It’s estimated that British supermarkets create 800,000 tons of plastic waste each year. Concerns over the amount of plastic waste were also raised by the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, who encouraged Britain’s major grocery stores to set up plastic-free aisles.
In Germany, consumers are known for being extremely green and environmentally-oriented, but still plastic waste is a problem. Bottle deposit schemes, similar to those in Norway and Sweden, have seen relative success: 90% are recycled, compared to 57% in Britain. The EU also launched an anti-plastics strategy in January 2018, with a proposal to make sure every piece of packaging in Europe is reusable or recyclable by 2030, and investing 350 million Euros in research. No mean feat!
A practical solution
There are many practical solutions for reducing the amount of non-biodegradable plastics that we use as consumers. Simple measures like using a refillable steel water bottle instead of plastic one-use bottles from the supermarket, or carrying re-usable shopping bags can all help towards protecting the environment. However, it is not just bottles and carrier bags – 99% of my non-recyclable, non-biodegradable waste is plastic wrappers from supermarkets.
Globally, the plastic pollution crisis has already caused widespread damage to the environment. It is clear that the scale of plastic environmental issues will continue to increase drastically unless supermarkets take decisive action.
AI - a silver bullet?
Retailers must take note – it’s time to do more and go further. Artificial intelligence (AI) is just one way in which technology can be applied to tackle the plastic problem. Fresh food is so often packaged in un-recyclable plastic, and there will be a transition period where suppliers will be looking towards more environmentally friendly solutions, but still looking to reduce the use of existing plastic packaging.
AI and machine learning solutions’ ability to predict consumer demand to reduce food waste and thus eliminate plastic waste in which it is packaged, is not to be ignored.
A fresh approach - controlling stock before it becomes waste
Retailers struggle to predict the right amount of stock to meet customer demand, and they therefore often order more stock than is necessary, preferring to throw food away rather than run the risk of shelf gaps. When this food is thrown away, which is also a serious environmental issue, its plastic packaging must also be disposed of. This can often be recycled but too often it is just discarded.
Retailers have access to an enormous amount of data, whether it is recurring trends, past sales figures, customer footfall or even a change in the weather. AI and machine learning solutions can use this data to reduce plastic waste by making accurate predictions of customer demand and automating replenishment decisions, which become more accurate as it continues to learn and refine its forecasting models. This can also significantly improve product availability, removing manual intervention from the process and ensuring that retailers have the appropriate level of stock to match potential sales, reducing food and plastic waste.
We live in an era where humans are producing more plastic waste than ever before, more in the last decade than in the entire 20th century. This is where AI can play an important role, offering a solution that not only reduces waste and the environmental impact of the retail sector, but is able to monitor, control and improve replenishment.