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Reducing single-use plastics waste in the vending machine supply chain is challenging but achievable, says Jane Freeman.

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05 August 2019 | Jane Freeman

The BBC’s Planet Earth II sparked the war on plastic waste. And companies that don’t use sustainable packaging face consumer criticism.

As the go-to material for food packaging, plastic has been a part of the vending market for years, but the market is responding.


First, the challenges

1 Cost

Despite green intentions, consumers remain price-conscious. Environmentally friendly packaging tends to cost more and, unless this is passed on to the consumer, brands face an uphill battle.

Recycling is another cost and proposals for overhauling the UK’s recycling system could result in a £3 billion annual hit to businesses. 


2 Image

Consumer attitudes to vending provide a challenge to promoting social responsibility. Vending can appear to be part of the problem. Consumers favour convenience, whether that’s how we use technology or consume food and drink.

Vending or any other type of retail, convenience typically takes advantage of single-use packaging. As such, vending machines represent a symptom not solution to reducing plastics use.


3 Change

Announcing a ban on plastic may provide a quick PR win, but it may not be good for the environment in the long run.

For example, paper and compostable cups need to be separated from other waste streams to be recycled, which can have a knock-on effect on the environment as any process that requires a further function or workload increases the carbon footprint of that process. You might be “winning the Plastic War”, but actually be doing more harm to the planet having a second truck carting recyclables from site or the same truck travelling to a different processing plant.


Now, the solutions

1 New materials

There are greener vending options including but not limited to: 

  • PEFC-certified paper cups: fully recyclable; 
  • PLA: a bio-based plastic that is kinder to the environment; and 
  • paper and wood straws.


2 Reverse vending machines

UK consumers fail to recycle 40 per cent of plastic bottles by placing them in the wrong bins, sending 240,000 plastic bottles to landfill each year. 

In March 2018, the UK government proposed a deposit return scheme (DRS) to reduce plastics waste, which has led to an industry trend of ‘reverse vending’ – get paid for depositing containers.

Locally, Iceland, Tesco and Co-Op have launched ‘reverse vending trials’, and the Coca-Cola Company set up ‘VenCycling’ in China. The industry is supporting a circular economy and providing a way for consumers to reduce plastic waste. 


3 Vending as social responsibility

Consumers like to feel responsible for caring about the environment and don’t want to have all the work done for them – they want to be part of the process. So offering choice is important. 

Some machines can accommodate reusable bottles and cups, and giving consumers the choice of reusable alternatives lets them feel like they’ve taken an active role in protecting the planet. 

But this also requires vending machines to clarify the green credentials of product packaging. New displays, videos and features enable this and can encourage responsible consumer behaviour. 

These machines also allow for auto-reordering and personalising the customer experience by storing data.


4 Get suppliers on board

Consumer scrutiny is increasing. As many as 61 per cent of consumers say they would switch to a more environmentally friendly brand – and this spans all facets of the business from products to supply chains.

We all need to understand the issues so brands and consumers can act together. 


Jane Freeman is resourcing partner at Selecta