Getting supermarket shoppers to stop relying on single-use plastic bags

Getting supermarket shoppers to stop relying on single-use plastic bags

While most Malaysians may seem reluctant to change their wasteful habits – even at the expense of our country’s environment – Tesco Malaysia corporate services director Azliza Azmel is optimistic that we can.

Recounting her visit to a recently opened store in Bagan Ajam, Penang, Azliza says she was surprised to see even the “aunties” toting their own shopping bags.

Bagan Ajam is situated on the mainland in the northern state, where, since 2009, the local government has imposed a 20 sen charge for every plastic bag and since early this year, made every Monday a no-plastic bag day.

“I was so surprised that nobody asked for a plastic bag. They brought their own bags, even the aunties. So people can change but it takes the legislation to do it or the younger generation who has been taught from young,” she says during an interview at Tesco headquarters in Kepong, Kuala Lumpur, recently.

Azliza has also seen this for herself with the success of Tesco Malaysia’s Unforgettable bag campaign. Kicking off in May last year in all its stores nationwide, the Unforgettable bag campaign is aimed at getting Tesco customers to stop using single-use plastic carrier bags.

The bag is recyclable and has a blue whale design on it to signify the devastating impact that plastic has on sea life. When the barcode on it is scanned at the check-out counters, customers will receive a 20 sen discount.

A year into the campaign, tracking usage via the barcode revealed that 55% of customers who bought the bags used them “again and again”.

“We’ve sold about 1.8 million of these bags. What’s best and the most important of all is that we have managed to reduce single-use plastic bags in our stores by 21 million at the same time,” says Azliza.

Azliza with one of Tesco’s recyclable Unforgettable bags featuring a whale design referencing the threat that plastics pose sea life. Photo: The Star/Faihan Ghani

That’s 21 million single-use plastic bags which are not going into landfills or clogging up drains and rivers or, worse, being swallowed by vulnerable sea life like turtles and whales.

Better yet, while the campaign has not had much impact on customers in Penang and Selangor where awareness is already very high, it saw the biggest success in Johor, where the rate of single-plastic bags use is especially high, as well as in the Federal Territories and Melaka.

In fact, the campaign has been so successful that Phase 2 will begin soon with more designs for different types of recyclable bags.

Azliza points out that, similarly, it hadn’t taken very long for its customers in the Federal Territories to “forget about plastic” after the local government began a policy of allowing businesses to only give out and charge for biodegradable bags.

“Now, either the customers take their purchases in the trolley to load into their cars or they bring their own bags,” she says.

However, Azliza says that while she’s happy that the government had come up with the Roadmap Towards Zero Single-use Plastics 2018-2030, she really wishes that the states can accelerate its implementation, naming the East Coast and Perak as places that need improvement.

“It’s actually how you culturally teach yourself that you can do without plastics. I believe that if people can (do it) in other parts of the world, we can do it,” she says.

Even better for Tesco Malaysia is that cutting back on the single- use plastic bags it gives out to its customers has translated into savings in costs for the hypermarket chain.

Also read: Why it’s important to sort your rubbish before you throw it out

The Unforgettable bag campaign is just one part of Tesco Malaysia’s push to reduce waste, including food waste – rescuing 805 tonnes of food by partnering with the Food Aid Foundation and Kechara Soup Kitchen – and recycling clothing in cooperation with Life Line Clothing Malaysia.

Going further, Tesco’s aim, says Azliza, is for the packaging of all the products in its brand lines to be fully recyclable by 2030. Its parent company in Britain has already begun auditing the materials that go into the creation and manufacturing of its goods.

Tesco Malaysia’s vision is to eventually have a facility that allows customers to return plastic waste from its stores for recycling or other types of processing.

“It’s our product, we will know how to deal with it but we still need to have a facility where people can go to return these things. We haven’t figured how to do that yet. “We also need to get the government to help us collect the things, as well as a third party that can process all this material,” she says.

“These details have yet to be worked out but we have a vision that one day, we will be able to do this.”

Also read: Would a plastic bag tax stop you from using them?

An even more exciting feature that Azliza is hoping to incorporate in Tesco Malaysia is allowing customers to bring their own containers when purchasing foodstuffs like fruits and vegetables.

Although bringing along one’s container is often de rigueur in many niche, zero waste stores, no supermarket or hypermarket chains have yet to attempt this on a big scale in Malaysia.

“All we ask you is for us to weigh your containers first and then you can put in all the stuff (you buy) and save on plastic bags.
“We are going to trial it soon. We’re working on the mechanics, see which store is the most efficient to do it and look at the results,” she says.

Azliza hopes to have all these waste reducing and recycling measures put in place in Tesco Malaysia within 10 to 15 years. “It’s going to be a long journey because you need to convince the government, the industry that, hey, we all can do this together.”

Tesco Malaysia is a member of the Malaysia Plastics Pact. The establishment of the pact was announced by Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin on Sept 10, 2019.

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