Recyclability: Misleading the masses

Less than 1% of takeaway coffee cups get recycled in the UK. Less than 1%! And when you dig a little deeper even that is extremely generous, with the actual figures sitting at a miniscule 0.1% - closer to nothing.

We’ve spoken many times in the past about the emerging purchase drivers for consumers, including the sustainability and environmental impact of products. For example, Deloitte recently reported that social impact has found its way towards the top of these drivers.

Those three little arrows

With this in mind, I wasn’t surprised to hear of the recent consumer outrage towards the poor recyclability record of takeaway coffee cups. Especially since many of them contain the recycling symbol we’re all familiar with. (You know the one, three arrows all twisted into a neat little triangle.)

Although this is part of a larger problem – that of recycling our waste rather than chucking it all into a big hole in the ground (because that was always going to work), it’s an important consideration for retailers. Not least because consumers are taking control of the conversation about the products they buy, relying on their peers as sources of information rather than the marketing messages of manufacturers. Are products recyclable enough? And what about the packaging inputs and resins – how much of them are being reused or recycled?

It’s also important to look at how many types of material packaging is made up of. Consumers know that the cardboard sleeve from food packaged in a tray is easily removed and recycled – what isn’t so easy is dismantling packaging made up of many parts and figuring out what can be recycled and what has to go to landfill.

All of these factors make a difference between purchase and leaving it on the shelf. Most large retailers have been aware of this for some time. However, in truth, knowing about it and acting on it are gulfs apart. Some, like Walmart, have been tracking their suppliers’ recyclability and recycled packaging levels for a number of years. It is all part of their wider sustainability initiatives.

However, is it enough? Although it is always encouraging to see retailers monitoring the social impact of their supply chain, it doesn’t close the loop.

We understand how reusing plastic in packaging might save us, the consumer, money. But, we need the retailer to go further and understand that the customer’s decision to purchase an item will be affected by how easy it is to recycle and whether the resins that make up the packaging actually end up being reused. This is only going to become more important.

Convenience and transparency

For example, although in the UK we recycle nearly 45% of all our household waste, in London this can drop to only 17.7%. It’s about convenience. As the media have highlighted multiple times, the different recycling schedules of the 32 local authorities that govern the capital make it confusing.

For this reason, retailers need to be absolutely transparent. It’s important to their customers, and therefore their profits.

The consumer wants packaging to be more recyclable, wants to know how the retailer is improving their level of sustainability and needs to know that they appreciate their social impact. They don’t want to feel misled like in the case of the major coffee chains and their un-recyclable coffee cups.

Listening to customers is a cornerstone of UBX – Unified Brand Experience. The retailer is able to listen to customer needs and use them to direct collaborative conversations with suppliers to make changes. In the case of recyclable and recycled packaging, work with suppliers on innovative ideas for change – the consumer benefiting from the result.

Tags: Customer experience, Sustainability, Consumer trust

Alex Fitchett

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