Compostable carrier bags from the Co-op
Co-operative Food has been rolling out compostable carrier bags that can be used as food waste caddy liners. Environment manager Iain Ferguson answers questions about the bags
1. How did the idea of selling compostable carrier bags that can then be used as food caddy liners come about?
When we first looked at biodegradable carrier bags in response to the plastic-bag-free campaigns that started in Modbury, we knew that a proper, defined end of life disposal route was required. Although there were a couple of food waste collection schemes running, for most customers the answer had to be home composting. The bags were designed from the start to fit food waste caddies. After this had been running for a while, albeit on a small scale, we were approached by Mark Husdan at Oldham Council to sell the carrier bags in the town to support their food waste collections.
2. Why do you charge for these when single use plastics carrier bags are given away for free?
We sell the bags at 6p each for two reasons. The first is because that is what we pay for them. We sell them at cost. The second, and most important, reason is that if we were to give them away, they would become a substitute for polythene bags. Too many would be taken by customers who had no access to food waste collection or home-composting and they would end up in landfill or, worse, in polythene recycling. Putting a price on them means that they are valued for their intended purpose.
3. In your trials, how successful have the compostable bags been?
It really depends on what you mean by successful. For most commercial transactions, success means selling a lot. For these bags, success means selling enough and no more. Success also means saving customers money, saving councils money, increasing resident engagement in food waste collection, and reducing polythene contamination of food waste. We have had no complaints from customers having sold around 5 million bags last year, and we have nothing but praise from the councils we have spoken to.
4. Tell me about the trials. Where and when did you carry this out and why were these areas selected?
The initial trials were in Oldham following their request. This was to make sure that we could provide the bags in a suitable manner to residents via our stores and to demonstrate that customers would understand the system and buy their bags from us. While this was going on, we were approached by several other local authorities to stock the bags in their areas. We used those other areas to refine the way we offer the bags and how we inform customers. The information on the bags has been developed in consultation with local authorities and WRAP.
5. You have 600 stores now stocking the compostable bags. Have you been working with the local councils in these areas to ensure the bags are useable in their collection systems?
We have around 600 stores selling the bags and for the most part, the stores are in areas where the council website says that they accept caddy liners with a seedling logo showing certification to EN 13432. We are hoping that more councils will approach us to ask that we extend the scheme to their area. We already have one that we are in discussion with.
6. How many UK stores does Co-operative Food have and do you plan to roll it out to all stores? If so, what would need to happen for this to take place?
We have nearly 3,000 stores across the UK. We will only sell the bags in areas where the council will accept them for food waste collection. We also don’t tend to sell them where the council gives caddy liners to residents – why would someone buy something they get for free? We will extend as we see opportunities arise. This will need us to receive the information about acceptability. It will also need food waste collections to spread to more areas of the country. In addition, to make the bags economically viable, they must not carry the full carrier bag charge. At 6p each, the bags are cheaper than caddy liners on a roll. If the 5p charge is added on to that 6p, the cost almost doubles to 11p which is around the same price as a liner on a roll. This is the case in Wales and Northern Ireland where we don’t sell the bags.
7. What is your view on the current debate that biodegradable carrier bags shouldn’t be given an exemption for the carrier bag charge?
We don’t believe that a blanket exemption should be given to biodegradable carrier bags. That might result in some retail outlets giving them away which would result in these bags in landfill or in polythene recycling. We do believe that there should be some accommodation for compostable bags provided in the way that we are doing it – only where councils accept them, properly labelled, properly certified, and not given away but sold (at or above the carrier bag charge). It would be a huge missed opportunity if our system, which is doing so much to help councils to deliver good food waste collection services, were to be compromised by legislation on carrier bags that didn’t accommodate them.
8. Are you concerned that your bags could contaminate the plastic bag recycling stream?
No. We completely understand the concerns of the recycling industry. However, we don’t believe that customers will pay a premium for a bag with a specific end of life purpose and then throw them in a recycling bin. Our bags specifically ask customers not to do this. This view is backed up by us looking at our own polythene recycling stream in an area where the compostable bags are well-established. We found no compostable carrier bags in the polythene.
9. Why is Co-operative Food keen to get involved in schemes such as this?
There are several reasons. We want to help our customers save money. We want to further reduce the number of single-use carrier bags we give away (already at 64% reduction since 2006). As a responsible and community retailer, we want to be good neighbours to the local authorities in which we operate. We want to reduce environmental impacts where we can. This sort of thing fits absolutely with Co-operative values and principles.
10. Are there any other innovations Co-operative Food is looking at in terms of its own and customer resource efficiency?
Much of the work we are involved with relates to our own impacts. We have done a lot of work on reducing the impact of our refrigeration and we have made major advances in dealing with waste from store. We are also working on ways to increase shelf life of product – we added a day to the life of vine tomatoes last year with some clever packaging design.