Richard Walker

Our last chance to act is right now

Humanity’s obsession with the short term is akin to arguing about what to play next on the car stereo, while overlooking the fact that we are about to plough into the back of stationary truck.

The equivalent in UK politics is the apparently never-ending obsession with the minutiae of Brexit even as we sleepwalk over an environmental cliff edge, despite the ever more insistent flashing of multiple warning signs: the planet warming, mass extinctions gathering pace, deforestation accelerating, and plastic choking the life out of the oceans.

It was great, then, to see Michael Gove taking leadership on some of these critical issues with the publication this week of the Government’s Resources & Waste Strategy for England. This recognises that the only workable solution to the huge environmental challenges of plastic reduction and food waste is a strategy that adopts a much more integrated approach to waste disposal and recycling – though it needs to be applied across the whole of the UK, not just in England.

Iceland has been leading the retail industry on plastic reduction precisely because we understand that there is no way we can simply recycle our way out of the problem: we need to turn down the tap of plastic production. As the Royal Statistical Society have pointed out as their ‘statistic of the year’, 90.5% of plastic waste is not recycled:

So we strongly support the principle that all businesses need to take responsibility for their actions, and that a tax should be applied to plastic packaging without a significant recycled content as a driver to help turn down the tap. Though we would also like to see Producer Responsibility reformed to ensure that any additional funds are transparently targeted at improving our waste infrastructure.

We are already working with multiple stakeholders on more environmentally-friendly and resource-efficient alternatives to plastic, and welcome the idea of more collaboration within the industry to drive this forward.

We also welcome the focus on increasing recycling rates by encouraging all local authorities to provide services that are consistent and joined up. In particular, we need mandatory food waste collections by every council across the country as the key to making better use of unavoidable food waste to generate energy and produce fertiliser, rather than sending it to landfill where it contributes to climate change through methane emissions. Critically, this will also drive the creation of a nationwide industrial composting infrastructure that will make possible much greater use of compostable packaging. We regard this as one of the most promising alternatives to plastic in many packaging functions, but its widespread use requires the provision of appropriate facilities to handle it on disposal.

Iceland’s home country of Wales is ranked second in Europe and number three globally for effectiveness in recycling, and already collects nearly 100% of food waste from the home – which is where the largest amount of food waste is created. So there is no need for anyone to travel far to learn about best practice in this area.

Naturally we are also working hard to reduce food waste in our own operations, as a signatory to the WRAP/IGD Food Waste Roadmap. We benefit here from our focus on frozen food, with a long shelf life that cuts food waste throughout the supply chain, in our stores and indeed in our customers’ homes. We have established a partnership with Company Shop / Community Shop that is putting surplus food from our depots to good use in the community, diverting 310 tonnes of waste into the community in the last year to provide 111,000 meals – and this week we are serving Christmas dinner to 600 Community Shop members. We have also signed an agreement with the Trussell Trust to provide freezers to food banks, and launched a new beer called Bread Board that utilises waste bread from our Welsh stores and bakery that would otherwise be made into animal feed. We are currently looking at solutions to repurpose unsold food from our stores, and hope to trial potential solutions in 2019.

We are delighted to see firmer plans for a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), which we have been trialling through the introduction of Reverse Vending Machines in some of our stores; these have received a hugely positive response from our customers. The DRS system is already proven to work, driving plastic bottle recycling rates as high as 96% in Scandinavia, so it is disappointing that the Government feels the need to engage in a lengthy consultation exercise and could delay its introduction until as late as 2023. We already know that Scotland is likely to move much faster than this, and it will create huge and avoidable complications for all drinks manufacturers and retailers if a separate scheme becomes embedded there while the rest of the UK lags behind.

In summary, there is much to welcome, particularly in the more radical elements of the Government’s plan, and we can only hope they are not watered down by the powerful lobbies that will undoubtedly react against them. But the needs of the planet are urgent, and we must ensure that the Government maintains its focus on issues of Resources & Waste, keeps its foot on the accelerator in its search for solutions, and takes action more quickly than is currently being suggested on a number of these issues.

It’s all very well having a 25 Year Environment Plan – but we don’t have the luxury of waiting for a quarter of a century for these issues to be resolved. If we don’t take action quickly, future generations frankly have no hope.

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