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When we launched Plan A in 2007 we put waste reduction at the heart of our sustainability work. In 2008 we led the way in voluntarily charging for plastic carrier bags in our Foodhalls, something that’s become the legal norm across the UK. By 2012 we were sending zero waste to landfill from our stores, offices and warehouses in the UK. Today all our Foodhalls have teamed up, via the Neighbourly platform, with local foodbanks to donate unsold food and all the food factories supplying us are working towards zero waste to landfill too.

But, all we can say about this hard work is, good start, so much more to do, in particular on plastics. Plastics are an important part of our life. Used well their lightness, flexibility and low cost can bring many benefits. But right now there are clear challenges across the world on how plastics are being used. 

The oceans are where this is most obvious. Not just through the totemic images of dead whales clogged with plastic litter and fishing gear but also the ubiquity of invisible micro-plastics now found in sediment, plankton and fish. It’s the same elsewhere in the environment with plastics being found in tap water, sewage and riverbeds.

The world is using too much plastic; we’re making it too hard to recover and recycle; and we’re not creating markets that drive its reuse. We all have to change. Not by banning all uses but by creating what the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has termed the New Plastics Economy, a root and branch change to every aspect of how plastics are used.

We anticipated the need for this change in June 2017 when we updated Plan A 2025. We set out three big goals, one of which was to become a zero-waste business by 2025, including key commitments that:

  • By 2022 all M&S product packaging in the UK that could end up with our customers will not only be ‘recyclable’ but ‘widely recyclable’ i.e. not just recyclable in theory but in reality too (we’re already at 85% by weight).
  • By 2022 we will assess the feasibility of making all M&S plastic packaging from one polymer to simplify recycling (we have already shifted from 11 different polymers in 2007 to 4 today).

Since then plastics have become a high-profile issue for consumers, the media and politicians as Blue Planet II highlighted the plight of the oceans.

And we’re accelerating our pathway towards becoming a zero-waste business and, in particular, taking a razor sharp look at how we use plastics.

We have spent the last few months undertaking a root and branch review of how we use plastics and we are taking action.

We are setting ourselves a simple goal to only use plastic in our business where it has a clear and demonstrable benefit, where there is no viable lower impact alternative and when we do use it, it will always be simple to recover and/or recycle. We are engaging all our colleagues in this principle whether involved in product development, packaging or running our operations.

We’re also at the heart of collaboration and signing up, with much of the rest of the retail sector, to WRAP’s Plastic Pact. No one business, council, recycler or government department can create a New Plastic Economy alone. Only a common approach to polymer use, recovery and reuse will deliver the change we need and the Pact is the platform to deliver this collaboration.

We are also working to eradicate single use plastics from our business. For example, over the summer we will replace the 75 million pieces of plastic cutlery we give out every year in our stores with FSC certified wooden alternatives. We are taking protective plastic covers off 500,000 cashmere jumpers. We are also removing the two million plastic straws we use in M&S Cafés and replacing them with paper straws. Already 99% of the 52 million hot drinks sold to our customers in our cafés are served in reusable china. Now we’ll offer incentives for customers to bring their own reusable cups to help eradicate the small number of single use cups we do use. We’re taking plastics out of all 450 million tea bags we sell. And we’ll replace plastic in coffee pods with recyclable aluminium. 

Finally we are re-doubling our R&D efforts to solve the thorny challenges – how to recycle coloured plastics and thin film plastics; to assess whether biopolymers are really better both in terms of their impact on land use and food security as well as their biodegradability in the real world; tackling laminates where different materials are bonded together (for example cardboard and plastics) to the detriment of recovering either; working with Hubbub in Leeds to better understand behaviour change when it comes to recycling plastic used in food on the move; partnering with Plastic Bank to create markets for plastics recovered from the Oceans; and we have signed up to industry research to identify solutions to shedding microfibers from washing man-made garments.

We don’t believe that eradicating all plastics from our business is the right thing to do, but we do believe that we need to be at the heart of a dramatically different approach to plastic use. Our plan to be a zero waste business is our commitment to playing a leading role in the necessary economy and society wide change we all need.