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Stikeez: Let's work together on the real environmental issues

26 October 2016

People are passionate about the environment. The natural world is priceless and vulnerable.

We want action to be taken when people degrade it. We want the damage to be undone.

We understand this at Pick n Pay. It’s why in recent years we have almost halved the energy each store uses and the waste it produces. It’s why we are measured by the global Carbon Disclosure Project as among the best retailers in the world in combating climate change. It’s why we have worked with WWF and others on marine sustainability, and were the first retailer in Africa to insist that all the seafood we sell must come from sustainable sources.

We are genuinely concerned when people think something we do might be bad for the environment, as has been the case with our current Stikeez promotion. People are worried about the amount of waste plastic in our oceans, and some campaigners say that Stikeez will make this worse.

I agree that damage to our oceans is a serious and growing problem for marine life, and that waste plastic is a major factor. But I want to set out three reasons why I don’t believe Stikeez are genuinely part of that problem.

First, it’s simply not true that many Stikeez will end up in the ocean. The promotion is hugely popular and, rather than throwing away their Stikeez, customers are collecting them and swopping them with their friends. We sold more than 150 000 albums to collect Stikeez in the first two weeks of the promotion. Our experience with the first campaign last year is that customers have kept and continued to enjoy their collections and albums.

Anyone who does not want to collect them can decline them at the checkout. We also provide units in our stores for people who collect but then decide not to keep them. These Stikeez will be donated to children in hospital over the festive period. Secondly, it’s wrong to attack Stikeez as though it’s some huge addition to the plastic we use in our lives. Even if every customer who received Stikeez threw them away, we would have to run the promotion non-stop for 150 years to make up just 1 percent of the plastic currently sent to landfill each year. In fact the promotion runs for just a few weeks.

Some people argue that it’s right to discourage any use of plastic, because all plastic can be bad for the environment. One problem with this view is that, however strong your convictions, the use of plastic in our society is likely to continue to grow, not reduce. Innovators are constantly finding new ways to adapt and apply synthetic organic compounds. Merely holding that the use of plastic is undesirable will not achieve the desired outcome.

Which brings me to my third and most important point. If we are genuinely passionate about reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean, we need to understand how it gets there and how we can properly tackle it.

Even if, as some of our critics allege, a proportion of Stikeez are thrown away, this isn’t really how plastic ends up in our oceans. In a functioning waste economy, the vast majority of items thrown away are recovered, recycled, converted to energy, or disposed of in a landfill.

This may be an inefficient use of resources, but it doesn’t lead to plastic ending up in the sea. The real reason why plastic gets into the ocean is because of specific public policy failures: inadequate waste disposal facilities in communities - particularly informal communities - close to rivers; illegal disposal of liquid and solid waste by factories; poorly designed and poorly maintained storm drains; a failure to prevent ships from dumping at sea; and use of micro-plastics and plastic fibres in health and beauty products and clothing which are shed and then find their way into water courses through our domestic water and sanitation systems.

The right approach to tackling these challenges is first to agree that they are the genuine causes of the problem, and then to work hard on how they can be overcome. That’s how we at Pick n Pay try to approach sustainability with our long-term partners.

* David North is Pick n Pay’s Group Executive: Strategy and Corporate Affairs.

Please read more about what Pick n Pay is doing here: Sustainability report

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