Colruyt Group’s approach to packaging, including plastics
Packaging and why it’s so important
Packaging protects food against damage and deterioration while it's being transported, in store and at home. Packaging often carries useful information for consumers but its primary use is to guarantee hygiene and food safety, to maintain quality and to ensure it can be stored. Some materials are ideal for packaging, even if that doesn't align with their image. Plastic is one example of this — a plastic-wrapped cucumber will stay fresh up to 11 days longer than an unwrapped one.
As a retailer, we do our best to minimise packaging waste and its impact on the environment. But we also have a duty to combat food waste wherever possible; not only from a moral perspective, but also to limit the impact on the environment. And that's where packaging comes in, of course. In other words, choosing the right packaging is a balance between limiting its environmental impact and preventing food waste, so the challenge is to use less material or make it more sustainable while still ensuring that products are properly protected. And we're getting better at this all the time.
What are we currently doing?
Obviously, we aim to minimise the amount of packaging we use, by making it smaller or thinner, or by not using it at all. We also frequently use material that can be recycled, such as cardboard, PET and tins. All the recyclable packaging waste that is collected in our stores and distribution centres is recycled effectively and we use some of it to make new packaging; for example, cardboard trays for fruit or cold meats. We also consciously choose reusable packaging, such as beer crates and wine bottles, where people get their deposit back. Finally, we're also leading the way with pioneering research into renewable materials.
Choosing a circular economy
Choosing packaging material is a constant and complex puzzle. What is the most sustainable option? How can we find an efficient way to transport the product and put it on sale? What are the requirements in terms of hygiene, food safety and storage? We like to map the full environmental impact of the product and its packaging before making our choice, so we look at the complete life cycle, from production and transport to consumption and waste processing. In other words, our aim is a circular economy where we only use packaging made from recycled material, which is then reused in turn to help make new packaging material.
Less packaging? Yes please!
- We offer fruit and vegetables in bulk wherever possible, which means without packaging. Customers take them away loose or use their own reusable bags.
- Bring your own container. You can bring your own containers and shop without packaging at the counters in the Bio-Planet stores. You choose how much meat, cheese or ready-prepared food you want and the employee fills your container for you. Ten or so Bio-Planet stores offer a system where you can fill your own containers with a range of dried fruits, nuts, breakfast grains and seeds and this will be extended to all Bio-Planet stores at a later date.
- Instead of being packaged in plastic bags, our Boni Selection bananas are now sold loose or held together with a simple adhesive strip. This means our customers will be taking home 8.5 tonnes less plastic each year.
- We have removed the carrying handle from toilet paper packaging, saving around 2.8 tonnes of plastic each year.
- We're getting rid of unnecessary stickers on our own-brand loose fruit and vegetables. We're designing stickers that are necessary, like barcodes, so they can be composted at home. This will save 34.5 tonnes of plastic each year.
- Colruyt Lowest Prices is selling several plants in sleeves made from recycled paper. That's a saving of 220,000 plastic sleeves each year.
- Spar has updated the plastic packaging for fresh fish, saving 1 tonne of plastic each year.
- Our Colruyt stores have never offered plastic carrier bags at the check-out. Customers use free cardboard boxes or bring their own folding boxes with them.
- Colruyt stopped using plastic wrappers on comic strips in May 2019. OKay will soon do the same for the leaflets sent to customers' homes.
We have only offered reusable bags for loose fruit and vegetables since the start of 2020; strong polyester bags that are washable and can be reused at least 100 times. All single-use plastic bags for fruit and vegetables have been removed permanently from our stores, taking 150 million plastic bags out of circulation each year — equivalent to the volume of 23 trailers.
- If you buy bread from Bio-Planet, make sure you check out their new reusable bread bag made from organic cotton.
- The resealable plastic containers from the Colruyt butchery counters are perfect to use at home.
- The dining area in OKay Compact Ghent is testing reusable cups from Billie Cups.
Recycling? We're on it!
Sustainable trays for cold meats
Since 2017, Colruyt butchery counters have packaged sliced cold meats in cardboard trays with a thin plastic film. The tray can go in the paper recycling at home and the film in the expanded PMD bag, taking 12.5 million plastic trays out of circulation each year — equivalent to 130 tonnes. Over their entire life cycle, the cardboard trays reduce the impact on climate change by 55 %.
Recycling 100 % of outer packaging
We already recycle 100 % of the outer packaging that remains in store or that we sort in our distribution centres. Outer packaging encloses the user packaging; for example, a cardboard box with several boxes of biscuits inside, or a plastic wrapping around several different containers of shampoo. Outer packaging increases efficiency throughout the chain, from storage and transport through to the store itself. It makes it easier for store staff to put products on the shelves or transfer them from one trolley to another at the till, limiting costs and helping to create the lowest prices at Colruyt.
We are always looking for more sustainable options for outer packaging, but that takes time. Of course, customers are free to leave excess packaging behind in stores and we will continue to sort it rigorously and send it for recycling. This is mainly cardboard, along with a much smaller amount of plastic film.
A second life for materials after use
100 % recycled shrinkwrap
We send the plastic film that we collect in our stores and distribution centres to a Belgian partner who turns it into new shrinkwrap. We use this 100 % recycled material to wrap bottles of wine in packs of two or three. We are also testing the film for coffee and regional beers, that we only sell in packs of 4, 6 or 8 bottles. If you buy one of these packs of beer, put the plastic in the PMD bag at home. We also intend to repack our cans in the same way at some point in the future.
From folding box to folding box
Even though the black folding box from Colruyt has only been on sale since October 2019, it has already had an entire life. That's because it's made from the around 70,000 discarded Collect&Go folding boxes that we recycle every year. That's equivalent to 80,000 kg of waste used as the raw material for new folding boxes, made in Belgium!
Partly recycled packaging
- Spar's new plastic juice bottles are 75 % made of fully recycled PET and 25 % of plastic from renewable materials like sugar cane waste.
- The meat trays at OKay are 75 % made from recycled plastic, replacing the production of 42.9 tonnes of virgin plastic.
- The packaging of Boni Selection potatoes is 40 % made from recycled plastic, equivalent to 50 tonnes each year.
- Our Boni Selection water bottles are 25 % made from recycled plastic.
Fresh yet packed?
Some fresh products are still packaged when you buy them in store. Why is that? Some fruit or vegetables are too fragile to be sold loose, so we offer products like mushrooms and raspberries in trays. In winter, products like cucumbers, aubergines and broccoli from Spain are wrapped in plastic so they stay fresh for longer, combatting food waste in store and at home. But we are also testing unpackaged alternatives here.
Organic legislation specifies that there has to be a clear distinction between conventional and organic products. We sell both types of fruit and vegetables alongside each other in our fresh produce departments, so we choose to package the organic products because they represent the smallest volume.
Together for less litter
Packaging should be on a product or in the bin, not discarded on the ground. We're doing plenty to reduce litter, including installing more litter bins on our central sites and in store car parks. We also organise in-house clean-up campaigns and support government action plans via the Comeos trade federation, waste management company Fost Plus and Fevia, the federation for the Belgian food industry. Combatting litter benefits everyone and also reduces the amount of microplastics that end up in the soil and water.
What other plans do we have in store for the future?
What are we doing as part of the retail sector as a whole?
Obviously, Colruyt Group is making the biggest impact on the packaging for its home brands like Boni Selection and Everyday. Just like other Belgian retailers, we have signed up to two objectives for our home brands:
We are also talking to suppliers of well-known national brands to discuss how we can work together to make packaging more sustainable. And, along with the entire Belgian retail sector and waste management company Fost Plus, we have committed to several ambitious objectives:
Searching for packaging for the future
Our R&D team is working with producers, knowledge institutions and universities on research projects involving new packaging, including the life cycle of materials. Projects include:
- inPaper: using paper in packaging
- GLOWPACK: searching for intelligent/sustainable packaging
- CircoPack: better food packaging
- Refoil: recycling or reusing complex packaging materials
- We are aware of the issues relating to microplastics and we are currently mapping which links in our logistics chain represent an additional risk of microplastics entering the water or soil.