In a joint statement, Aldi Nord and Süd have said they are going to be the first major grocer in Germany to stop offering single-use bags. The move includes not only plastic bags, but also paper bags. “According to the current state of the art research, the latter offer no greater sustainable alternative due to their higher energy and water consumption in production as well as their lower stability,” said Philipp Skorning, Group Buying Director for Quality and Corporate Responsibility at Aldi Süd.
From October this year at the earliest, Aldi Süd and Nord will roll out a new reusable bag made from over 80% recycled materials. This will be in addition to existing cotton and jute bags available at the retailer. The new bags will be available first in Munich (Süd) and Berlin (Nord) and the discounter has declared that the change-over will be completed by the end of 2018 at the latest.
That is the good, old Aldi way of setting new industry standards, just as we used to know it - in its notoriously consequent way of reasoning. When Aldi, after diligent research, declares a paper bag is not a sustainable alternative, other retailers will not ask questions, but follow the example. I wouldn’t want to be a producer of paper bags these days.
Unlike in other countries, plastic bags have never been free in Germany, at least not for the past four decades or so. (Insofar as the self-commitment of retailers to charge for bags has always been largely irrelevant for grocers.) And this is also why they have mostly been more stable than elsewhere, and often been reused. From a production standpoint they aren’t that bad either, if you believe Aldi Nord’s statement that for its “loop handle bag”, the “proportion of recycled material is at least 80 percent” (so, the new bag won’t be much better). “Foil waste from used transport packaging is used and this comes from a number of sources including our logistics.”
Of course, Aldi is not the first to use recycled material; and others including Rewe and Lidl were faster in banning plastic bags from their stores. It is tricky because there is a real danger of shoppers buying less if you deprive them of a cheap and familiar means of transport.
By going a step further – saying that paper bags are no alternative – Aldi reveals several things. Firstly, it says that it obviously doesn’t want to get left behind. Secondly, Aldi has learned from former experience. It was treated with outright hostility when it launched a plastic bag a few years ago that it said was bio-degradable. And indeed it was, it’s just that it took longer than the handling process in a waste utilisation plant. The bag was immediately withdrawn in light of the bad press.
Thirdly, Aldi has been dealing with Corporate Responsibility and sustainability for some time. The announcement comes just a few days after the publication of Aldi Süd’s and Nord’s CSR reports, more precisely, the updates to last year’s publications which were unfortunately widely ignored. Of course, the public is not interested in the fact that Hofer S/E reduced its carbon footprint in kg CO₂e per m² sales area by 54% in 2014 over 2012, while Aldi USA achieved a reduction of only 2%. But still, this audited data is surely more meaningful than any green-washing marketing campaign, or any arbitrary gut feeling expressed by individuals on social media.
As for the waste that grocers’ customers produce, at least as pressing as single-use bags is product packaging. On the consumer front, it has so far been relatively quiet regarding packaging waste. But the issue is becoming more prominent as retailers, particularly the discounters, are increasingly selling convenience foods – food for immediate consumption, mostly in smaller portions, that has an above-average share of packaging. The discussion about disposable coffee cups is ongoing, but it hasn’t even started for sandwich packs, crisp bags etc. But it will start one day soon.
Aldi’s Hofer has been dealing with this topic for many years internally, pondering costs, environmental impact and other aspects. It could be the case that Aldi has a prepared solution ready should the discussion come up. (Others such as Rewe have already started lasering their organic fruit & vegetables to reduce packaging to zero.) Or Aldi will invite the industry to do more research – nothing else in Aldi’s statement that “the current state of art research” does not make paper bags a viable alternative: Aldi simply asks for more research on sustainable bags.
After all, for Aldi, the paper bag statement is meant to expose the green commitment of its competitors as somewhat dishonest. Not least, it is a side dig at the grocery home deliverers, those who want the dozens of recycling paper bags to morally compensate for the extra efforts and energy consumption of the complex home delivery concept.