Business Maverick


Pick n Pay bans barrier bags, Woolworths continues reusable shopping bag push

Pick n Pay bans barrier bags, Woolworths continues reusable shopping bag push
File photo: Customers stand in line after purchasing the "I'm Not a Plastic Bag" shopping totes by Anya Hindmarch at a Whole Foods Market July 18, 2007 in New York City. 20,000 of the environmentally-friendly bags went on sale for $15 each. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Retailer Pick n Pay has removed all plastic ‘barrier’ bags from its till points — this is expected to prevent 20 million of these small bags from entering the environment. Barrier bags are traditionally used by stores to separate selected products such as fresh produce, toiletries or cleaning products from other groceries.

The Pick n Pay barrier bag ban follows in the footsteps of competitor Woolworths, which removed all single-use bags from its stores, replacing them with recycled black bags. However, public jokes about Woolworths’ black bags that customers kept forgetting to take back to the store with them, led to the retailer rolling out an initiative where consumers can bring unwanted bags back for other consumers to use.

“The objective of our reusable shopping bag initiative is to change consumption behaviour and to reduce our reliance on single-use plastic,” says Latiefa Behardien, Woolworths Foods chief technology and sustainability officer. 

“All our food markets are single-use plastic shopping bag-free, which has resulted in a substantial increase in the demand and use of reusable shopping bags.

“We are committed to circularity and reducing single-use consumption, so we challenged ourselves to ensure that the broken or worn reusable bags are disposed of responsibly and given a new life, and for excess bags to be reused, reducing the need to purchase more.

“Last year, as part of our vision for zero packaging waste to landfill, we started engaging with local recyclers to test various second-life products for our reusable bags and started trialling recycling ‘drop-offs’ at our tills in selected stores.

“The objective of the trial was to test our reverse logistics system, as the bags need to be returned with our other recyclable store waste to our distribution centres where it is then sorted before moving on to recyclers for second-life trials,” confirms Behardien.

With the roll-out of the reusable bag recycling drops-off to an additional 100 stores, Woolworths and the recyclers are hoping to have the opportunity to test various second-life options on a bigger scale to finalise the best option for the worn reusable bags and close the circle.

The “Bring a Bag/Take a Bag” initiative has been exceptionally well received by customers, as it offers them the opportunity to drop off their excess reusable bags that are still in good condition for other customers who have forgotten theirs, to use and return thereafter.

“Based on our customer feedback and a great suggestion from ‘The Good Things Guy’ – Brent Lindeque – we trialled a ‘bag share’ initiative – ‘Bring a bag/Take a Bag’ in four stores and we are delighted to be rolling it out to an additional 100 stores across the country.

“An additional win-win is that the in-store equipment to house the bags has been made locally by a black-owned shopfitting company that we have been working with for over 10 years, and the in-store structures are made from 100% recycled content, which used to be yoghurt tubs, toothpaste tubes or chip packets, and would most likely end up in landfill,” said Behardien.

“While recycling alone cannot solve the world’s pollution problems, it has significant potential to impact cleaning up our waste systems, creating jobs and reducing the use of virgin plastics. Every step of the way helps to bring about a cleaner, safer country for all,” she said.

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Vaughan Pierce, ESG executive at Pick n Pay, says the company has been on a journey to reduce problematic single-use plastic packaging.

“These small, clear, plastic barrier bags are not currently recycled effectively, and by removing these at till points, we can play a part in reducing reliance on unnecessary single-use plastic.”

Pick n Pay will still have barrier bags in its fruit and vegetable section for loose produce, but continues to encourage customers to use alternatives, such as reusable netted produce bags, which it stocks in all its stores nationwide.

This significant step is in addition to the tonnes of plastic it already prevents from reaching landfills and the ocean, as it works towards its 2025 plastic waste reduction targets. 

Over the past five years, more than 10,000 tonnes of plastic have been removed from the environment to make Pick n Pay’s 100% recyclable blue plastic bags. Over 11 million plastic bottles have been recycled to manufacture its reusable shopping bags since 2018.

These are some of the retailer’s achievements as it assumes a leadership role in local and international collaborative efforts to work towards common long-term targets for the plastics value chain.

Pick n Pay is a founding member of the SA Plastics Pact, launched in January 2020 to establish a collective commitment to ensure plastic never becomes waste or pollution.

As part of this, Pick n Pay committed to various 2025 targets, which include ensuring that 100% of its private label packaging is reusable or recyclable. This number has shifted from 67% to 80% in the past two years through various changes.

“We all need to accelerate the transition from a linear to a circular economy of packaging, as this will drive positive change on a much larger scale,” says Pierce.

“Packaging, particularly plastic, plays an important role in protecting products and reducing food waste. By committing to creating a system where packaging is treated as a valuable resource that can be used, reused, collected and recycled in a closed loop, it supports the principles of a circular economy.”

Pierce adds that Pick n Pay’s commitment to recycling extends to increasing the use of recycled materials in clothing products and store refurbs. In 2021, Pick n Pay Clothing sold 1.5 million items of clothing that included recycled content.

“We regularly introduce new reusable plastic bags, which are 100% made from locally recycled plastic bottles. Each with a unique design, these promote sustainable shopping habits as customers reuse the same shopping bag. But the designs also create awareness and funding for local non-profit organisations as proceeds from these bag sales go to selected charities,” Pierce says. BM/DM/OBP

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Judith Oberlander says:

    Brilliant idea. I have been refusing those barrier bags for years.

  • Heike Maria Pollock says:

    While many think that this step by Pick’n Pay is one in the right direction I would disagree – it’s way too little and they should take Woolworths as an expample how this is done the right way. These little clear plastic bags that prevented my soap from potentially touching packaged food has always seemed completely ludicrous to me and I have asked cashiers for years not to bother. To remove ALL plastic bags from shops would be the right proactive thing to do. All you need is a brain before you decide to go shopping. Honestly – how difficult is it to grab a couple of bags before you jump into your car?! Most shopping trips to the supermarket are planned and not a haphazard, spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment decision and all it takes is a hint of planning before that. For all else, you should be forced to by recycleable bags. They are quite expensive and trust me: after a while you WILL remember to bring them along. Happy shopping.

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    Such a good idea so where are Spar and Checkers in this?

  • Leslie Stelfox says:

    Whatever happened to the brown paper packet? You’ll find them in the fresh produce department in the supermarkets here in France.

  • Andrew 'Mugsy' Spiegel says:

    Good spin. But so much of what’s on the shelves is in plastic containers only some of which are recyclable. Try Woolworths humus, for example, which is sold in non-recyclable plastic containers. Or all the packs of fruit and veg that are covered in cling wrap. And then there are the shampoos etc, all in plastic – yes, ostensibly recyclable. But what is the carbon footprint of transporting those to recycling facilities and of the recycling process? Why are so few (if any) of those sorts of products unavailable as refills or, better, in a form that customers can come in and refill their containers in the store?

  • Alison Immelman Immelman says:

    I am wildly happy when stores take an initiative like this. I have been using reusable bags for 10 years now. What I’m not so wild about is the non-recyclable packaging and over-packaging of goods, with Woollies being the worst culprit. Time to get with the programme, chaps!

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    Why not let people pay for plastic bags? In this way they will soon learn to re-use them.

  • Nadya Bhettay says:

    This is fantastic but so much more needs to be done, and Woolies should absolutely not be benchmark, those barrier bags are used so easily by cashiers without bothering to ask whether we want one, cashiers have clearly been given little to no training to get customers to use recyclable bags, those green bags are used as a default, and they add plastic in so many other places (individually wrapped pieces of fish, why on earth is that needed? What happened to cardboard boxes for fruit, now just single use plastic boxes, awful stuff). So no, Woolies is not the benchmark, at all. Why offer barrier bags at all PnP in the loose produce section, should only be recyclable ones. Thanks for all of these initiatives but so much more needs to be done and if the retailers act in unison, sustainable packaging should become much better and cheaper.

  • says:

    Credit to Woolworths for discontinuing single-use plastic shopping bags (although they probably are the worst culprits when it comes to excessive product packaging). And to be fair to SPAR, it was actually SPAR who was first to respond to Brent Lindeque’s bag share initiative. Checkers still allows you to buy plastic bags at the till but I do like their idea – they sell a reusable bag for which they refund shoppers R1 every time they bring the bag back to store to use. Truly incentivising the reusable bag initiative.

  • Michael Smith says:

    It still surprises me to see Woolworths getting so much positive publicity from their no plastic carrier bag policy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy they did it. But while they continue to package MOST Woolworths home brand goods in non-recyclable plastic containers, I don’t see them as that much greener than their competitors.

  • Rob Martin says:

    I bought a simple rump steak from Woolworths the other day and couldnt believe the excess plastic involved. They are just grandstanding with the plastic packets, whereas they use more plastic than anyone.

  • Alley Cat says:

    This is nonsense!!! Whilst it is a (small) step in the right direction, it is really just a sop to going green. As mentioned by various people already, there is so much plastic in the food packaging that is the real problem. Re-usable containers and cardboard / paper packaging will solve the bulk of our plastics problem! And they are ALL just as guilty!

  • Barbara Mommen says:

    This is laudable but unfortunately too little too late. The plastic and polystyrene packaging of foods still abounds and is toxic, and ALL supermarkets are guilty of having a way-too-small section of food in recyclable, bio friendly self destructing packaging. The majority of food and veg is still covered in conventional plastic. Time to change this. Now!

  • Thinker and Doer says:

    It is positive that steps are being taken to significantly reduce plastics related to groceries, but another major area where there needs to be reduction is in the packaging of fruits and vegetables, and other packaged foods. There are enormous amounts of plastic used there, and much of it is non-recyclable. Sometimes you are only able to confirm if the package is not recyclable once you have purchased a product, because the recycling label has been put on the inside of the package! That is extremely frustrating for customers who want to try particularly avoid buying non-recyclable plastic.

  • merrankzl says:

    Would love to hear what the plan is for stopping individually wrapped fruit and veg? One broccoli wrapped in swathes of cling-film AND on a polystyrene dish? This cannot continue to be customer choice – the shops need to end this insanity.

  • Birgit Edmayr says:

    This is all moving in the right direction , BUT too much throughout stores is still in plastic. Example Grapes: why not in card boxes OR compostable packaging . Producers, Retailers and the initial raw-plastic-producers need to have all plastic returned to them and surely they will come up with better plans .

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