INSIGHT: UK retailer's eco-move will hit polymers

19 January 2007 16:19  [Source: ICIS news]

By John Baker

LONDON (ICIS news)--The impetus for businesses to "go green" is growing as the need to fight global warming becomes more widely accepted. But the impact on the chemicals industry, and more significantly, the polymers sector, are just beginning to become evident.

This week the UK’s leading food and clothing retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S) announced with great panache and publicity that it had formulated a £200m ($390m, €300m), 100-point “eco-plan” that will see its operations become carbon neutral within five years.

It will cut energy use by 25% and use more green renewable energy, resorting to carbon offsetting only as a last option. It will also use 50% biodiesel in all its lorries. 

Other targets by 2012 include: sending no waste to landfill, cutting packaging by 25% and the number of carrier bags it uses by 33%. Those bags which it use will be made from recycled material.

M&S will phase out another 19 pesticides under the eco plan. It has already banned the use of 60 by its suppliers. It plans to eliminate all post-harvest pesticide use within five years and will launch a pesticide residue reduction network with its suppliers. 

M&S also revealed that it will make much of its polyester clothing from recycled plastic bottles and focus on just four polymers for packaging: corn-derived polylactic acid (PLA), polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

The impact is not hard to see. A 33% reduction by M&S in the number of carrier bags equates to no less than 200m units, and the use of recycled material points to another 400m loss for virgin polymer makers.

M&S estimates the UK uses 8bn carrier bags a year, resulting in 100,000 tonnes of waste, and plans to launch a “No to bags” campaign.

Its goal for a 25% reduction in packaging equates to 25,000 tonnes/year less of polymers, paper and other materials.

M&S is already trialing staff uniforms and men’s fleeces made from polyester recycled from PET soft drinks bottles and reckons that just switching over to recyclate for its range of men's fleeces will use 22m 2-litre bottles, saving 6,000 bbl/year of crude oil from going into virgin polyester.

It plans to make this switch by the end of the year, including women’s and children’s fleeces also. Then it will extend the recyclate use to other ranges such as trousers, suits and furniture fillings.

“We believe a responsible business can be a profitable business,” said chief executive Stuart Rose who has revived the fortunes of the once-struggling retailer. “M&S will change beyond recognition... we will become carbon neutral and ensure none of our clothing or packaging needs to be thrown away,” he explained.

It’s easy to imaging where all this is leading. Multiply the reduced packaging and polymer use at M&S to other UK retailers and to others across the European Union and the effect begins to snowball. It is a trend that the chemicals industry needs to start taking seriously.

Is it possible that the M&S plan marks the beginning of a significant turning point in the use of polymers in the retailing sector? Where will that leave Europe’s plastics producers and converts?

By: John Baker
+44 20 8652 3214

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