John Lewis department stores have started using what they say is the UK’s first biodegradable polythene packaging for millions of the household products they sell every year.
Compounds added to new bags for bed linen and school wear ensure that they break down harmlessly even if buried in landfill dumps, the company claims. The plastic will rot into water, gas and humus within 15 years, it says, compared to hundreds of years for conventional plastic bags.
Later this year John Lewis is planning to start wrapping more products in the biodegradable plastic, including its own brand of curtains. After six months, the company promises to make the technology behind the new packaging available to other retailers, so it could spread.
“Our new bags are designed to make it easier for our customers to dispose of polythene bags in a more environmentally sustainable way, helping to reduce our overall impact as a business,” said Mark Gallen, packaging design and production manager at John Lewis.
Working with suppliers he discovered that introducing a small amount of additive would enable polyethylene to degrade even in the absence of air, light or heat. He hasn’t as yet disclosed exactly what the additive is.
Gallen pointed out that John Lewis had earlier replaced PVC packaging with recyclable polyethylene to reduce the company’s environmental impact. “While it is possible to recycle traditional plastic bags at some recycling centres, it is less common to be able to recycle this type of plastic at kerbside collection points meaning that most of it is thrown in the bin,” he said.
“Until recycling facilities are more widely available, most people will throw the packaging away. We know that our customers want to reduce their environmental impact, and this new material makes it as easy for them to do this.”
John Lewis expects to sell more than three million items of bed linen wrapped in biodegradable bags every year. A £9 billion partnership co-owned by its 81,000 staff, it operates 38 shops across the UK, including major stores in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, as well as 285 Waitrose supermarkets.
The company’s move on plastic packaging was welcomed by environmental groups, who urged retailers to go further. “Less waste means less landfills blighting communities and less proposals for incinerators,” said a spokesman for Friends of the Earth Scotland.
“John Lewis’s initiative is welcome and will no doubt reduce the environmental impact of this type of packaging. We would like to see retailers going even further and removing packaging from more products.”
He pointed out that 50 years ago customers were happy to buy sheets off the shelf from drapers without any packaging at all. “With a little more thought, modern retailers could do more to eliminate packaging entirely and John Lewis could be a leader on this.”
Lang Banks, the spokesman for WWF Scotland, said: “This is a good step forward in reducing the environmental impact of a kind of packaging that often ends up in landfill.
“When we have designed out waste as much as possible and recycled as much as we can, making packaging biodegradable is the next best option. This initiative from John Lewis is welcome and their willingness to share this innovation with other companies is to be commended.”