Does ‘every little help’ or are supermarket refill schemes just a drop in the ocean?

Despite the threat to their businesses, independent retailers have applauded Marks & Spencer’s extension of the eco-friendly ‘Fill Your Own’ scheme to a Manchester store.

Consumers can reduce their plastic use by refilling containers with Fill Your Own products including basmati rice, milk chocolate raisins and Fiorelli pasta from Marks & Spencer’s St Mary’s Gate store in central Manchester from this month. 

The initiative began at the company’s Hedge End branch in Southampton where 25 out of 44 Fill Your Own products outsold the packaged alternatives.  

Carl Peachey, who runs the south Manchester zero-waste shop Lentils and Lather alongside his wife, Paulina Janicka-Peachey, said: “The fact that big supermarkets and other major food outlets are trialling food dispensers to enable people to bring their own containers to refill is good news, after all, we’re here to tackle the plastic problem so ultimately we want what’s best for the planet!

“There is a risk to our business, however, we believe that what we’re doing is completely different from mainstream shopping. 

“Our USP is something that big business will never achieve – it’s slow shopping, personable service and unique products that differentiate Lentils and Lather and other zero-waste shops from the mainstream.” 

The worker co-operative Unicorn Grocery in Chorlton was Manchester Food & Drink Awards Retailer of the Year in 2019. 

Co-operative member Debbie Clarke said: “It is wonderful that social and environmental considerations are influencing customer behaviour so much, and that large retailers are changing their practices as a result. It’s great news that values we hold dear are now mainstream.

“It could be seen as increasing competition I suppose, but we think our customers see the bigger picture. 

“A single scheme like this, as valuable as it is, doesn’t mean M&S now competes with what a values-driven worker co-op offers its community.” 

The community-owned Village Greens in Prestwich offers refills across hoppers, household and health products. 

Manager Chris Williams said: “Stores like ours exist to push the bar higher for big business supermarkets.

“It is our hope that more supermarket chains adopt a more aggressive policy on single-use plastics and packaging in general and they do this countrywide. 

“Refills are a good starting point but without countrywide coverage and a review of other excessive packaging within supermarkets, in general, it is but a drop in the already polluted ocean.” 

Marks & Spencer’s ‘fill your own’ trial is one of a series of waste and plastic-reduction actions taken by supermarket chains across the UK. 

Iceland launched an ‘industry-leading’ trial to reduce its plastic packaging by 93% across a range of fresh produce. 

Waitrose launched its Waitrose Unpacked initiative in Oxford’s Botley Road shop last June, which was expanded to three more shops in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire from September 2019. 

Tesco has pledged to remove 1 billion pieces of plastic from product ranges in UK stores by the end of 2020. 

From May, Asda shoppers will be able to fill up their own containers with products including Asda own-brand coffee, rice, pasta, and branded products such as Kellogg’s cereals or PG Tips tea at the supermarket’s first ‘sustainability store’ at its Middleton branch in Leeds.

BBC Food & Farming Awards 2019 finalist A Small Good Thing is a Bolton-based greengrocer that focuses on seasonal organic produce and waste reduction. 

Co-owner Emily Cooke said: “For refill schemes to work, we need lots of shops doing them. I am really encouraged by the fact that Marks & Spencer is looking into its plastic waste and a different way of doing things, as nearly everything in our local Bolton store is currently wrapped in plastic. 

“There is, of course, a danger of supermarkets jumping on a bandwagon for the wrong reasons; however, from what I understand Marks & Spencer is simply looking at having its own-brand food delivered in sacks and dispensed from containers which is a great step forward.”

Shelley Brown, who is owner/director of the waste-free mini-market The Good Life in Stockport, believes there is still more to be done by both big corporations and consumers. She said: “I personally applaud any move an influencer like M&S can make to highlight the wasteful convenience of the modern-day supermarket. 

“I wish these big players had a little more courage though. Remove the packaged versions – why is there a need to offer both? 

“Consumers need to recognise the environmental impact of their decisions and start to be pushed to make positive decisions.” 

Marks & Spencer’s director of food technology, Paul Willgoss, said: “Our ‘fill your own’ concept is one area we’re focusing on as part of our action to reduce plastic packaging and support our customers to reuse and recycle.

“We’re keen to better understand refill across the entire store process from behind the scenes operations to working with our customers to encourage behaviour change.” 

Marks & Spencer aims to remove all hard-to-recycle plastics from its products and ensure all its packaging is widely recycled by 2022.  

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