On your Marks...

As the second phase of the Courtauld Commitment gets underway, Resource spoke to Helene Roberts, Head of Packaging for Marks & Spencer, about the steps the company has taken to reduce packaging

Look in your bin and what do you see? The majority of it is probably packaging, be it the casing that was keeping your sandwich fresh, or the cardboard and bubble wrap that kept your breakables from breaking. Of course, it has its purpose, but do we really need to use as much as we do?

MarksAndSpencerBack in 2005, it was decided that retailers needed to address the packaging issue. Enter a voluntary agreement, the Courtauld Commitment, which would see industry working with WRAP to develop solutions to reduce both household packaging and food waste. Over 40 major retailers (representing 92 per cent of the UK’s grocery supermarkets), brand owners, manufacturers and suppliers signed up. In Phase 1, which came to an end earlier this year, retailers pledged and managed to phase out packaging waste growth and develop alternative solutions.

Now, it’s time for the second round. Retailers are being called on to move away from solely weight-based targets in Phase 2 and to aim for more sustainable use of resources over products’ entire lifecycles.?The three aims are: to cut grocery packaging’s carbon impact by 10 per cent by reducing the weight, increasing recycling rates and driving up the recycled content; to reduce UK household food and drink waste by four per cent; and to reduce traditional product and packaging waste in the grocery supply chain by five per cent.

A company that was ready and willing to sign up to the agreement was the great British institution that is Marks & Sparks. Indeed, M&S’s environmental performance has been a key priority for some time, according to Helene Roberts, Head of Packaging. Rewind to the 1960s, and M&S was already transporting its products around in reusable trays. “The green tray, as we know it, saves about 57,000 tonnes of cardboard packaging a year,” explains Roberts. And while others were wrapping their sarnies in PVC, in 2004, M&S launched a cardboard sandwich container complete with compostable corn starch window.

In January 2007, M&S took a massive eco step forward and launched its environmental and ethical programme, Plan A (because there is no Plan B), which pledged four packaging commitments among 96 other points dealing with topics ranging from waste to ethical trading. The packaging commitments included reducing packaging and ensuring the remaining packaging is recyclable or compostable.

To date, it’s achieved a 16 per cent reduction in the packaging it has on its shelves. This has been through often quite simple measures, including: light-weighting; cutting out label use by using printed film; removing trays and putting produce straight into a bag (e.g. fine beans); removing the boxes from pizzas; and reducing sleeves on ready meals, which alone saves 700 tonnes of cardboard a year. In addition, introducing a charge for bags has reduced the numbers carried out of the shop by 83 per cent, or around 77 million. Of the packaging that’s left, M&S holds that 74 per cent is ‘widely recyclable’ or home compostable.

In fact, for each major packaging material used – plastic, glass, metal, card and paper – there’s a sustainability strategy, as Roberts explains: “If you take, for example, plastics, we’ve introduced recycled content to minimise the amount of virgin material that we’re using. We’ve also simplified the different materials we’re using. We only use three main plastics across the majority of our business. There are some niche speciality plastics we have to use for certain products, but by and large, we use PET, PE and PP and we don’t use any others. We removed PVC back in 2001 and we use a very small amount of polystyrene, which will be out by this year.“ And as far as bioplastics are concerned, the company has only introduced corn-starch based, soluble plantic in some of its chocolate lines.

What’s more, M&S was the first retailer to use recycled plastic in food, as opposed to drink, packaging. Over 80 per cent of its clear, PET packaging has a recycled content of 50 per cent and all of the store’s milk bottles contain 10 per cent recycled HDPE. It’s only 10 per cent at the moment because the company simply can’t get enough of the food-grade material at the present time. “The only barrier to putting more recycled content into product packaging is getting hold of the right quality in the right quantities,” says Roberts. “It’s an industry in its infancy so it’s about getting the right materials to flow through.”

The second phase of the Courtauld Commitment moves retailers towards carbon reductions and M&S has worked with external experts from WRAP, the Carbon Trust and INCPEN, to not only reduce packaging further, as part of this goal, but also to develop lower-carbon products within its range. One such example is found in its red meat line, explains Roberts: “We’ve traditionally sold red meat in a tray and a film wrap and a label. As part of our packaging reduction programme, we looked at how we could reduce the packaging and increase the shelf life of red meat products, which obviously has a high carbon value in its own right. A solution was the ‘skin pack’ [below]. It gives steaks five extra days shelf life, plus it’s a 69 per cent reduction of packaging.”

With hopes to become the world’s ‘greenest retailer’ by 2015, and having given itself an additional 80 commitments to achieve in the next five years, M&S has certainly got some work to do. Yet Roberts is confident it can be realised: “To begin with, we had four clear commitments about reducing packaging, making it more sustainable, making it recyclable and then labelling it to help our customers. What we recognise now is that we need to deliver long-term sustainability. We learned that we can design our packaging in the most simplistic way, we can design it to make it as recyclable as possible and we can work with local authorities and local government to support that in a better way.”

A pledge to set up partnerships with local authorities is already underway in Somerset and Kent. The company is working with the waste partnerships in those areas to drive up recycling and ensure that there’s an end market for a wide range of materials. By following where the materials end up, M&S is able to take the local authority’s material, or at least a proportion of it, to use in its new packaging, thereby creating a flow of demand for that material.

Meanwhile, any fears of Plan A being abandoned in light of the current economic climate can be brushed aside when we learn that “last year alone M&S saved £50 million through Plan A, so it’s absolutely the right thing”.

Of course, M&S is in a unique position, because it can control so much of its supply chain and doesn’t stock products from thousands of different companies. But nevertheless, there are still lessons to be learned from (adopts a husky, seductive voice) ‘not just any sustainable strategy, but the M&S Plan A strategy’...