WRAP is running a new campaign to get people to recycle more plastic film. But have eco-labels outlived their usefulness?
Over 100,000 tonnes of plastic film packaging is estimated to be brought home by consumers each year, but less than 3% is recycled. In an effort to improve this, WRAP (the Waste & Resources Action Programme) is trying to increase the use of standardised recycling labels on packaging, so that shoppers can easily understand what can be recycled, and where.
Post-consumer film plastic, as it's known in trade, is mainly not collected at kerbsides; people have to bring it to retailers’ front-of-store collection points, just as they sometimes do for carrier bags.
A new label has been developed between WRAP and manufacturers, that explains this to people, together with a way of printing the label onto the films; WRAP's new campaign exists to tell manufacturers about it.
WRAP's own research shows that consumers are often frustrated that they don't know what packaging can and cannot be recycled.
But other new research has discovered that the practice of eco-labeling may be on the brink of saturation point, and becoming as confusing for companies as it is for consumers. The joint research, by the International Institute for Management Development and the Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne, suggests that, world-wide, the process has become so fragmented that the current industry perception is dominated by wide-ranging reappraisal.
The world’s first eco-label, the Blue Angel, was introduced by Germany’s Ministry of the Environment in 1978 to highlight products’ environmental and sustainability credentials. Now, there are well over 400 labels used across 25 industries around the globe.
This has given rise to plenty of confusion. Professor Ralf Seifert, co-author of the research, said: “It’s not just consumers who are confused. Selecting an eco-label has become a highly complex decision for firms. The trend towards fragmentation, which is made worse by a lack of consensus over qualifying criteria, is clearly causing ever more opposition and frustration.”
Major international companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Nestlé, Canon, Sara Lee and E.ON helped with the research, which involved seeking the opinion of around 1,000 executives to determine why firms adopt eco-labels.
The respondents gave as their motivation: brand-strengthening, addressing consumers’ sustainability demands, and protection against pressure-group attacks. However, they also expressed “substantial scepticism” over eco-labels’ enduring credibility and the rigour of the criteria and certification procedures.
Ole Just Sorensen, of energy company Grundfos, told researchers: "In some areas the market looks more like a new industry of ‘selling stickers’”.
Duncan Pollard, Nestlé’s sustainability advisor, said: "We may be seeing the first serious reappraisal of the conventional wisdom that if you wish to prove you’re sustainable you need a certification logo".
The research highlights a desire for improved consolidation and standardisation, and warns that companies and customers alike risk being “overwhelmed” unless there is greater dialogue and cooperation among stakeholders.
Dr. Joana Comas Martí, an expert in supply chain environmental management, said: "There’s also a feeling among firms that many eco-label providers launch with good intent but morph into organisations whose desire is to survive rather than serve."
So far, WRAP seems to have avoided this mistake, by developing eco-labels in close cooperation with manufacturers and retailers.
Under its 'On-Pack Recycling Label' (OPRL) scheme, packaging can be labeled as ‘widely recycled’, ‘check local recycling’ and ‘not currently recycled’. This standardised wording helps to inform consumers what they should do with their packaging.
Over 145 organisations have already signed up to its OPRL scheme, with the label being widely recognised by the public and used in over 75,000 product lines. These include Asda, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury's, Tesco, The Co-op, Waitrose, John Lewis, B&Q, Boots, Pepsi Co, Ecover, Warburtons and The Home Retail Group.
These participants seem well pleased with the label. Melanie Leech, director general of the Food and Drink Federation, reports that 15 of its members have signed up to the scheme since its launch in March 2009 as part of a growing list of brand and retailer participants overall. "We continue to encourage our members to use the new label," she said. Justin King, chief executive of Sainsbury’s supermarkets, agreed.
A spokesperson for the Wine and Spirits Trade Association (WSTA) said that in fact "this voluntary label offers an opportunity for manufacturers to do away with the confusing mix of recyclability labels that have been used in the past".
She added: "I congratulate those in our sector who have already signed up to the scheme and would encourage others to also do so".
The new label for post-consumer plastic film uses the same established Recycle Now ‘swoosh’, and is coordinated with local authority collections data, which is updated annually. The label explains that the film can be recycled with carrier bags at the larger stores and not at the kerbside.
The use of the label can apply to products from bakery, breakfast cereal, household goods, grocery produce, multi-pack shrink film and even newspaper and magazine wrap.
One of the companies pioneering the use of the label is The Economist magazine, which has been using it on the outer film wrapper of issues that are distributed to its subscribers by post, an amount of film that totals 14 tonnes per year.
Drinks manufacturer A.G. Barr has also been using it on multipack sales units of drinks such as Irn-Bru. It aims to get the label on 83% of the multipack sales units, which will comprise around 173 tonnes of plastic film packaging per year. Britvic is going down the same route.
The Co-operative Food is another pioneer, which is applying the label to a total of 70 of its product lines, such as packed onions, organic apples and organic pears, as well as bags for loose produce. These lines represent an increasing number of its mainstream volume lines, accounting for about half of the total product lines that currently meet the criteria to use the film label. To achieve this, the Co-operative Food had to win the collaboration of its entire supply chain, its packaging manufacturers and printers.
This label, and its development, seems so far to be a success and a model for other eco-labels to follow. As they say in the other film trade – movies – when shooting is completed: “It’s a WRAP!”
Story: David Thorpe, News Editor