Woolworths’ partnership with food rescue organisation OzHarvest is just one of the ways that the leading Australian business is diverting waste from landfill and demonstrating its commitment to increased recycling.
As one of Australia’s leading retail businesses, Woolworths Limited puts sustainability at the heart of its business strategy.
It boasts several well-known brands, including Woolworths and Safeway supermarkets, Dan Murphy’s and BWS alcohol stores, Big W and Masters Home Improvement, which are used and valued by customers across the country.
With its national reach, scale and reputation giving it privileged opportunities to foster partnerships and effect change, its board knows it can positively influence the retail supply chain to become more sustainable and reduce its carbon footprint. To that end, in 2006, Woolworths set itself targets and goals across the business that it wanted to achieve by 2015.
When launching the Woolworths Sustainability Strategy 2007-2015 nine years ago, its then CEO, Michael Luscombe, said: “As one of Australia’s largest companies, the changes we make can have an enormous impact – on our shareholders, our suppliers, our staff, our customers, and our local communities. But more than anything, sustainable behaviour just makes good business sense.”
Woolworths has been committed to delivering on those original goals for the last eight years, and its board and employees are rightly proud of their sustainability achievements.
Starting the sustainability journey
When Woolworths launched its Sustainability Strategy document it had a clear view of how it was tracking on things such as recycling, waste and carbon emissions.
The document states that in 2005/06, it was sending nearly 84,000 tonnes of waste to landfill in Australia’s eastern seaboard states and New Zealand, generating around 160 kilotonnes of CO2 emissions. However, it estimated the total figure was likely nearer to 140,000 tonnes of waste, as it didn’t hold tonnage data from most of its smaller or medium size waste contractors.
Woolworths had invested in undertaking waste audits across a selection of stores and distribution centres in 2005/06. The results showed that a large proportion of the material that it was sending to landfill was organic. It concluded that about 56 per cent of the waste from supermarkets and 28 per cent from distribution centres (by weight) could be diverted to a “beneficial end use”.
At the time, Woolworths was undertaking recycling programs from its premises. In 2006, figures showed that it recycled 147,189 tonnes of cardboard and 6,055 tonnes of plastic. It recognised, nevertheless, that there were “unacceptably high quantities” of recyclables going into its the general waste stream. This included 10 per cent plastic and 7 per cent cardboard by weight for supermarkets, and 10 per cent plastic and 21 per cent cardboard for distribution centres.
Woolworths also looked at other areas of its business for better or continued opportunities to reuse and recover resources.
Its Big W stores had been collecting plastic clothes hangers from checkouts for reuse or recycling since 1992. The hangers used to be collected in each capital city, then be sent to the manufacturer in China, where they were sorted by type of hanger for repurchase. Damaged hangers wee recycled to make new ones.
In the 2006/07 financial year, Big W had reused over 24 million hangers, accounting for 72 per cent of hangers bought. Since 1992, 445 million hangers had been reused or recycled. This was seen as a success story and an area for continued focus.
Also at that time, Woolworths was leading the way with looking at alternative ways to use wasted food products. In a fledgling project, it was sending source-separated food waste from 53 of its Sydney stores to EarthPower, Australia’s first regional food waste-to-energy facility.
In the short period between November 2006 and early 2007 when the Sustainability Strategy was published, Earthpower had processed more than 4,860 tonnes of organic waste from those supermarkets, producing enough renewable energy to power around 145 homes.
Packaging was also identified as areas of improvement for Woolworths.
As it owned thousands of own-labelled products, there was an opportunity to reduce packaging and minimise waste from these alone. It had signed up to the National Packaging Covenant, and came up with a 2007-2010 action plan to minimise packaging waste.
Supermarkets were also using wooden pallets and plastic shink-wrap, which was unrecyclable, to distribute stock to stores. In a forward-thinking solution to reducing this material to landfill, Woolworths started a project to introduce wheeled roll cages to replace the previous method. It was also easier for employees, as the roll cages could be wheeled straight out of delivery trucks onto the supermarket floors and to the shelves for unpacking.
Each roll cage replaced 2.125 pallets and about 23 metres of shrink-wrap each time it was used. In 2006/07, Woolworths dispatched 2.3 million roll cages, saving 1.1 million pallets and 12,100 kilometres of shrink-wrap.
Incorporating plans to reduce plastic bag use, liaise with government agencies to develop e-waste recycling, and introduce “greener” stores with more energy efficient refrigeration systems, air-conditioning and lighting, the Woolworths Sustainability Strategy 2007-2015 drew a line in the sand and gave the organisation clear targets for the next eight years.
The 2014 Woolworths Corporate Responsibility Report showed just how far the company had come on its sustainability journey.
Karen Madden, Head of Sponsorships at Woolworths, highlights just one example of the progress that has been made to date.
“In 2007, our supermarkets sent approximately 127,000 tonnes of cardboard and plastic film to recycling and a similar volume of waste to landfill,” she says. “In 2015, the whole company recycled 226,000 tonnes of material, excluding diverted food waste, and supermarkets disposed of 89,000 tonnes of waste.”
Woolworths has undertaken a number of measures and entered into strategic supplier relationships to minimise waste, and improve recycling and reuse across its stores.
“Our Engineering, Maintenance and Services team manage all contracts for waste and recycling services, and to identify and implement commercial solutions for food waste,” explains Karen.
Woolworths partners with many of the large-scale waste handlers and recyclers to achieve its environmental goals, including Transpacific Cleanaway, Veolia, Visy Recycling and Orora.
“We also have specialised partners for materials like food waste, for example Jeffries in South Australia, and with RedGroup for customers to be able to return soft plastic packaging for recycling in stores,” says Karen.
Woolworths has also become one of Australia’s largest recyclers of materials through investment in on-site machinery and employee engagement programs. As well as using external recycling services, some stores and distribution centres have compacting and baling equipment for packaging waste streams.
Staff training and awareness initiatives mean that employees are engaged with the company’s overall objects and have hands-on experience and involvement in making this happen.
Karen says that resource recovery results have improved due to a number of factors. Woolworths has installed dedicated recycling hubs in back-of-store at many supermarkets, where employees scan and record bales of cardboard and plastics, and use waste audits to monitor progress.
“As we introduce new stores throughout the country, and refurbish many of our existing ones, we anticipate achieving even more when it comes to recycling,” she adds.
The proactive approach to waste minimisation has produced some excellent results.
Figures due to be published in its 2015 Corporate Responsibility Report show that Woolworths has increased the amount of materials diverted from landfill in Australia from 202,677 tonnes in 2013 to 219,647 tonnes in the 2015 financial year.
The amount of food waste sent on for composting or energy uses has grown from 7,390 tonnes in 2013 to 17,359 in 2015. It has also boosted the amount of unwanted and unsold food that it sends to charity, from 1,198 tonnes to 2,956 tonnes from 2013 to 2015.
Towards zero food waste to landfill
In September, Woolworths announced a partnership with food rescue organisation OzHarvest to help stop food being sent to landfill.
The supermarkets business is working to a new goal of zero food waste being sent to landfill by 2020. Under the new agreement, OzHarvest becomes the principal partner for Woolworths to collect and distribute edible food to people who are in need across Australia.
Brad Banducci, Managing Director of Woolworths Food Co, said when announcing the agreement: “Our customers want to see us reducing our food waste. We’ll do that right through the supply chain from selling our Odd Bunch imperfect fruit and vegetables to donating food through OzHarvest, our other food rescue partners, and other initiatives like animal food and commercial composting.”
Woolworths had previously committed in 2007 to eliminate food waste to landfill by 2015. Its efforts have been commendable in the last eight years, as its most recent corporate social responsibility report shows it diverted 153,000 tonnes of food waste from landfill in that period.
“Originally, there were limited commercial options for diverting food waste from our stores on a large scale, but this has been addressed in our recent waste contracts,” says Karen.
“Our farmers program, which involves local farmers collecting food waste for use as stock feed and on-farm composting, is our most successful in terms of volumes collected, but it is not always practical for farmers to pick up from inner-city supermarkets.”
Woolworths current strategy involves engaging its network of farmers, producers, manufacturers, employees and customers to avoid food wastage. It will also support OzHarvest’s educational campaigns on food waste reduction, such as Think.Eat.Save, an initiative partnered with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Karen says that Woolworths is has a number of plans on the horizon for further targeting waste minimisation and increased reuse and recycling of resources across its businesses.
The zero food waste commitment spears to be significant area of focus. “A new waste services agreement is going to lead to a commercial food waste solution for all Woolworths supermarkets,” shares Karen.
In a project that will take “a few years” to implement, she explains that this new project will provide food waste diversion services to all supermarkets across Australia, but the services will be dependent on what diversion options exist.
Its 2014 Corporate Responsibility Report states: “Our success in minimising waste will depend on: managing waste and recycling contracts, identifying waste diversion programs, and ensuring that recyclable waste is not sent to landfill.”
It is clear, therefore, that Woolworths will require ongoing assistance from innovative waste and recycling industry partners to achieve its ambitious targets.