Each Tuesday night, my family’s recycling bin sits at the curb, brimming with paper, plastic and metallic packaging. Some of these materials ensure the freshness of the foods we buy – not to mention the ability to transport easily them home, but a good chunk of the stuff we recycle has no utility and seems designed only to market the product.
Fortunately, retailers and manufacturers are starting to realize that consumers want products, not unneeded packaging. The UK grocery startup Unpackaged is even capitalizing on this sentiment. And now Tesco, Britain’s largest retailer, is taking an innovative step to reduce packaging, as well.
The company is conducting a six-week pilot test at two of its stores in Guildford and Illminister. During the trials, customers will be able to remove and leave behind any of the packaging they’d rather not take home. Tesco will then study what is left behind and make efforts to eliminate the most commonly off-cast elements.
Tesco hopes that this pilot will give it and its suppliers a chance to see, first-hand, what packaging consumers value and what packaging elements they’ll quickly shed. Reducing packaging not only reducing a producer’s carbon footprint, it’s also likely to save the company money. In fact, late last year the computer maker Dell said it expects to save more than $8 million by reducing its computer packaging – and in the process it would also eliminate approximately 20 million pounds of packaging material over the next four years.
Then there’s the marketing value inherent in reducing packaging – it’s the best way to promote your company’s commitment to reducing waste. Boulder, Colo.-based shoemaker Newton is using a molded carton comprised of post-consumer material, as reported in Environmental Leader.
Of course, it’s one thing for a manufacturer to reduce its packaging. It’s another for a retailer to push its suppliers to do so, which is what Wal-Mart is doing with its packaging scorecard. The goal here is to push its supplies to reduce packaging by 5 percent by 2013. When retailers the size of Wal-Mart and Tesco say “jump,” suppliers generally ask “how high?” Whether that’s good or fair, in terms of business practices, is debatable at best. But the fact is that retailers have tremendous leverage when it comes to reducing packaging, and this new Tesco pilot project might be another example of this.
And aside from reducing packaging, retailers – particularly grocers – also have an eye on decreasing the amount of non-recyclable packaging that exits their stores. The motivation behind this isn’t purely about sustainability, it’s also about avoiding new taxes: In the UK, the Local Government Association has suggested that if supermarkets don’t cut back on the amount of product packaging and make sure the packaging that is used can be recycled, then they should have to pay some of the costs of disposing of the packaging.