Q & A: Taking bold actions to be plastic free

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 18, 2022 - July 24, 2022.
Q & A: Taking bold actions to be plastic free
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In conjunction with “Plastic Free July”, ESG interviewed Geoff King, CEO of The Food Purveyor Sdn Bhd (TFP), on his journey to reduce single-use plastics in Malaysia.  The private equity (PE)-backed company operates five supermarket brands in Malaysia: Ben’s Independent Grocer (BIG), Village Grocer, BSC Fine Foods, Leisure Grocer and Pasaraya OTK. 

TFP has been quite bold in its move to reduce plastic use in its operations, with the aim of becoming single-use plastic free by the end of 2023. In October 2020, BIG became the first multi-site grocer in Malaysia to stop providing single-use plastic to customers. Village Grocer followed suit in February 2021.

ESG interviewed King in the Village Grocer located in Subang Parade, one of four locations where TFP has installed a refill station for dried food. Customers can bring their own containers to purchase the food items.

The three areas where TFP uses the most plastic in products are the fresh food, protein and bakery sections. The other sections are filled with pre-packaged products by suppliers, so TFP has less influence to eliminate excess plastic packaging.

In those three areas, however, it has been reducing plastic packaging and introducing new materials. The fresh food section, for instance, now has “naked” fruits and vegetables.

“Prior to this, we shrink-wrapped every single piece of vegetable in cling film to protect the product. (Now) we use special boxes made of metal. We fill it with water underneath to keep the products fresh. Instead of wrapping (the vegetables) with plastic, our staff come around (routinely) to spray it with water. It’s a whole new science of care,” says King. 

TFP shies away from using biodegradable plastic solutions. But that has made it more challenging. “The beans will fall out of boxes unless we put a bit of plastic to keep it in place. The leafy vegetables will scatter without a thin plastic ribbon to tie it in place,” says King. 

In the protein section, the meat products used to be displayed on plastic trays. TFP replaced the trays with a cardboard solution. 

“However, it doesn’t perform well when you freeze it. We haven’t completely gotten rid of the plastic too, since there’s a shrink-wrap cover,” says King. 

“The challenge is (also) when you order meat. The guys will put it in a plastic bag and wrap it around another plastic bag. So, we are trialling the use of (reusable) Ziploc bags for customers to take away meat. But the price point could be up to RM40, so customers didn’t really like that.”

In the bakery, the cashier no longer puts purchased buns into individual bags, and plastic cutlery and cups are in the process of being replaced. 

There is still a long way to go. In the fresh food area, many vegetables and fruits are still sold in plastic packaging; rolls of plastic are available for customers. 

King says these are problems that they want to solve by trying new solutions and working with suppliers. “It’s more of a challenge with organic supplies because their products are more fragile. It’s still a work in progress. But if we hadn’t done it, we would have made no progress,” he says.

It’s also a matter of slowly encouraging customers to change their behaviour. King says they tried to eliminate the plastic bag rolls and replace them with reusable mesh bags. 

“Nobody bought them, so we ended up gifting them. But even I struggle to remember to bring it in my bag. This is a block that stops us from achieving our goals, so we’ve had to roll back a bit and realise that it’s a learning process. We can’t push customers beyond where they’re prepared to go,” says King.

In the other aisles, TFP has made conscious sourcing decisions, such as phasing out single-use plastic containers and selling disposable cutlery or plates made of natural materials. 

Following are excerpts from the interview.

ESG: What stood out to you in your journey to make TFP single-use plastic free?

King: Freshness (of the food) is always a challenge when you take away plastic. We are famous for the quality of our produce, so (by introducing these changes) we could be putting our brand at risk in the customer’s eyes. 

We saw companies making (net-zero) commitments for 2030 or 2050 and our view is that it’s too far away. We need to do something today. Any longer than that, the world would have heated up and it would be too late. We want to be a change activator.

Any plans to reach out to non-food suppliers to reduce single-use plastic packaging?

We are about to start a trial in Mont Kiara where we work with detergent manufacturers and suppliers, so we’ll have dispensing systems. We’ll have a whole wall of suppliers doing different things to showcase what can be done if you bring your own containers.

At the same store, we are working with Klean (a reverse vending machine provider) to collect bottles and tins through a vending machine. Customers can drop their old bottles and tins and collect points, which can be redeemed for our loyalty points. 

Is it possible to imagine large chain grocery stores that are completely plastic free? 

I don’t think we will ever completely eliminate plastic. But the plastic we use can either be reused or recycled. A packet of crisps sold in the future could be put in a recyclable plastic bag. There must be waste segregation at home to ensure that the plastic bag can be channelled to a recycling centre.

That comes beyond our realm of influence, so we have to work with partners and industry players.

What about all the plastic that comes with online orders?

This is a challenge. We do offer recycled bags instead of plastic bags, but you have to tick a box and pay for it, so the take-up rate is very low. We’ve been working with Foodpanda, which introduced the use of a recycling bag. HappyFresh did the same. We have our own delivery system where you can choose a reusable bag.

There is no way for you (customers) to return the reusable bag to us yet. So, it’s not really fulfilling the reuse ecosystem. If you’re an online shopper, you will accumulate tonnes of bags. We’re still scratching our heads on this one.

Which department is in charge of thinking about all these solutions?

Every department is accountable for finding its own solutions. We have a cross-functional plastics meeting once a month to monitor the progress. (For instance) the bakery team will talk to suppliers to find solutions. 

Do you measure your greenhouse gas emissions?

We didn’t, but we’ve started to because our PE owner has insisted that we adopt more formal approaches and issue an ESG report annually. We’re monitoring energy usage. Our refrigeration system, when it gets replaced, will be more efficient. Over time, we’ll be using low-energy lighting. But the biggest issue we have is plastic and food waste. 

What do you do with food waste?

About 85% of the (food) products are sold at full price and around 5% are reduced to clear, where the products are nearing the sell-by date and we sell these at half price. The rest is where (non-profit organisation) The Lost Food Project comes in. It has communities to serve who don’t mind food products that are slightly past the sell-by date, which is different from expiry or spoilage dates. 

We are also looking at people who can take waste organic produce and turn it into plant or animal feed. 

What do you hope to see from stakeholders?

We are a change agent on our own, but it would be great if (our actions) can trigger more action (by others). Many have followed our no-bag policy but it’s not on the agenda of many retailers. 

I would love for the government to point out existing examples where it works and make it a national initiative.