Tesco has diverted 100% of its UK waste away from landfill but has failed to win over sceptics

UK retail giant Tesco says it is taking sustainability seriously but its efforts are often viewed sceptically by campaigners. Nothing illustrates this more vividly than the reaction to Tesco’s announcement that it has achieved its goal of diverting 100% of waste from its UK business away from landfill a year ahead of schedule.

Tesco says it has achieved this through “a massive logistical exercise in reducing, reusing and recycling”, using technologies such as anaerobic digestion and mechanical biological treatment, and seeking out the “best providers of waste management services”.

But the waste issue appears to have sparked controversy at every turn. Friends of the Earth food campaigner Kirtana Chandrasekaran says Tesco’s plans will see it burning more rubbish in climate-damaging incinerators. “It should be maximising recycling and reducing overall waste instead of sending more of it up in smoke,” she says.

Sion Stanfield, Tesco’s head of waste and recycling, says there is a lot of “bad publicity and stigma around incineration”, and believes it is over-demonised.

Meanwhile, Tesco scored a PR own goal over carrier bag usage. Major retailers committed to reducing the number of carrier bags given to consumers by 50% over three years. In the summer, Tesco said it had achieved this but subsequently admitted the actual reduction was 48%.

On the suggestion that Tesco is now sending more waste abroad, Stanfield says plastic for recycling is exported because the “recycling infrastructure around plastic in the UK is virtually non-existent”. No other waste is going abroad, he says.

But a different Tesco spokesman declined to say how the 146,000 tonnes of waste diverted from landfill was divided between different disposal methods and reuse technologies.

Stanfield says 6,000 to 7,000 tonnes of waste meat is being reprocessed into energy. However, this has also been a controversial issue for the retailer. Animal rights group Viva suggested Tesco should be “killing fewer animals” rather than having to develop ways of reusing waste meat.

Viva’s view reflects a general concern that the focus should be on waste reduction. Charlotte Henderson of the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) says Tesco’s is a “good achievement” but “if you’re talking about taking that next step up it’s not about managing waste, it’s about preventing waste”.

What about suppliers?

How Tesco’s relationship with its suppliers impacts on the waste issue opens another can of worms for the retailer. Friends of the Earth suggests Tesco’s buying policy hampers suppliers’ efforts to green their businesses by “constantly demanding more and more for less, forcing farmers and suppliers to intensify their operations”.

Once again, Tesco rebuts this criticism. Stanfield points out that cooperation with suppliers on packaging reduction has extended not only to own-label suppliers but also to branded food companies. Sir Terry Leahy, Tesco’s chief executive, has made explicit reference to Tesco doing “everything in our power to enable our supply chain” to make carbon reductions. Tesco’s references specifically to waste refer to helping consumers to waste less, such as the new and much-vaunted “Buy one, get one free – later” initiative.

Stanfield says reaching the milestone of a 100% diversion away from landfill was achieved in part by “winning hearts and minds” of staff to implant the practices necessary for reducing waste. Winning the hearts and minds of everyone else is a tougher proposition.

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