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TRY AND SHARE - Migros' plastic recycling

n IJune last year, Migros announced the beginning of its plastic collection and recycling campaign, using its Lucerne shops as pilots to test processes and participation from customers.

So when the supermarket launched the program in Canton Zug in its Metalli location, there was no way I could not try it. I took me some mental efforts to start, clearly related to my ongoing challenge to find time and mental space to deal with sustainability at home; but once I purchased the bags there was no way back, and I made the commitment to be in charge of managing plastic recycling as another waste stream.

I was of course naive to think Migros would put an open container for anyone to bring plastic waste, without rules nor payment.

First, one needs to purchase specific bags like the one on the pictures, with a choice of 17L, 35L or 60L for the respective price of 9 CHF, 17 CHF or 25 CHF for a roll of 10. For our non-Swiss readers, this system mimics our regular waste management practices: one cannot dispose of random trashbags in common waste bins, one has to purchase them and dispose of in specific bins (otherwise you can be fined).

So considering the system, the greatest incentive here to proceed is almost solely based on people's ecological motivation.

Then, the sorting of plastic items follows some restrictions: no PET bottles (these ones require their own separation, but they are probably the most common bottles that can be recycled nearly everywhere), no dirty containers (for example, a plastic yoghurt container needs to be washed before sorting), and a large list of items including plastic toys, toothbrushes, styrofoam, CDs, rubber... On the bags (but also on Migros' website) instructions will be clearly visible and available in Switzerland's official languages.

My test plan was driven by the following ideas:

  • assessing how simple it is, on a daily basis, to include a new waste stream in our routines,

  • assessing the extra work to be done knowing that I would most likely be the only one managing it all, and

  • checking how annoying returning the filled bags to Migros would be.

So far, things are going fine, but almost too fine: while I was somehow expecting a revolution, it looks like our plastic waste generation is not as big as I expected, and has mostly been driven by our consumption of dairy products (and milk bottles can already be recycled separately). Because I am now also doing my own yoghurt, we have stopped buying them in the supermarket. In most cases also, the washing of containers cannot be systematic, based on the packaging we are talking about and the level of dirt (some will make it easier than others, for instance hard-shell ones).

Also, bringing the filled bags back to Migros, one kilometer away from home, hasn't been complex at all. After all, they are very, very light to carry and because I bought the smallest size, I can easily fit 2 in a thicker shopping bag to carry on the shoulder. No issue whatsoever in Migros itself to put them in the container; however you can see on the picture that this container isn't very inclusive or handicap-friendly. Saving space has its limitations obviously.

So again, the general issue I can see in joining the program mostly relates to adding this extra step within my daily routines, and turn it into a meaningless, extra effort for the greater good.

I also reviewed the existing criticism around Migros' recycling program, as covered by the Luzerner Zeitung in May. While WWF Switzerland commends the efforts towards increasing recycling, others, like Greenpeace consider that the ecological benefit of plastic recycling is low. According to the organization, increased recycling would legitimize and "cement" environmentally harmful consumer behavior, and measures to optimize the existing waste system without a dramatic change to rethink packaging and consumption are simply greenwashing.

It is hard to actually disagree with either one or the other perspective, I have to say. Migros has committed to use parts of the recycled plastic in its packaging industry and design packaging in the future so that the recycling process is easier. In terms of closing the circularity loop, one cannot find any better.

However I am curious to see how the program develops over time: either it drives changes in behaviours and pushes other retailers to engage in change within their logistics and supply chain; or it fails to gain momentum and traction, and the economic and ecological disadvantages to manage extra waste streams kill the program.

To be continued...

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