If you thought that extricating an advanced economy from a continental union was tough, try cleaning up the vital but polluting business of providing food and groceries to the population. The UK food and grocery sector was worth £190bn last year and is forecast to grow by 15 per cent to exceed £218bn in 2023. That’s a lot of employees, a lot of consumers, a lot of shopping trips and a lot of shopping bags. An awful lot. In fact, global plastics production reached 381m metric tonnes in 2015.
The impact of this is appalling. Most marine litter is plastic. Plastic causes untold problems for marine life and spoils our beautiful beaches. Half of shoreline debris comes from single-use plastics. Single-use consumption is engrained in our society and culture. Plastic is entering the food chain. Nearly one third of fish contain plastic. I could go on. (Thanks to industry charity IGD for the references).
Supermarket groups tried to tackle the issue of plastic pollution with the introduction of “bags for life”. Nice idea, but flawed in the delivery as consumers have been buying a billion of these a year and using them only once. So we have single-use bags which use even more plastic.
Step forward Morrisons, the Bradford-based supermarket group, which is giving customers the option of using large paper carrier bags. The group said the move was in response to customer concerns about reducing plastic. The paper bags will cost 20p each. Morrisons is also increasing the cost of its bags for life to 15p from 10p.
Andy Atkinson, group customer and marketing director, said: “When we listen to customers they want us to help them reduce the amount of plastic they have in their lives. These new paper bags do exactly the same job as standard plastic carrier bags. They are tough, reusable and can help keep a large amount of plastic out of the environment.”
Congratulations to Morrisons for taking this first step. I hope the rest of the industry takes note and follows suit. It takes bravery to be the first to act. I expect there will be a significant cost to this corporate decision. With shareholders in the background, that also takes guts. But it’s the right thing to do and I think shoppers will like the decision.
Times are changing and new consumers have high expectations of big business and aren’t afraid to voice their opinion on social media. Boardrooms know they need to act, especially on a touchstone issue like the environment. Experts like Professor Richard Thompson, the ‘Godfather of plastics research’, argue that the circular economy is an important part of the solution. This means keeping resources in use as long as possible.
In Bradford, we are world leaders in the circular economy. The University of Bradford, its triple-crowned School of Management and charity partner Ellen MacArthur Foundation have been pioneering in teaching programmes and research in the circular economy for years. Professor Amir Sharif, Associate Dean (International) and Professor of Circular Economy, told The Yorkshire Post: “Given the aim of a transition to a circular economy is to eliminate waste and increase the re-use of products and services as much as possible, especially the challenge of reducing plastics waste, Morrisons’ paper bag initiative is an excellent step in the right direction.
“Clearly there are concerns that the energy and hence carbon footprint of producing paper bags is the same or greater than plastic bags. But the reuse potential and net harm to the environment should be lower as paper bags are far more degradable than plastic.
“As our ongoing research in the area, including in food, water and resource waste shows, human behaviours are at the heart of how we produce and consume products and services. I think that the real innovation in shifting from plastics to paper bags, which is great to see, is that the general public are now pushing for and demanding change in consumption and waste behaviours. This is the exciting part. Following Morrisons’ step we should be able to see more resilient paper bags that can have a longer reuse life.”
As we know, the UK food and grocery sector is a behemoth. It is made up of a complex and interlinked global network of suppliers and is prone to pressures from all sides. Achieving positive environmental change in an ecosystem that has evolved over decades, if not centuries, without disrupting flow of food from the farm to the plate is a big challenge. Bigger than Brexit? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
• Dave Baldwin is chairman of Bradford Economic Partnership and chief executive of Burnley Football Club