“Waste is recyclate in the wrong place”

Avoiding superfluous packaging, optimising packaging, reducing the use of secondary raw materials and avoidable plastics – these are the key points of the Schwarz Group’s sustainability strategy.

Schwarz Group has integrated the practices required for a recycling economy: “We are the only retail group that covers all the processes and steps along the entire recycling chain,” says Michael Janzer, Project Manager Redesign at the parent company of Lidl and Kaufland. Following the maxim “waste is recyclate in the wrong place”, the first step was to deal with the large quantities of cardboard, paper and plastic that pile up in the stores. Today, GreenCycle, a global waste management company in the group, offers its services to other companies under the name “Pre Zero”. Four million tonnes of recyclable materials are processed every year.

Pioneer of recycling management as a role model

The REset Plastic strategy, introduced in 2018, has the same goals as the Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation, which has developed over the past decade as one of the global think tanks of the recycling industry. Both are essentially concerned with improving the recyclability of packaging and reducing plastic consumption. The Schwarz Group defines the measures to be taken in the fields of REduce, REdesign, REcycle, REmove and REsearch. Besides avoiding superfluous packaging components, the focus is on optimising packaging and product properties, increasing the use of secondary raw materials, and avoiding plastics that cannot be recycled.

Leading by example

Among the examples mentioned by Janzer, the reworking of the 200g Alesto nut bag stands out in particular. By reducing the packaging volume, a rather unusual measure in the FMCG world, and reducing the film thickness, avoiding metallisation and using a mono-PP composite, it was possible to reduce the plastic requirement by 48 per cent, which corresponds to a saving of 700 tonnes per year.

The redesign of the 1.5-litre Solevita juice bottle (modification of bottle geometry, use of recycled PET) reduced plastic consumption by 15 per cent, equivalent to 450 tonnes per year. In the case of the private label frozen products, the film thickness was reduced, and a recyclable LDPE film is now used, reducing plastic consumption by 21 per cent or 280 tonnes per year.

For carrots, redesigning the 1kg packaging, avoiding PVC and using mono-PE reduced plastic consumption by 43 per cent (176 tonnes per year). With bottles for cleaning agents and detergents, recycled material already accounts for 50 per cent, and around 1,000 tonnes of rPET are processed each year. The aim is to double the use of rPET.

Holistic concepts instead of isolated solutions

Given the volume of recyclable materials processed by Pre Zero alone, these savings appear to be at best a drop in the ocean of plastic reduction. But they point the way forward: By 2025, all private labels will be 100 per cent recyclable and the use of plastic will be reduced by 20 per cent. Janzer emphasised that standards and the cooperation of all market participants are necessary to achieve the goals of a recycling economy as a whole. “We have to look at optimising the recycling economy in holistic terms instead of thinking in terms of isolated solutions.” The Circular Plastics Alliance is a platform that brings together various parties involved in the value chain at the European level. More investment is needed, not least in the field of research and development. Janzer regretted several times that no LDPE recyclate is currently available for use with food.

Improving customer awareness

In all these activities, the consumer has to be kept in mind, and customer education is also part of the programme. For example, customers are informed at Lidl and Kaufland stores about reusable materials, collection and recycling, and improvements are regularly presented in household fliers and through social media channels. The Schwarz Group, traditionally rather low-profile, has clearly recognised that investment in communication is also needed to achieve the goals it has set.