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Bakers Basco

Collaboration in the supply chain: working together to help tackle unnecessary recycling of plastic returnable transit packaging

By Paul Empson, General Manager, Bakers Basco

Many products used in logistics across the supply chain are designed to be reused multiple times rather than being disposed of after a single use – known as the ‘circular economy’ – but a lack of education and awareness might be hindering businesses’ chances at building towards a more environmentally-friendly future.

This is a very real issue that came to light in a recent YouGov survey that polled 2,106 UK adults to uncover public awareness about plastic bread baskets and other food goods delivery trays/containers. We commissioned the research to shine a light on what has become an increasingly important environmental issue impacting the food industry and, more specifically, the bakery sector. It found that almost half (46%) of the UK public feel that too much multi-use plastic is recycled unnecessarily. 

While it also highlighted that 61% of respondents were sure that bread baskets and food delivery trays go back to the factories they came from and are used over and over again, sadly more often than not this is not the case. Just 3% showed awareness of the “dark side” of plastic recycling where they are stolen and recycled illegally by a third party, or shredded for sale back to the plastics manufacturing industry by unscrupulous recycling operations (5%) and only 9% are aware that this equipment can also often end up in landfill.

Any business operating in the ‘circular economy’ will be well aware that much of this equipment is designed to last many years. Our bread baskets and dollies, for example, are made using sturdy, reusable plastic, with each piece of kit recycled potentially 400 times and the resulting raw plastic used to make more baskets before it reaches the end of its useful life. And of course we aren’t the only supplier of RTP to the food and drink industry. There are probably tens of millions of baskets, crates and pallets made out of heavy-duty plastic and designed to last for years, shuttling backwards and forwards from food manufacturer to depot to retailer, saving a fortune in disposable packaging and never going into landfill. 

The trouble is that, despite our equipment carrying embossed warnings that clearly state who the owner of the property is, the general public, certain businesses and even refuse collectors don’t understand the value of these baskets. All too often they are diverted out of the supply chain, whether that’s being left abandoned on the street before ending up in landfill or people stealing the baskets and using them for their own benefit. In some cases, they are being sold on to unscrupulous recycling operations or, something that has more recently come onto our radar: individuals attempting to sell them unlawfully via online auction sites, ecommerce marketplaces and social media channels. Despite numerous polite attempts to ensure the safe return of our property – which even has our name on it – these individuals still refuse to give them back. Now that’s just plain, outright theft. 

And we’re not just talking about a few trays here and there. Millions of these baskets and other food delivery equipment like pallets, food containers, bottles, drums and crates go missing every year presenting a growing problem for the UK’s transport and logistics industries, and the unethical recycling of stolen plastic items that don’t need to be recycled. It’s not just a business problem, it’s an environmental one too. 

Tracking down missing RTP may not sound the most glamorous of occupations, but diversion and theft of reusable delivery equipment is a growing problem. At the end of the day, if packaging which is meant to be reused goes missing, then it means extra costs for the food producer which they have to pass on to the retailers who will then pass them on to the shoppers. Plus, of course, there are additional costs in terms of harm to the environment – people who misuse returnable packaging tend to dump surplus items at the side of the road or in canals, rather than disposing of them responsibly. The abuse and neglect of product pallets, trays and baskets can help swell landfill sites and damage a sector’s green credentials. So it’s up to us, as a broader industry, to take a stand and ensure we aren’t fuelling this negative impact on the environment. 

We’ve taken our own steps to track down and reclaim any missing equipment that gets diverted out of the supply chain – through glitter additives and GPS tracking technology. Plus, we have a national investigations team dedicated solely to ensuring the safe return of misappropriated bread baskets to their rightful owners. But this alone isn’t enough and what this new research has highlighted is that the UK public believe that local councils (56%), the government (46%), individuals (48%), businesses (58%), industry trade associations (49%) and recycling companies (44%) all have a part to play in tackling unnecessary recycling.

We all have a responsibility to play our part but it requires a collaborative effort by all parties to help tackle the problem, before we undo all the positive steps already taken in the global fight against plastic. Plastic isn’t actually the villain it’s made out to be. The real issue is how we use it, how we keep tabs on ensuring it is being used responsibly, and what happens to it when we’ve finished with it. That’s why we all need to work together to help curb it once and for all. 

Fighting plastic pollution with technology

Returnable and re-useable transit packaging and equipment is a key business and environmental asset; unfortunately, a huge amount is lost or stolen each year. Warren Harris, Insight and BD Manager at Bakers Basco tells us how they’re using to tech to cut down on attrition and catch thieves in the act

A major part of the issue is about how we use plastic throughout society, including in the logistics and supply chain. For example, in the bakery industry, Bakers Basco has been using GPS technology for a number of years to help reduce the attrition rates of our plastic bread baskets and dollies. These products are designed to be reused again and again for a life span of up to 10 years, and then, in many cases, recycled once they come to the end of their useful life.

In the current climate, with very real and valid concerns about the volume of non-returnable and non-reusable plastics in the supply chain, there is an increasing focus on Returnable Transit Packaging (RTP).Unfortunately, like many RTP products (like pallets – most of them are supposed to get returned and reused), our plastic baskets and dollies are just too well-designed, sturdy and all-round useful – so they get ‘borrowed’ or taken out of the supply chain. Of course, there are additional costs in terms of harm to the environment – people who misuse returnable packaging tend to dump surplus items at the side of the road or in canals, rather than disposing of them responsibly. Our estimates suggest that 90% will go into a skip, the local council will pick them up and they will end up in landfill – and we all know what that means for the environment.

The right kind of plastic products, used in the right way, can majorly contribute to solving the plastic problem, while helping companies cut costs and improve margins through their use in the ‘circular economy’, where things are built to last and can easily be recycled and the raw materials reused when they reach the end of their life. Bakers Basco manages a pool of circa four million baskets and dollies throughout the UK benefitting members such as Fine Lady Bakeries, Warburtons, Hovis, Allied Bakeries and Frank Roberts; they are an essential part in the transportation of millions of our favourite products to retailers each week.

Aldi UK CEO Giles Hurley last week sent a letter to suppliers outlining the supermarket’s pledge to have all their own label products in 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging by 2022, while Iceland MD Richard Walker recently stated that packaging is only around 5% of the food system’s carbon footprint. With these greener minded changes taking effect in the food industry, how products are transported then becomes a key consideration. Returnable Transit Packaging is going to be an important factor in ensuring that goods delivered in less packaging still reach the shelves in saleable condition, and RTP can also be designed to fit perfectly together, maximizing the amount of stock transported at once, and minimizing the number of delivery vehicles on the roads. 

But for the environmental impact of this harmonious circular economy to be seen, we need to devise innovative ways to reduce RTP equipment losses.

Technology has opened up new means of tracing and tracking items as they pass along the supply chain. Such innovations can prove crucial to driving efficiency and cost savings, at the same time addressing key requirements such as sustainability by saving a fortune in disposable packaging and never going into landfill.

Recent examples of innovations we’ve implemented include impregnating the bread basket plastic with a special traceable glitter-like additive which makes them identifiable after recycling and reprocessing to discourage the illegal procurement of the equipment for this purpose. We’ve also successfully deployed tracking technology to make our equipment easier to locate and recover should it fall out of the supply chain, such as satellite imagery and GPS chips. Looking to the future, we’re continually on the lookout for new and innovative ways of cracking down on the loss of returnable transit packaging and have been investigating RFID technology. 

To us, the case is clear; the higher we push up the retention and reduce the attrition rates of our bread baskets and dollies, the lower the cost to both the bakery industry and the environment through dumping and unnecessary recycling.

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay