Greenpeace report: UK supermarkets are significant contributors to plastic pollution crisis and “too slow” to find solutions 

Greenpeace report: UK supermarkets are significant contributors to plastic pollution crisis and “too slow” to find solutions 

19 Nov 2018 --- Supermarkets have a stronger focus on recycling plastic over the reduction in the use of the material and it could be this mindset that has led the ten leading UK supermarkets to contribute over 810,000 tons of single-use plastic to the market every year, a major Greenpeace UK report has found. In collaboration with the UK Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), the report notes that even supermarkets with leading plastic policies, such as Iceland, are moving “too slow” on the issue.

China’s ban on foreign waste imports has shone a spotlight on the UK’s need to deal with the nation’s ever-increasing waste levels. In the UK, the grocery retail sector is the largest user of plastic packaging and retail accounts for over half of the 1.5 million tons of consumer plastic packaging every year. Therefore, cleaning up plastic in supermarkets could have a significant impact on plastic rates in the environment. 

The Greenpeace and EIA survey, Checking out on Plastics, focused on four areas which Greenpeace notes are key to unlocking the potential for the grocery sector to address plastic pollution: Single-use packaging, single-use plastic items, working with the supply chain and engagement with staff, customers and policy markets. Retailers’ responses were scored and ranked against their commitment to reduce single-use plastics, to eliminate non-recyclable plastics, their supply chain engagement and commitment to transparency.

Click to Enlarge
Retailers’ responses were scored and ranked against their
 commitment to reduce single-use plastics, to eliminate non-recyclable
 plastics, their supply chain engagement and commitment to transparency.
Credit: Checking out on Plastics.

The EIA and Greenpeace UK are calling upon grocery retailers to set ambitious year-on-year targets to reduce their plastic packaging footprint, pledge to get rid of excessive and non-recyclable packaging by the end of 2019, and start publishing yearly audits of their plastic use.

The findings show a mixed performance among supermarkets, with even the leading stores showing scope for improvement.

Juliet Philips, Ocean Campaigner from the EIA, tells PackagingInsights: “To truly tackle the plastics epidemic, companies need to fundamentally rethink how they bring products to people. That should include refill and reuse systems, plastic-free packaging, or removing packaging altogether, a combination of approaches or totally new delivery systems - but the time has come to stop using throwaway plastic for good.”

She adds that only five of the UK’s leading supermarkets have plastic-specific reduction targets in place, and with the exception of Iceland, these largely equate to a five percent reduction per year, or less.

Reducing single-use plastics
Only half of the supermarkets surveyed had targets on this issue in place. Iceland has the most ambitious pledge to eliminate all own brand single-use plastic packaging by 2023 (a 20 percent annual reduction), whereas most companies are reducing their footprint at a much slower pace (under 5 percent per year), with much focus still on lightweighting plastic packaging – reducing the weight of plastic in a unit of packaging – rather than removing it from the shelf entirely. 

Large strides could be made with refillable options. However, the report notes that these options are thin on the ground, with the only Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Tesco allowing customers to bring their own containers for a limited number of product lines. Morrisons is the largest provider of unpackaged fruit and vegetables, with many other retailers only making limited effort to increase their range of loose produce – despite growing customer appetite. Waitrose has announced that it will pilot more refillable options in the coming year.

Options could include water and soft drinks in dispensers in store, reusable bags for products, refillable containers and dispensers for shampoo, dried goods and household cleaning products.

Engaging with the supply chain

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UK supermarkets’ own brand single-use plastic
packaging reduction targets 
Credit: Checking out on Plastics

Supermarkets appear to be making larger strides among their own-brand packaging, but branded goods can make up 60 percent of a stores plastic footprint. The survey identified that most companies are not engaging with brands over their plastic usage. The report notes that Sainsbury's has no policy in place on this topic, for example. The report suggests that companies leverage their buying power – saying “no” to brands that do not engage with plastic reduction commitments.

Non-recyclable plastic by the end of 2019
Greenpeace and EIA recommend a deadline of the end of 2019 for eliminating non-recyclable plastic packaging but as signatories of the UK Plastics Pact, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Lidl and Asda have committed to 2025. M&S and Aldi are aiming for slightly earlier, at 2022, and Waitrose and Co-op have committed to 2023. Many companies, such as Tesco, are committed to phasing out the most problematic formats and materials before 2025, including PVC, expanded polystyrene and black plastic packaging.

There also appeared to be an issue with data – the overall recyclability levels of many stores were not available, partly due to the high instances of branded goods being sold. To assess the number of non-recyclable items hitting the market each year, companies must collect this data using a line-by-line approach, suggests the report. From the data available, the report found that Co-op leads the way on how much of their own brand packaging is widely recyclable by weight (79 percent), with most others lagging behind at 58-70 percent.

Commitments to transparency were widespread, with Co-op, Morrisons, Waitrose and Asda already reporting on their plastic packaging footprint. However, low transparency was exhibited by stores that refused to participate in the survey: Ocado, Spar, Premier Stores, Londis, Lifestyle Express and Best-One.

UK Supermarkets respond to results
Speaking to PackagingInsights, a few of the stores mentioned in the report have shared their response:
Co-op: “We have the lowest plastic use of any retailer* and in a landmark move we became the first retailer to replace carrier bags with a compostable alternative. The Co-op will stop using hard to recycle materials, like black plastic, and aims to go further to reduce plastic packaging.”
Sainsbury's: “We are very disappointed with this result, which doesn’t reflect our efforts over many years to reduce the amount of packaging we use and ensure it’s recyclable.” 
“We know reducing plastic is important to customers and we are one of few retailers to invest in plastic recycling facilities at many of our supermarkets. 83 percent of our own packaging is classed as widely recycled and we have ambitious targets to increase this further.”

Grocery stores lie at the interface between consumers and suppliers and therefore hold a unique position to lead the transition away from a single-use society, as demonstrated by the highly anticipated debut of the UK's first plastic-free aisle. However, the report casts a dubious shadow on supermarkets’ eagerness to do so.

The plastic bag 5p levy reduced the consumption of plastic bags in the UK by 80 percent. This demonstrates the power that supermarkets can wield on consumer activity and plastic pollution in the environment – the report notes that the levy has reduced the number of plastic bags entering the ocean by 30 percent in some areas. The report highlights how consumers are ready for the change, but supermarkets and brands must follow through.

By Laxmi Haigh

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