Coles defends 'irresponsible' move after plastic pledge

Coles has defended the use of plastic packaging in its stores the same day it pledged to significantly reduce its plastic waste in the coming years.

On Tuesday, the supermarket giant, alongside rivals Woolworths and Aldi, was among a raft of companies to commit to the Plastic Pact, which will see them commit to making all their plastics recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.

And just hours after news broke of the positive step forward, the supermarket responded to a customer's complaint about packaged roast vegetables.

Shopper Kevin Jon Heller, who is an honorary professor at The Australian National University's College of Law, suggested the supermarket's aim was the opposite of what was committed to as part of the pact.

"It appears that Coles is doing everything it can to destroy the planet," he wrote on Twitter last week.

He shared an image of multiple packs of chargrilled and roasted vegetables in airtight, plastic packaging.

Australia's two main supermarkets have for years faced criticism from customers for what they claim to be an excessive use of plastics, with many questioning their commitment to a sustainable future.

But in response to Prof Heller's complaint Coles outlined its commitment to reducing plastic waste and their reasoning for packaging certain items.

Coles has committed to a pact with other businesses to significantly reduce plastic waste in the coming years. Source: AAP
Coles has committed to a pact with other businesses to significantly reduce plastic waste in the coming years. Source: AAP

"We are making every effort to prioritise the selling of loose fruit and vegetables to minimise packaging as much as possible," Coles responded online.

"However, there are times when packaging is required to protect the product’s freshness and to ensure food safety from farm to home."

The Coles response stated that such packaging can reduce bruising, crushing and dehydration of the product, meaning less waste.

"If packaging is used, we aim to have the best environmental outcomes by using sustainable options such as recyclable PET or cardboard, which are fully recyclable at kerbside collection while soft plastics can be recycled in the REDcycle bins in all Coles supermarkets," a Coles representative said.

Plastic recycling needs more awareness, charity says

However only 18 per cent of the one million tonnes of plastic packaging sold in Australia was recycled in between 2018 and 2019, according to figures from the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation.

Coles says more than 360 million pieces of soft plastic were collected in store as part of the REDcycle scheme in the 2020 financial year, however there are no statistics on the amount used in store available to see what percentage of all soft plastics are returned.

A year on from the significant 2018 single-use plastic bag ban, University of Melbourne’s behaviour change and environmental sustainability expert Geoffrey Binder told Yahoo News Australia it was likely customers were now treating heavy-duty reusable bags as single-use meaning plastic waste had not reduced.

According to environmental charity Clean Up, an estimated 78 per cent of the Australian population are unaware they can recycle their soft plastics.

"Talk to your friends and family and help spread the word about how ridiculously easy it is [to recycle soft plastics through REDcycle]," the charity said.

'More packaging than actual food'

Dr Binder said it was vital supermarkets educated customers better on recycling habits and how they can reduce their plastic footprint.

"What strategies are they giving people so their behaviours can transition to something more environmentally sustainable?” he questioned.

In response to Coles' reply, Prof Heller argued the plastic use was still excessive.

"I don’t know whether consumers want four slices of roasted pumpkin. But even if they do, a responsible corporation would not sell it to them if it cannot be packaged in an environmentally-responsible way," he said.

"My photo shows items with more packaging than actual food."

On Tuesday announcing Coles involvement in the Plastic Pact, Coles Chief Executive Commercial and Express Greg Davis said the supermarket had ambitions of becoming Australia’s most sustainable supermarket.

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