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Plastic Pollution: Which Supermarkets Can We Trust?

The war on plastics can’t be waged without the help of supermarkets, so where’s the best place to shop if you want to avoid plastic?

Plastic is endemic throughout the grocery store supply chain; from the plastic polytunnels used to grow fruit and vegetables, to the plastic used in transportation to the final plastic product that we buy on the shelf. Retailers are in a unique position as they exist as the interface between the consumers and the suppliers and are in the powerful and unique position to lead the transition away from being a single-use or throwaway society by substantially reducing their plastic footprint and supporting brands and customers to do the same.

The Environmental Investigation Agency and Greenpeace recently collected data on supermarkets comparing them based on their use, management, targets and reduction plans for single-use plastic. They sent the survey to 11 top UK supermarkets and convenience stores with over 1000 stores open to ‘showcase best practices and highlight where further improvement and innovation is needed’.

They found that supermarkets are currently responsible for putting 810,000 tonnes of single-use plastic on the market every year in the UK, with 537,000 of these being for own-brand products. When surveyed, it was found that 59 billion units of single-use plastic packaging leave supermarket shelves each year, along with more than 1.1 billion single-use bags, 958 million bags for life and 1.2 billion produce bags.

Interestingly some supermarkets are bigger culprits than others, top contender Tesco holds the record creating 261,204 tonnes of plastic pollution each year, but it holds nearly a third of the market. That’s to say Tesco's waste is serious but it's broadly proportional to its size when compared with Sainsbury’s in second and Morrisons in third place.

To better gauge company performance the study assessed impact proportionate to market share. On this measure, Iceland is doing the worst in creating 14,000 tonnes per 1% market share, with Aldi coming in penultimate worst place with 12,000 tonnes. At the other end of the scale the Co-op is doing the best with 4,700 and Waitrose comes in second with 6,280 tonnes per 1% market share.

But alas, times are changing and the supermarkets are under increasing pressure from the public to reduce plastic packaging. So who’s willing to change?

According to the same survey this is how the supermarkets are scoring up:

So in conclusion, Sainsbury’s is officially cancelled and we now like Iceland? (Especially after their recent advert drew attention to unsustainable palm oil practices). But remember that Iceland, despite having the most ambitious targets by eliminating their own brand single-use plastic packaging, are currently performing the worst by the measure discussed above. Morrisons is also up there for committing to loose product ranges and refillable options. Those who performed poorly tended to have unambitious and vague targets for reducing single-use plastics and eliminating non-recyclable plastic polymers, and they were often less transparent in providing data. But, conversely to the Iceland situation, Co-op performed poorly on the policy-front but their current performance is comparatively positive.

In fact, five companies had ‘no specific targets to reduce plastic packaging’; Aldi, Co-op, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose. Besides Iceland which has a reduction target of 20% all other supermarkets had reduction targets of 5% or less which means it will be 20 years until we see plastic free supermarkets.

The best way to move away from being a single-use society is to start using and normalise refill or reuse options. In spite of this only four supermarkets offer customers some very limited options to use refillable containers. While Morrisons is leading in this area Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s also offer customers the option to use their own reusable containers for certain products bought over the counter, such as meat and fish. Morrisons is leading in this initiative as they allow customers to use refillable containers for nuts seeds and dried fruit. Waitrose is expected to pilot further refillable options this year as part of its plan to reduce plastic packaging. In spite of a recent poll that showed that 86% of customers support the idea of supermarkets moving towards more refillable and reusable packaging, the majority of stores perform inadequately in this area.

Plastics that can’t be recycled have no place in a circular economy and should be eliminated by all companies as a top priority. In light of this, 2022 is the earliest target supermarkets M&S and Aldi have set to phase out non-recyclable single use packaging, with most major supermarkets (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Lidl, Aldi) aiming for 2025. This means that we could have non-recyclable plastics on our shelves for the next seven years, which is terrible news for the environment and also means we have more complicated and inefficient household waste collection systems.

Although supermarkets have a long way to go, the increased pressure by consumers to ditch plastics in recent years has led the transition to ending our obsession with them. In Waitrose’s recent food and drink report they claim that based on research we are now living in a consumer revolution where a ‘new era of environmentalism has taken hold, and attitudes towards single-use bags, disposable plastic straws and packaging will never be the same.’ More people are using re-useable water bottles and coffee cups than ever, showing a preference for fruit and vegetables without packaging and transitioning to a flexitarian, vegetarian or vegan diet. Behaviour is changing and the race is on for supermarkets to respond in a way that enables us to consume more sustainably in the future. As not all of us are afforded the privilege of living near a zero-waste store that are cropping up in cities all over the UK, we’re watching this space!

Isabel Comley

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