BAN Waste Select Committee evidence

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Phase 1 Day 2 2001-09-26 Dennis Martin (CO-OP supermarket)

report from minutes of Select Committee

NORTH EASTERN CO-OPERATIVE SOCIETY

Submitted (Report from Mr Dennis Martin of the North-Eastern Co-Operative Society, Gateshead) (For copy see Official Minute Book)

The Chair welcomed Mr Martin to the meeting, and the session commenced with questions from the Select Committee:

(1) In researching for this hearing, we spoke to several assistants at your stores, who were helpful but had little idea of company policy about waste. Do you carry out regular training in-store; is there a company policy and programme to train staff in awareness about waste? (Sylvia Conway)

Mr Martin reported that regular bulletins were given to sales staff, but most of the recycling was done by shelf-fillers behind the scenes where 'separation' takes place. There were 4000 employees, whose priority was to serve the customer and work the tills.

(2) There appear to be big differences between regions and stores in terms of how, for example, surplus food is disposed of. What schemes do you have in Newcastle, and can they be improved to minimise waste? (Bob Stewart)

Mr Martin reported that �4 million of food waste went to landfill each year, and that was small compared to other organisations. This represented 1% of the whole turnover. He was not aware of facilities anywhere to recycle. However, his organisation hoped that some answer to the problem could be found; particularly insofar as bread reprocessing was concerned (as this was a heavy waste element). Fresh food represented the principal waste.

John Buckham queried whether the organisation would be prepared to separate-out vegetable and meat product if there were incentives. Mr Martin replied in the affirmative.

(3) What steps are you taking to significantly reduce the level of packaging, much of which at present is merely for purposes of display Is there biodegradable film that can be used instead of plastic for wrapping? (Roger Mould)

Mr Martin reported that there was a team of buyers in Manchester involved in this matter. He personally was on a Committee which actively encouraged buyers to reduce to a minimum. The major packaging related to fruit and vegetables - 60% of produce came in reusable trays, and the intention was to achieve 100%. They hoped to move on to dairy products. Asda and Sainsburys used colour trays, which were returned and washed etc.

Phil Capon stated that organic food was often packaged individually (apples etc) and queried the reasoning. Mr Martin suggested that this might have to do with regulations. During discussion, Bill Hopwood displayed a packet of packaged masking tape and queried the need for this, given that a similar product was unpackaged. Mr Martin suggested that there were perhaps two reasons: display/price, and security.

Val Barton referred to a radio programme which had reported on the use of potato starch as a material which could be used in packaging processes. Mr Martin undertook to make enquiries. In response to a query on possible collection places for polythene bags, Mr Martin reported that a 'test' had been introduced in Cumbria 3 weeks ago, which had been successful and it was hoped that a scheme could be introduced in the North east shortly. Also, car park recycling of plastic was a possibility. The Chair queried whom the plastic would be sold to. Mr Martin stated that this was a commercial consideration; effectively, the one who paid the most money. There were government charges/ packaging charge/levy regulations whereby the company was required to recycle a percentage of all its product, and failure to do so would result in the company having to 'pay current cost'; for example, �20 per tonne for cardboard. If the quota was not achieved, the company had to buy from a company that had - so it was in the company's interest to recycle as much cardboard as it could. (In fact, more than the government required the company to do). Jenni Madison referred to a statement of the Environment Agency that morning that waste minimisation 'could not be given away', whereas Mr Martin could see advantages. Mr Martin pointed out that the North East Co-Op had a bill of about �120,000 per year because it was classed as the end user - so it was important to recycle materials.

In response to a query, Mr Martin reported that in most cases, all of the Co-Op's big stores had recycling banks in car parks for glass, tin, used paper etc. Some local authorities participated, some did not. Plastic (or, to be precise, 'polymer') was rarely added to that list. However, as an example of good practice, facilities existed at Richmond Co-op for polymer recycling banks courtesy of Richmond Council - who regarded this as a community facility. Mr Martin suggested that it was in everyone's interest.

(4) Why don't supermarkets operate re-use of bottles with a deposit scheme? These are required in Denmark and many parts of the USA and Canada? (Bill Hopwood)

Mr Martin was unsure if anyone in the country had the facilities. The Chair referred to the fact that the Co-op had closed its bottle plant. Mr Martin confirmed that this had been because of costs and manpower. It was confirmed that a huge volume of bottles were 'binned' every day. (It was cheaper to smash and start again) Mr Martin suggested that queries on a countrywide deposit scheme should be aimed at Government.

(5) Have you considered using any other incentive schemes? (Bill Colwell)

Mr Martin was aware of store recycling facilities in Europe, where every item had a 'credit'. In his view, in the UK, it was important to get the big items out of the waste stream first.

Given the emission factor, Bill Colwell queried whether packaging could be streamlined in some way within the distribution process. Mr Martin was aware of systems in Germany. Jenni Madison displayed an example of food packaging, in a plastic tray with hard plastic and cardboard covering. Mr Martin confirmed that such packaging would be deemed unnecessary in Germany. Insofar as large distribution packages were concerned, Bill Colwell referred to the possibility (based on floor space etc) of retail units using modular stacking systems from factory to shop floor and back again. The Chair, in other words, queried whether - when produce came into the store - it came in returnable boxes as much as possible. Mr Martin stated that the company was only 20% where it wanted to be. Fruit and vegetables - 60%; hopefully 95% by the end of the year. The next concentration would be on dairy products, bread and cake.

(6) Do you liaise with large manufacturers e.g. Fox's Biscuits or Nestle to reduce packaging or to make it more eco-friendly? (Eric Landau)

Mr Martin referred to previous answers, and reiterated that it was in everyone's interest to keep this to a minimum.

(7) Have your stores ever participated in the annual Buy Recycled campaigns? (Eric Landau)

Mr Martin was not aware of any participation. The Chair queried if the price of recycled product was the main problem. Mr Martin suggested that there was approximately 15/20% of shelf space given over to it, but it was a question of the consumer being willing to pay the price (organic food was quoted as an example.)

(8) Many bottles and containers are now in plastic not glass. Although this is offered to the consumer as a lighter, safer alternative, the disposal and recycling of plastic is less developed than that of glass. Do you take into account the 'cradle to grave' environmental consequences of your decision? (Bill Hopwood)

A discussion ensued on refundable bottle schemes. Mr Martin suggested that the Continent could show the way forward here. Eric Landau suggested that the cost of handling reusable bottles was perhaps too costly.

(9) How do you think it best to deal with the problem of green glass used in wine bottles not having a recycled market in the UK? (Geoff Stokle)

Mr Martin reported that there were 1 million customers per week, and only 30 sites with glass recycling facilities. One local authority (because of cash shortfall) had withdrawn from 2 sites. The Chair suggested however that the Council were bearing the cost of taking the glass away. Were the company in a position to pay for providing that service? Mr Martin suggested that this was a possibility. The Chair then concluded that this was not a question of the price, more the willingness of the Council.

A debate ensued on the use of green bottles for wine etc. The Chair had observed some drinks containers in green glass that had no discernable reason for being so. He queried if it wouldn't be a good move to press producers to use clear glass, thereby making recycling easier. Phil Capon understood that Safeway had instructed buyers to push for some wine being bottled in 'clear' glass; so it did appear to be possible. Mr Martin undertook to raise these issues with the company.

Mike Rabley suggested that it had been said for many years that there had been a retail conspiracy to get rid of recycling bottles and that there was a greater 'profit logic' to use plastic - which conflicted with environmental logic. Would changes come from consumer pressure, Government and European funding for recycling facilities, or industry initiative? Mr Martin believed that a lot of the situation was consumer-led. He referred to the possible sale of milk in plastic bags - where surveys had revealed that 9 out of 10 customers did not want it. Glass was a problem in the retail industry. It was dangerous etc. In his view, the Government needed to lead if there were to be substantial changes.

(10) Do you consider that supermarkets have a role in collecting e. used batteries? (John Buckham)

Mr Martin reported that there were schemes in place, but again this was a very small part of the overall waste scenario. There were no special bins in Co-Op stores, although initiatives would be welcomed.

(11) Do you have places at your stores for customers to deposit worn or torn polythene carrier bags? The proposed Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive) is an example of producer responsibility, whereby e.g. as customer buys a new TV or light bulb and gives you back the old one. Have you plans to implement this? (Val Barton)

Mr Martin reported that new regulations were being issued and discussions were taking place. At Sunderland, there was a 'route' for disposal. Phil Capon stated that GONE and the Environment Agency had stated that it wished to work with industry on voluntary codes of practice, pilots etc. It seemed that whereas there was a place for this, what seemed to have driven the market was regulation and financial penalties for non-compliance. Mr Martin concurred, but emphasised that once retailers became aware of the amount being wasted - and the damage to the environment - they were responding. He reiterated that with 1 million customers per year, the Co-Op were aware of food waste as a problem and, as such, would be willing to participate with any initiative which could deliver a scheme

Bill Hopwood queried whether, if the Council were committed to a scheme involving organic, clean composting - would the Co-Op sell food waste or give it to the Council? Mr Martin stated that his company would be glad to simply get rid of it, since the Co-Op had to pay to landfill it. Phil Capon queried whether the company would even pay a proportion of what it was saving to the Council. Mr Martin pointed out that the company were paying a landfall tax of �12/13 per tonne at the moment (costing �26/30 per tonne to get anything taken away).

The Chair made reference to a statement from Sainsbury that food waste difficulties were experienced because of meat contamination. Could the Co-Op keep meat separate from bread etc? Mr Martin confirmed that this was dealt with separately

The Chair queried if Newcastle were to introduce a kerbside collection service, attempting to separate out plastic, cans etc - would it then be logical for the company to have bring-sites at supermarket car park sites? Mr Martin suggested that this question would have to be put to local authorities which had undertaken such schemes. The company were, however, keen to have such facilities.

Bill Colwell made reference to rumours that a number of retail outlets were planning to bring back Combined Heat and Power systems, utilising local incinerators to dispose of waste and heat buildings etc. Mr Martin confirmed that the Co-Op was not considering this issue.

In conclusion, the Chair thanked Mr Martin for his attendance and stated that copies of the questions would be forwarded to him for follow-up where requested.