Spotlight on European supermarket recycling and climate change initiatives, with a special focus on Switzerland and its leading Migros chain. Governments, businesses, local culture and the individual all have a role to play in raising awareness and instilling new behaviors.
Responding to climate change
According to the IPCC report (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), we have three years left to succeed in reversing the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions, otherwise our impact will be irreversible. Moreover, climate change has already started to jeopardize food security of the world's populations. Crops are not adapting to global warming, soil salinization and seasonal changes, even if some progress has been made. The world's demographic growth is too important to reduce this impact without a general effort to fight against soil depletion.
According to the IPCC, our emissions have been reduced by 5.8%, even though the objectives for 2030 are 45% (or 6% per year). Mass retailing plays an essential role because it is related to our everyday purchases. The necessary changes are therefore made through a revision of the industry itself, but also through the evolution of consumer behavior.
In this article we analyze how Switzerland has positioned itself as one of the leaders in recycling in order to protect the environment, and how the industry can evolve to address these issues using the example of European retail groups with a special focus on the Swiss supermarket chain, Migros, as a precursor in climate neutrality. And to conclude, we present a series of solutions applicable to everyone and adapted to the public of EHL, Hospitality Business School. The evidence is clear: the time for action is now. We can halve emissions by 2030.
Switzerland - a leader in recycling
Switzerland is known for having strong sustainable policies, especially when it comes to recycling, topping world rankings (Wong Sak Hoi, 2016). In fact, out of the 716 kg of waste produced per person and year, 53% of this amount is currently recycled (Swiss Recycling, 2022 / in German).
For several years recycling has been a central part of Swiss culture, and this image is promoted nationally and internationally. The government provides several options to facilitate this activity such as door-to-door collection in some places for paper and cardboard, or collection points in city centers. Some local supermarkets like Migros even have PET bottle disposals (Dardan, 2021).
The biggest incentive for Swiss people is most likely the financial one. While recycling is usually free, in some some cantons like Vaud for example, people who would like to bypass the sorting process would be forced to face extra charges, for example having to buy more taxed garbage bags. These extra costs could go up to CHF 300 per year. In some cases, if the police suspects that someone hasn’t been using the official bags in a canton where it’s mandatory, they will open the bags in order to find receipts and track down the culprits. In this case they examine waste as if it were a criminal investigation one could say (Dardan, 2021).
Recycling in Europe
Retail as a sector has multiple impacts on the environment. The most consequential, according to Migros, is its supply chain. Indeed, beyond packaging and the logistics of the companies themselves, suppliers who provide transport and handle raw materials for Migros represent the bulk of carbon emissions coming out of the supply chain. Let’s take the example of the French company Carrefour: the group has committed to reducing its CO2 emissions by 30% by 2030 by bringing together their 100 main suppliers. The goal is to include them in the environmental objectives, advising and accompanying them in their efforts.
LIDL, the German group, is on the other hand building eco-friendly supermarkets with photovoltaic panels. The company has also set up Operation Zero Waste (Fabien Dutrieux, 2020 / in French). This project concerns large-scale distribution within its shelves. The proposal emanates from the waste of unsold products and consists in placing an employee in charge of monitoring the state of perishable products every day. In this way, the person in charge can control the moment when the products become unsaleable, then makes an assortment and resells it for 1€. This limits the waste and instills a new kind of attractiveness to products that would otherwise be wasted.
These measures show us that the European supermarket industry is aware of the issues and is looking for solutions that combine innovation and sustainable development.
Migros Switzerland – waste, recycling and innovation
Where possible, Migros uses materials other than plastic in its packaging to reduce its plastic footprint. For this, they mainly focus on the following three strategies:
1. More efficient packaging
Migros improved the packing materials of 54 goods in 2019 to make them more environmentally friendly. A sum of 5'051 t of packaging has been reduced or made more eco-friendly since 2013.
Their syrup bottles have been constructed entirely of recycled PET since 2019. For the first time in Switzerland, the materials loop for PET bottles has finally been closed. This initiative allows to save around 222 t of new material every year (Plasteurope.com, 2020).
In 2019, Mibelle Group, a cosmetic ingredient supplier that is part of the Migros Group, was honored with the Swiss Packaging Award for its groundbreaking effort in developing a new PE container made entirely of recycled materials. PE is quite similar to PET, but its material is a bit less resistant. It is usually used to make solid capsules used for medicine since it’s not very heat resistant in comparison to PET (FOERHAO, 2021). Since 2013, Migros has begun collecting and recycling household PET. Recycled PE has mostly been employed in the fabrication of construction pipes and wire sheathing thus far.
The retail industry opted to charge for plastic shopping bags across all forms in 2019. Free plastic bags are no longer available at Migros’ specialized markets: SportXX, Melectronics, Do It + Garden, Micasa, merchants Ex Libris and Digitec Galaxus, or Migros restaurants and takeaways.
2. How to increase recycling by branches
In the last years, aluminium coffee capsules were added to the recycling walls of approximately 700 branches. For its Nespresso-compatible Café Royal products, Migros has introduced recyclable aluminium capsules. Currently, 58% of metal capsules in Switzerland are recycled. Nespresso and Migros are working together to boost that number to 75% by the end of this year.
Migros collected and recycled 15'350 t of recyclable material from customers in 2019. Most customer returns (8'586 t) came from the approximately 265 million PET drinks bottles. New drinks bottles are made from the granules recovered from recycled bottles, among other things (Federation of Migros Cooperatives, 2019).
3. Waste minimization
Keeping waste from food sales to a minimum is the goal of cooperative retailers. With the help of the "Too Good To Go" app, Migros started selling leftover food in over 70 of its stores, restaurants and takeaways. By doing so, it is complementing its existing food waste prevention efforts, which include partnerships with organizations such as Tischlein deck dich, Partage and Schweizer Tafel. A total of 98.6% of food that “Too Good to Go” sold to these different branches mentioned, could be either sold at a discounted price or donated. The rest, which is less than 2 percent, was either incinerated or became compost. This proves the success of the collaboration between Migros and the app, since until the very end almost no food was wasted.
In addition, Migros branches have started offering customers the option to have products purchased at cheese counters and meat counters packed in their own containers starting in 2019. There is no need for additional packaging because the price label is attached directly to the container. In 2019, JOWA lowered the weight of the boxes used to transport frozen bread and baked items. This saves 201 t of packaging material each year as compared to the old packaging. In addition, the boxes are now manufactured entirely of recycled materials.
How to protect the environment in daily life
The consumer has an equally important role to play as companies. It is essential to be aware that everyday actions have an impact on environmental protection. So, what can YOU do?
According to the IPCC, to meet our emission reduction targets to limit global warming to below 2°C, everyone will have to do their part. The two major areas where we can act are our food and our transportation. For example, you could eat less meat and bike to work !
According to the recommendations of the Migros Group, in Switzerland, one third of food is thrown away. A first action consists in planning our meals to limit waste. This takes very little time and allows us to optimize our resources. In this perspective, we can also choose our food in the right way. Buying local as much as possible allows us to reduce the carbon impact of our meals.
Migros helps us in our consumption choices throughout Switzerland. The company has created the "M-Check", a rating system for the sustainability of Migros products. This system rates products with stars ranging from 1 to 5 stars. This initiative helps in our consumption and allows us to realize the impact we would have without paying attention.
Moreover, learning to consume local and seasonal goods is essential. Favoring local allows us to support small producers but also control the impact of all the products we buy. EHL is a good example of a school doing its best to become eco-responsible. The school uses LED lights throughout the campus as it is more environmentally friendly. The food products are mostly local and exclusively seasonal. A waste reduction device has been installed in the stewarding area and allows for a more rigorous waste control.
In terms of travel, we must absolutely promote the use of the most carbon-free means of transport possible, such as the train. Limit our use of airplanes and cars as much as possible. These small daily activities will allow us to live together longer. To conclude, we wanted to recall the definition of sustainable development: The ability of current generations to meet their needs without affecting the ability of future generations to meet theirs.