What do we want? Less plastic. When do we want it? Well, ideally a decade ago at the very least. Plastic waste is currently high in the public consciousness with shoppers in particular looking for ways to avoid unnecessary packaging and seeking sustainable alternatives. Once viewed as a versatile and hygienic product, plastic is now so pervasive that recycling systems can’t keep up 

According to The Guardian, leading UK supermarkets create almost one million tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year; US academics calculate that only 9% of the 8.3 billion tons of such rubbish generated since the 1950s has been recycled, with 12% incinerated and 79% left in landfill sites or the wider environment.

Public demand

The recent report, ‘Attitudes To Packaging’ by Market researcher Mintel found that 78% of people expect food companies to ensure all food packaging sold in the UK to be sustainable. In January 2018 the supermarket chain, Iceland, became the first major UK retailer committed to eliminating plastic packaging for its own-brand products – within five years. 

Although a laudable initiative, it’s likely to be slowed by what Sainsbury’s chief executive Mike Coupe described last year as: “a failure of public policy.” He said: “We don’t have unified recycling … every single local authority has a different approach. He concluded: “Unless there’s a framework for the whole of the UK, it’s impossible to solve the problem – and I make that very clear to politicians.” 

Tesco is another retailer calling for an overhaul of the Producer Responsibility Obligations Regulations (known as ‘making the polluter pay’). Despite environment minister Michael Gove’s recent policy proposals to make manufacturers shoulder packaging disposal costs – so far borne by the taxpayer and a hidden subsidy to retailers – this remains an aspiration.

Tesco has announced it will ban all non-recyclable plastic by 2019. They called on the government to help establish a consistent recycling infrastructure enabling a ‘closed loop’ system in which waste is avoided altogether. It’s begun trialling in-store recycling machines, paying customers 10p for every plastic bottle returned; another trial enables customers to make use of their own multi-use containers when they buy meat, cheese or fish. 

Baby steps

Morisons website states that ‘Our own research says that plastic reduction is now the third most important issue’ for their customers, citing initiatives including removing plastic packaging from fruit and vegetables, replacing black plastic trays, installing drinking fountains and trialling plastic bottle recycling, all ‘by the end of 2019’.

However, Sian Sutherland, co-founder of the environmental campaign Plastic Planet cautions: “Despite Morrisons’ good intentions, this trial will only delay the inevitability of these bottles ending up in the environment for hundreds of years. Conventional plastic can only be recycled a handful of times before it becomes completely useless. Don’t be fooled – one bottle does not become another bottle.” 

Julian Kirby,  Plastics Campaigner at Friends of the Earth agrees that the move is a ‘welcome initiative’, but says: “Ultimately we need to phase out all but the most essential plastics if we’re to end the scourge of plastic pollution that’s damaging our wildlife.”

Iceland was an early supporter of Greenpeace’s call for a plastic bottle deposit return scheme and last year announced two other radical ideas: make own-brand products plastic-free and remove palm oil from its ingredients list. There’s clearly an element of enlightened self-interest here with Iceland’s sustainable initiatives appearing just as its demographic changes to encompass more upper and middle class customers than previously. The brand is also targeting younger educated millennials who care deeply about environmental issues.

Tactics, or strategy?

Lidl UK has said it will shortly remove the black plastic that can’t be detected by the recycling sorting systems from all its fruit and vegetables. Julian Kirby, from Friends of the Earth, commented: “Getting rid of black plastic is a positive first step … but let’s not just switch one plastic for another. Fruit and vegetables don’t need to come smothered in a plastic jacket.” In a little reported, but possibly far reaching strategic change, Schwarz Group, Lidl’s parent firm, is to acquire German waste disposal company Tönsmeier Group, effectively bringing recycling in house. 

M&S is also working to eradicate single use plastics by, for example, replacing the 75 million pieces of plastic cutlery given out with chilled ready meals and taking protective plastic covers off 500,000 cashmere jumpers. However, in the wider context this is (pun intended) a drop in the ocean.


Local retailing realities 

Aware of consumer pressure and directly responding to it, big supermarkets are keen to flaunt their environmental credentials. But beyond the mission statements and slick advertising, how does this affect your everyday shop? HIP visited local branches of Iceland, Lidl, Aldi, the Coop, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda and Morrisons to find out. (Yes, London friends, we’ve no Waitrose here – I know, like living in the third world. Feel our pain.)

Credibility gap

At Morrisons loose vegetables were in short supply, despite those in (largely unnecessary) plastic packing being plentiful. Clearly there’s strong demand, so why not order more? “We have no control over this,” explains a staff member who’s clearly answered the same query many times before. “We only get what head office send us. It’s all done by computer,” So why don’t local managers have more ordering autonomy? Surely with barcoding and sophisticated real-time inventory control the apparently all-powerful computers can compensate with rapid replenishment deliveries? 

The paper bag stations around the vegetable department are empty and replaced by, all too predictably, plastic. “People take handfuls of them,” laments an assistant. Perhaps shoppers grab paper bags in the few places that provide them and take them to shops that don’t – Morrisons might be a victim of its own good practice. 

Overwrapped

You can’t buy an individual onion at Lidl, and why do avocados need any covering other than the skin nature provided? Single vegetables have to go into a small plastic bag and the same applies to single bakery items for which there’s choice of plastic bags or trays. Not everyone needs bulk packs. Fruit & veg is perishable; older and single people might not get through multiples before the food quality deteriorates and it’s thrown out and wasted. 

In St Leonards Coop just about all of your ‘five-a-day’ can be had as single items or multi-packs. There are plastic bags to put them in, disappointingly, but paper bags for your morning croissant – albeit with a small transparent panel that may or may not be recyclable.

Slow on the uptake

Among the ‘big four’, Asda seems the store slowest to get the message: lots of black plastic trays in the chilled meal cabinets despite it being all but unrecyclable. 

Sainsburys has ‘recyclable’ plastic bags for loose veg, but wrapped fresh produce in definitely (defiantly?) non-recyclable plastic. The ‘TV dinners’ chill cabinet is a sea of black containers and only plastic bags are available for single buns in the bakery department.

At Tesco there are loads of not immediately perishable vegetables unnecessarily plastic wrapped: customers can’t buy a cabbage or cauliflower without it. Worse, own brand eggs (something over which you have direct control Tesco managers!) are unforgivably in plastic trays.

Overall across the major supermarket brands the number of plastic bags has been reduced, but many of those paid-for ‘bags for life’ supposedly replacing them are still, yes, you’ve guessed it, plastic. The gap between grandstanding environmental mission statements and local plastic-shrouded reality remains massive.


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