Since it’s plastic-free July, we chatted to Ralph Jewson, project manager for Woolworths’ Good Business Journey. Ralph shared some insightful thoughts about recycling and greenwashing, and chatted about the role of retailers in sustainability, what Woolworths is doing to become more sustainable, and how they’re communicating this with consumers.

Why do we need so much packaging – and why plastic?

Ralph: There are many requirements that have to be met in terms of the law as well as moving the product through a supply chain safely and efficiently.

In terms of the law, we are required to declare contents, weight/portion size, ingredients, as well as the physical address of the producer responsible for the packed item/product (this applies to all brands). Then there is the safety aspect of handling through the supply chain (from the farm to fork or point of production to point of consumption). Packaging aids in the reduction of food loss/waste by minimising damage or spoiling as a result of handling and movement. Remember that in many cases food or produce can travel vast distances from place of production to point of consumption, and that may take time depending on the locations involved. Packaging may also enhance shelf life by preventing spoiling or slowing the ripening process which contributes to a reduction in what is lost prior to consumption. What is often forgotten is the resources like water, energy, nutrients, time and effort that goes into producing and transporting goods, which are also wasted or lost when food is lost to spoiling. Packaging often is a vital cog in the food production system that we depend on.

You've been known to say that “throw away is never away”. What do you mean by this?

Ralph: Think about where that item you are “throwing away” goes to when you put it into a bin. The bin is emptied, it goes on a truck to a place out of sight and out of mind. What happens then? If it is dirty (contaminated) and cannot be cleaned without substantial effort and money, it will go to landfill – a big hole dug somewhere out there in the country, perhaps behind a hill where no one sees, and it is buried. If it can be recycled, it goes to a place where it is processed and either converted into something else or prepared for that conversion process and then stored somewhere until needed.

Organic matter becomes compost. Plastic either is recycled and becomes some other plastic product or, if not recycled, [is] buried for what many describe as an eternity.

Why is it that some plastic can be recycled and other plastic packaging can’t?

Ralph: Most plastics are technically recyclable. The disconnect is that often the infrastructure to recycle it is not in place or does not exist. There are various reasons for this. Typically, the financial resources required far outweighs any conceivable financial benefit that could be derived. Setting up recycling infrastructure, collection systems and then a recycling plant to do the recycling is very expensive. Additionally, certain plastic types are easier to collect and process than others. So, often these are the ones that do get recycled, while others are not.

What often unlocks recycling is a market for the collected and recycled material to be used in another product.

Any advice or “must-knows” for recycling?

Ralph: Before you dispose of packaging for recycling, try to ensure the highest value is retained by washing or cleaning the items you are disposing. That way the chances are higher that it will be recycled because it is considered clean.

Another very important behaviour to encourage is that if there is a separation-at-source bin system (i.e. different bins or slots for different types of materials), respect the system and only put in the hole or bin what is meant to be placed in that hole or bin.

That one banana peel or half-eaten sandwich thrown in the wrong slot can result in tons of material going to landfill because of contamination. We don’t know how long it will take between a bin being emptied and the contents getting processed. It could be months before it does get processed and then that sandwich could be a whole wildlife experiment all of its own contaminating the otherwise recyclable material.

What responsibility do producers and retailers play as opposed to consumers? And what are some ways that brands and/or marketers can help to reduce plastic use?

Ralph: In South Africa, we now have EPR (extended producer responsibility) which was gazetted last year. This in effect is mandatory recycling which in terms of the law requires that producers either start their own or join a scheme that will set up systems and infrastructure to collect and recycle packaging material sold into the market, funded by way of a levy paid for every ton of material sold into the market.

What is Woolworths doing to be more sustainable and how do they communicate this with consumers?

Ralph: Our Good Business Journey is our commitment to care for our environment, people and communities. It is deeply imbedded in our business and enables a consistent approach to managing sustainability issues across the Woolworths group. It focuses on improving eight key areas of the business: energy and climate change, water, packaging and waste, sustainable farming, ethical sourcing, people, social development and health and wellness, with more than 200 targets supporting these areas.

From doors on fridges which reduces the energy they consume; to phasing out of unnecessary and single-use plastic packaging; to trialling an electric fleet for online deliveries; to solar panels to generate energy at our DCs that reduce their reliance on coal-derived energy; to cold chain disciplines that maintain optimal temperature throughout the supply chain – which results in food staying fresher for longer which reduces food loss and waste which saves valuable resources used to produce that food in the first place – to Better Cotton (cotton grown using less pesticides and chemicals). These are just a few examples of what we are doing. Often it is said we don’t spend enough time telling our customers about what we are doing, but have a look next time you are in one of our stores, there are quite a few instances of these stories in our stores and have been for some time.

Can you talk to the issue of greenwashing – why do brands do it and what should consumers look out for?

Ralph: I don’t think many organisations set out to purposely greenwash, although that does happen sometimes. More often it is a result of poor understanding of all the associated aspects or a hastily made decision or campaign that results in the shortcomings of the idea or concept being exposed as poorly considered, and by then momentum is dominant and there are red faces all round.

There are occasions where the concept or message is selectively positioned to create a warm and fuzzy narrative of caring which almost misdirects the consumer away from the complete story.

Packaging sound bites with a cleverly selected image that evokes emotions are the ones that often fall into this trap.

We are not an organisation that shouts about everything we do, we just get on with in, we believe that actions speak louder than words.

Ralph Jewson is project manager for Woolworths’ Good Business Journey.