Fresh food pledges: Woolworth’s zero-waste future

In addition to developing its own recyclable products and reducing unnecessary packaging, Woolworths is working towards a zero food waste future. 

“Our success will be determined by our promises kept, not our promises made,” said Brad Banducci, Woolworths Chief Executive Officer, in the supermarket chain’s 2018 sustainability report.  

Banducci’s comments affirmed the company’s commitment to provide genuine, transparent reporting on its sustainability progress. The objective shines a light on the strenuous efforts to unify a massive conglomerate behind a common purpose. In Banducci’s own words, it’s understanding from practical experience that “being green” is not easy. 

With 1000 stores across the country and more than 200,000 team members employed nationwide, Woolworths has a sizeable impact on the commercial and industrial waste industry. 

According to its 2018 Sustainability Report, Woolworths diverted 292,831 tonnes of waste away from landfill in that year. The company is now taking its diversion strategy to the next level in looking to make further gains in food waste processing across all its stores. The critical component of reducing waste is also a core part of its agenda, targeting the procurement of recycled materials across its homegrown brands and store departments.

In recent times, Woolworths has been liaising with its major recycling partners Visy, Veolia, Orora, SUEZ and Cleanaway to address areas such as organic waste, plastic and cardboard collection and processing. Its program with REDcycle has ensured soft plastics can be turned into new materials such as furniture and bollards. The program was scaled up in July and has since recycled around 100 additional tonnes of soft plastics.

Along with a number of state and territory governments, Woolworths has banned single-use plastic bags, which came into effect in June. Since its implementation, Woolworths has removed more than 700 million single-use plastic bags from its stores. 

Adrian Cullen, Head of Sustainability at Woolworths Group, says the company is embedding sustainability across the whole organisation.

“We have always had good practices when it comes to recycling cardboard and plastics like LDPE in stores, but we’ve strengthened programs over the last two years to extend to other streams,” Adrian says.

“We are working with industry partners to ensure material we do want to separate can be processed at a commercial level. The challenge is trying to get these materials recycled at scale.” 

Adrian says that since the implementation of the company’s ban on single-use plastic bags, a majority of Woolworths customers have started forming new habits. He says that the company has seen fewer transactions of purchasable bags across all of its stores. 

To help drive recycling outcomes at a household level, Woolworths became the first supermarket chain to adopt the Australasian Recycling Label on their own brand products in November 2017. Up to 700 of its products have utilised the label to help customers understand what can and cannot be recycled.

As a signatory to the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation 2025 targets, Woolworths has also been making inroads by transitioning to more recyclable products. The company is targeting 100 per cent recyclable packaging in its own drink brand products. Adrian says that the next step is to introduce a Woolworths brand 600 millilitre bottle of water made of 100 per cent recycled content on the shelf in early 2019. 

Adrian says that Woolworths is looking to ensure its meat trays are recyclable by transitioning the clear packaging to one that is recyclable. He says the company is also evaluating the recyclability of its ready meals as well as those currently processed in black plastic. 

The key areas to improve on, Adrian says, will be to no longer produce items wrapped in superfluous plastic, including bananas and tomatoes. During the year, the company has reduced more than 187 tonnes of plastic, including replacing plastic trays with cardboard for organic apples and sweet potatoes. 

Woolworths has already removed around 400 tonnes of plastic from its bakery and produce lines, with 25 initiatives aimed at reducing plastic waste. Adrian says that while customers are still adapting to the bag ban, there are no current plans to reduce plastic bags in the produce department. 

By the end of financial year 2018, 96 per cent of Woolworths supermarkets were operating one food diversion program and Woolworths aimed for all of its supermarkets to have at least one food waste diversion program in place by the end of 2018.

In 2018, Woolworths piloted its  Reducing Food Waste to Landfill program at its Lidcombe store in Western Sydney and Mullumbimby, a town in Byron Shire in the Northern Rivers region of NSW. 

All supermarkets nationally are now executing this new program to deliver best practice source separation and diversion of the surplus food to help feed people in need. It also supports farmers in need of animal feed and commercial composting programs.

The program looked to identify future capacity constraints of stakeholders and data strengths and shortfalls using a data capture tool that provided food waste diversion quantities and methods down to a store level. 

To boost source separation, all stores across Woolworths have implemented a coloured bin system for the store’s back-of-store waste, including bakery and soft plastics.

Adrian adds that 600,000 meals per month are donated to food rescue partners, while also providing 660 farmers with a feedstock. 

He says there is still some work to be done in resource recovery, particularly for the company to develop more commercial composting arrangements with the right market signals in a waste levy in place in the states and territories. 

The company’s relationships with its suppliers also continue to ensure it goes from strength to strength as it works towards 2025 and its own targets. 

“We’re constantly working with suppliers and a lot of them do come to us looking for new innovations especially in the packaging space. It’s really important for us that it doesn’t compromise food safety and we still can provide great quality products that are recyclable as well,” Adrian says. 

“We think the 2025 targets are good for the economy and will create more jobs and more opportunities for innovation here in Australia. 

“We shouldn’t have to send waste overseas to then buy back to use in our products, so it would be great to see more Australian recycled content.”