benefit Australia in the long run.
"We recently made a $2 billion pledge to invest in recycling infrastructure in Australia," he said. "The China situation, whilst it's very surprising and sudden, the short-term pain is probably a blessing in disguise. It will force people to use more of the recycled materials here. It's not really recycling until you turn it back into something."
Mr Pratt also called for landfill fees to increase. "The NSW government receives $700 million a year from landfill fees and they only spend about $200 million of it back into recycling infrastructure," he said.