British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s is switching its entire private label coffee pod range from plastic to aluminium. The move is intended to encourage near-household collection of emptied packaging and prevent ten million pieces of plastic every year. The action by Sainsbury’s shows how much pain there is in cycles that are not closed. But we should not forget that plastic would actually be the better choice from a CO2 climate point of view. We have to be careful not to play off the cycle against the climate. In the end, we need both: closed cycles AND climate neutrality.
The announcement from Sainsbury’s came in September: from October 2022, the British supermarket chain said, it would switch all of its private label coffee pods from plastic to supposedly fully recyclable aluminium.
By switching from plastic to supposedly fully recyclable aluminium, Sainsbury’s wants to make it easier to dispose of its coffee pods close to home and save ten million plastic parts from landfill every year. The move is intended to reassure consumers that their waste is going into the right waste stream and is actually being recycled.
The British supermarket chain sees the switch to aluminium coffee pods as a step towards its goal of halving the amount of all private label plastic packaging by 2025. The company also wants to change and redesign the packaging of other products. For example, the refillable 1-litre sachets for hand washing products. They also want to double the length of toilet paper rolls and thus save 84 tonnes of plastic per year.
Hair in the soup
Sainsbury’s encourages consumers to empty and rinse the aluminium coffee pods with a teaspoon after use. With this pre-treatment, they are optimally prepared for near-household disposal. This is certainly a good thing technically and in terms of ensuring the smoothest and most efficient cycle possible. However, we as consumers want solutions – not tasks. The extent to which consumers actually reach for the teaspoon here remains open.
If we do not close the plastic cycle, plastic will be substituted by other materials. Endlessly recyclable aluminium is one possibility. But we should not forget that plastic has clear advantages over aluminium from a climate point of view. Its CO2 balance is much better even compared to recycled aluminium.
The main advantage of aluminium is that it pays towards companies’ plastic reduction targets. And it is fully recyclable. The Sainsbury’s example just goes to show how big the pain is in terms of (lack of) recyclability.
We need to be careful not only to ensure circularity, but also to be on the right side of the climate balance. We need both. Implementing one at the expense of the other cannot be a final solution.