The company announced on World Environment Day (Tuesday) that it would phase out single-use plastic shopping bags by 2020.
The campaign will also see the phasing out of what the company calls “unnecessary single-use plastics” such as straws and cutlery by 2022.
Woolworths polled customers on their views regarding its plan to eliminate plastic as part of the programme.
“We have done extensive customer research that not only made concerns and perceptions clearer, but also shed light on customer recycling habits and recycling enablers and barriers,” Feroz Koor, Woolworths Holdings Limited Head of Sustainability, told News24 about the project.
“For example, our recent packaging and recycling survey, which involved 3 000 customers across the country, has helped to gauge perceptions and expectations to inform our packaging plans going forward,” Koor added.
Woolworths is not alone in the drive to eliminate single-use plastic from environmental waste.
In April, Spar in the Eastern Cape announced its intention to abandon plastic bags in favour of paper bags, but conceded that customer education was an important factor in driving change.
“If we carry on in this way and don’t do something about the mess we are creating, it can only lead to the eventual destruction of our environment,” Spar Eastern Cape MD Conrad Isaac said in a statement.
Pick ‘n Pay launched its Make Plastic Bags Extinct campaign in 2008 and boasts that all packaging in its PnP Green range is fully recyclable.
Woolworths has a number of environmental projects, including solar panel energy-saving strategies.
In terms of its policy, the company said that paper straws and wooden cutlery had been rolled out at its in-store cafés and that paper earbuds would be on the shelves by October.
But the company urged customer participation in its green projects.
“We know that many of our customers fully support our zero packaging-waste-to-landfill journey and they want to see it happen as fast as possible. But this is not a path that we can walk alone. To succeed, we need our customers, our suppliers and the South African recycling industry to work with us,” said Woolworths South Africa CEO Zyda Rylands.
The United Nations Environment Programme’s State of Plastics report for 2018 says that by 2050, there will be about 12 billion tons of plastic in landfills, and plastic production may account for 20% of oil consumption.
“Plastic bags are often ingested by turtles and dolphins who mistake them for food. There is evidence that the toxic chemicals added during the manufacture of plastic transfer to animal tissue, eventually entering the human food chain,” says the report.
The organisation says that micro-plastics ingested by fish can enter the human food chain and these particles have been found in 90% of bottled water and 83% of tap water.
According to Plastics SA’s 2015 report, 12,8% of plastic was diverted from landfills as the industry set itself a goal of zero plastics in landfills by 2030.
But the local plastics industry employs about 60 000 people in 1 800 companies, says the organisation.
Woolworths says it will engage with industry on the impact of its policy.
“We will have to continue to work closely with recyclers, packaging converters, producer responsibility organisations and government to develop technically and commercially viable solutions to recycling different plastics and investigating alternative materials. This is not only important for the management of waste, but also provides vital employment,” said Koor.