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Sustainable focus: First Mile – Retail Insider

Welcome to this monthly column within our broader sustainability section which focuses on what retail is doing to address the issues in its industry.

This month a two-part interview with the founder of First Mile Bruce Bratley – brought to you by Retail Insider with Clipper and Give Back Box

Recycling is an unglamorous but necessary element within sustainability – the bit that closes the loop and the bit that retailers and consumers alike can do without having to think too much and then feel good that they have done their bit.

So in theory an interview with the boss of a major corporate recycling firm should be full of easy wins and ticked CSR boxes for retailers. However, talking to Retail Insider, founder of leading UK recycling firm First Mile, Bruce Bratley had an unlikely plea for retailers – please stop developing so many new materials.

Bruce Bratley of First Mile

message to retailers is that the UK has an incredible recycling industry which
keeps materials firmly in the circular economy and retailers need to promote
this and worry less about inventing new products,” he claims. There are
hundreds of different types of plastic and only a few can be re-used meaning
that most are used in one-off, low value applications and then incinerated
immediately after their single-use.

Bratley, who has a background in environmental academia,
explains that most business recycling involves the secondary packaging
consisting of shrink wrap, plastic sleeves, cardboard boxes and end-of-life
stationery as opposed to the bottles, cartons, tins and other primary packaging,
which make up most household recycling.

“There has been a massive shift from paper to plastics over
the last 30 years,” he notes, adding: “Coke used to be only in glass bottles
but customers said they loved plastic and now it’s mainly bottled in plastic.” And
there are, of course, sound reasons for this in terms of its cheapness to
produce, preserving capabilities and lightness.

In fact, Bratley is not particularly anti-plastic and argues
that the so-called ‘Blue Planet’ effect is a bit too knee-jerk. It is not, he
feels, so much a problem with plastic as a material but a problem with waste
containment in South East Asia where people have traditionally thrown their, largely
organic, rubbish into the sea and now do exactly the same with their
increasingly westernised, and therefore plastic, waste while these countries
are also a dumping ground for the world’s unrecyclable waste.

But now consumers in the UK have seen the destructive effects of plastic in the oceans and demand retailers do something about it which often leads to anomalies such as retailers turning to paper packaging, which might have a larger carbon footprint to produce than plastic and is often not recycled either.

Worse still, egged on by marketing departments with an eye
on corporate comms, many retailers start trying to invent or ask for whole new
packaging categories that provides the recycling industry with an even bigger

“There is only really one type of glass and one type of
paper in recycling terms,” Bratley explains, “but there are seven main polymers
making up multiple plastic types and they require recycling in different ways”.

First Mile allows retailers to easily differentiate between
different plastic waste streams in a way that is far beyond most householders
uneducated in the finer points of polyethylene manufacture. “Most retailers
would, of course, like a Utopian world with no plastic but behaviour change is
a mix of carrot and stick,” Bratley finds.

His own favourite materials are those that can be endlessly recycled. “Glass – it’s brilliant, it comes back exactly the same,” whereas something like paper degrades slightly each time and goes from writing paper “to egg boxes and then to hospital bedpans and then nothing.”

(Part 2 of this column will run later in March)

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