The supermarkets say they’re leading a recycling revolution, saving everything from batteries to carrier bags from landfill. Is this true – and what more can be done? Rob Brown investigates

There’s money to be made in the most unsavoury of places these days. All you need is a strong stomach and a recycling facility.

It’s a point illustrated by the opening last week of Britain’s first Absorbent Hygiene Product (AHP) recycling plant, which recovers plastics and fibres from used nappies, sanitary towels, adult incontinence pads and other bin men nightmares.

Knowaste, the company that’s taken on this dirty job, reckons it will be processing a fifth of the UK’s AHP in as many as five plants by 2016. It’s even seeking talks with local authorities and supermarkets to accelerate its plans for collecting AHP from household waste. If it realises its ambitions, AHP will be the latest in an ever-widening array of materials from batteries and light bulbs, to mixed plastic packaging being saved from landfill and widely recycled.

The supermarkets claim much of the credit for Britain’s success in raising recycling rates, saying they’ve been instrumental in convincing shoppers to recycle more. And overall progress has been made: 40% of the 23.5 million tonnes of waste British households threw away from 2009 to 2010 was recycled (Defra), compared to just 10% a decade earlier. But what else should the supermarkets be doing? And what else can be done?

Saving the planet aside, the potential rewards of being seen to be greener than the shop next door are potentially huge. The environment is a consideration for 50% of consumers when choosing where to shop, according to a YouGov poll carried out exclusively for The Grocer.

How green or otherwise retailers’ policies and products are affects 22% of respondents’ choice of where to shop and 11% believe the need to increase recycling is the most pressing environmental concern we face today.

Packaging the most pressing green issue for 10% of respondents in our survey remains a key hurdle in the race to increase recycling rates. Defra figures show the rate of growth in packaging recycling slowing last year. “The question has got to be whether we’re approaching a natural threshold,” says Andy Dawe, head of food & drink programmes at Wrap. “My view is that it’s a blip. There’s still a strong understanding among consumers of the benefits of recycling.”

If the UK is to hit its target of recycling 68% of packaging by the end of the year (up from 61% in 2010), more help from supermarkets is required, say experts. “A lot of it comes down to simplifying packaging,” says Matthew Venn, associate consultant at WSP Environment & Energy. “Quite clearly we need packaging, but do we really need packaging formats that mix different types of plastics and make recycling quite challenging?”

These challenges are surmountable, as Robert Wiseman Dairies is proving. Until now the use of recycled content in HDPE milk bottles has been limited because of discolouration caused by pigments from coloured caps that become mixed with clear plastic bottles in the recycling process. Now, following a report by Wrap, Wiseman has switched to new generation ‘tinted’ caps that reduce discolouration and allow it to use more recycled plastic in its bottles. Wrap is also pushing for supermarkets to remove the plastic trays that joints of meat have traditionally been served in and replace them with a shrinkwrap film packaging, claiming it will help extend shelf life and significantly reduce packaging waste.

Making sure shoppers understand what can and can’t be recycled is equally important. This is the aim of the BRC’s on-pack labelling scheme, which sets out to provide a “simpler, UK-wide and consistent” message for consumers. Trouble is, the recycling policies of local authorities around the country are far from consistent. According to some, this makes the scheme prone to error and others question how much attention shoppers pay to such labels (29% rarely or never look at them, according to our survey). “I don’t think the labelling is clear and some of it is wrong,” says Venn.

Communicating the availability of facilities and the recyclability of materials relies on retailers working with local authorities, waste management companies, packaging suppliers and government agencies, says Richard Hands, CEO of the Alliance for Beverage Cartons & the Environment. “The On-Pack Recycling Label is a good example of this,” he adds. “But it’s limited by the differences in what is collected for recycling, and how, from one local authority to another.”

Local initiatives are needed in the absence of standards, says Hands. He points to a scheme by Sainsbury’s and Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council that uses in-store posters to give consumers “more accurate and accessible information” on local recycling collection. M&S has also been praised for its schemes in Windsor & Maidenhead and Halton that reward shoppers with money-off vouchers for recycling plastics, cans, cardboard and glass.

Hands suggests other retailers could step up their efforts to help their customers recycle more. “On the ACE UK website we provide consumers with an interactive map that shows how beverage cartons are collected in each UK local authority area almost 90% of local authorities now offer it,” he says. “Retailers could embed this in their own websites or provide details of how to access it via pack or promotional panels alongside relevant products.”

Ensuring materials are recycled in the first place is just part of the battle however. Another challenge is increasing the amount of recycled material used to manufacture and package items on the supermarkets’ shelves. “The supermarkets are going in the right direction, but they have a lot further to go,” says Julian Kirby from Friends of the Earth. “They should be making sure their suppliers are cutting out non-recyclable materials and using more recycled material.”

To this end, Wrap is currently looking into the possibilities within the food and drink industry of using more mixed-colour recycled glass, which is widely shunned as a packaging material because of its undesirable blue-green hue and instead used mostly used as building aggregate. Wrap has suggested that bulk-shipping greater volumes of wine to Britain and then decanting it into mixed glass bottles produced here could help increase the use of the material in the UK.

Thinking green design

Others contend that, if the use of recycled materials is to increase, the environment needs to be at the forefront of people’s minds at the design stage of a brand. “Does gin really need to be in a clear glass or green glass bottle?” asks WSP’s Venn. “It’s almost about removing the idea that everything has to be perfectly presented and accept that there are some compromises that need to be made.” But ensuring the bottom line isn’t compromised in the process is of course key, as the recent abandonment of Roses ‘cartins’ in favour of regular tins proves.

In some cases, the supermarkets have turned recycling into revenue. Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda all offer customers cash for recycling mobile phones and MP3 players and they can potentially attract consumers to their stores by providing collection points for a wider array of items, such as batteries and light bulbs. “There’s a competitive advantage for stores that become recycling hubs for the community,” says Tim Price, national commercial manager at DS Smith Recycling. “At front-of-store recycling facilities a few years ago you could recycle anything so long as it was paper. Now you can recycle multiple layers at the supermarkets.”

Supermarkets taking a more active role in establishing their stores as recycling hubs is not without the risk of controversy however. Earlier this year Tesco was accused of ‘corporate greed’ for cutting off valuable revenue streams for cash-strapped councils by ordering local authorities to remove recycling bins from 500 of its stores and replacing them with alternatives provided by a private contractor. The move could net the retailer millions.

The financial rewards of recycling are only going to grow. So as the cost of burying our waste in the ground continues to soar thanks to escalating landfill taxes and the increasing scarcity of available land more and more companies look set up to cash in on our rubbish. And some of that is certainly not for the squeamish.

“The landfill tax has encouraged many companies like mine to start looking at the UK,” says Roy Brown, CEO of Knowaste. The AHP recycling plant the company opened in West Bromwich this month will be processing 36,000 tonnes of hygiene products gathered from commercial premises a year when it’s at capacity. “I have to be frank without the £56 a tonne landfill tax it would be extremely economically challenging to be competitive.”

The next step for Knowaste will be to try and divert used hygiene products from household waste, a move Brown says requires dialogue with supermarkets and local authorities.

“If we are to access household waste we’re limited only by the imagination of the people involved,” he adds. “It’s a challenge but the supermarkets have a legitimate place at the table and they can add an awful lot.”


Tesco Recyclers can rack up Clubcard points at Tesco, which today sends none of its own waste to landfill. The retailer operates automated recycling machines at some stores

Asda Claims to have cut its packaging by 27% and made 92% of it recyclable. Asda reckons it recycled 3,000 trees’ worth of cardboard (or 168,000 tonnes) last year

Sainsbury’s First to offer battery and light bulb recycling at every store. Hot on Tesco’s heels in becoming a zero waste to landfill company. It says it will be by the end of the year

Morrisons At the close of 2010 the supermarket had recycling collection points at roughly 80% of its stores. Says it has cut 4,000 tonnes of packaging from its products THE CO-OP:Runs its own recycling centre for its own waste. It has the UK’s lightest 70cl spirits bottle and saves 445 tonnes of glass a year with lightweight wine bottles

Waitrose Claims to spend close to £1m a year on encoraging recycling. Amongst other initiatives, Waitrose offers shoppers a five-point guide to reducing food waste

Marks & Spencer The poster boy when it comes to recycling. M&S’s wants to cut non-glass packaging by25% and be using only recylable or compostable packaging by 2012