PM backs calls for a plastic-free aisle in supermarkets at the launch of the 25 Year Environment Plan

Theresa May has set out plans to propose a plastic-free supermarket aisle as part of the government’s bid ‘to leave our environment in a better state than we found it’.

In a speech at the Wetland Centre in Barnes, London, Theresa May outlined how the government intends to deliver ‘a cleaner, greener Britain’, including the elimination of avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042.

Supporting green consumerism

As part of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, the 5p carrier bag charge will be extended to all retailers in England. To date, we have used nine billion fewer plastic bags as a direct consequence of introducing the charge.

The government will also work with supermarkets to encourage them to introduce plastic-free aisles in which all the food is loose. This will give consumers the choice to make greener decisions and promote the use of less damaging plastic packaging.

Innovation and education

To encourage industry to take more responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products and make them easier to recycle, the government will also look at how the tax system or charges could further reduce the amount of waste we create. A call for evidence on how to reduce the use of single-use plastics will begin next month.

In addition the government will also inject new funding into plastics innovation through a bid into the government’s £7bn research and development pot.

The Prime Minister also announced plans to help more children engage with the environment. This will be delivered through £10m for school visits and a Nature Friendly Schools programme to create school grounds which allow young people to learn more about the natural world, targeting schools in disadvantaged areas first.

The plastics problem

It’s estimated that 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the 1950s. Research indicates that without urgent action to cut demand this is likely to be 34 billion tonnes by 2050.

In the UK alone, during its recent Great British Beach Clean Up, the Marine Conservation Society found 718 pieces of litter for every 100 metre stretch of beach surveyed. Of this, rubbish from food and drink made up at least one-fifth.

Theresa May on plastics

In her speech, Theresa May said, ‘we look back in horror at some of the damage done to our environment in the past and wonder how anyone could have thought that, for example, dumping toxic chemicals untreated into rivers was ever the right thing to do. In years to come, I think people will be shocked at how today we allow so much plastic to be produced needlessly.’

She added that in the UK alone, the amount of single-use plastic wasted every year would fill 1,000 Royal Albert Halls.

‘This plastic is ingested by dozens of species of marine animals and over 100 species of sea birds’, she said, ‘causing immense suffering to individual creatures and degrading vital habitats. 1 million birds, and over 100,000 other sea mammals and turtles die every year from eating and getting tangled in plastic waste. This truly is one of the great environmental scourges of our time.’

Promising that the UK will ‘demonstrate global leadership’, Theresa May added that we must reduce the demand for plastic, reduce the number of plastics in circulation and improve our recycling rates. She pledged to ‘take action at every stage of the production and consumption of plastic’.

A plastic-free aisle

Theresa May said that supermarkets need to do ‘much more’ to cut down on unnecessary plastic packaging, and said the government will work with them ‘to explore introducing plastic-free aisles, where all the food is sold loose’.

Plastic-free aisles are the brainchild of environmental activist group A Plastic Planet. The group has been calling for the measure since February 2017.

Over the last 10 months, A Plastic Planet has built a formidable coalition of supporters for a plastic-free aisle, including celebrities such as Ben Fogle and Dame Vivienne Westwood.

A Plastic Planet

A Plastic Planet was co-founded last year by Sian Sutherland and Frederikke Magnussen. The pair welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement but stressed that there was still a long way to go, calling on Britain’s supermarkets to follow up with decisive action.

‘The Prime Minister has recognised that plastic used to package food and drink products is having a devastating effect on the world around us. It is amazing to have her backing our campaign’s single aim: a plastic-free aisle in supermarkets.

‘While the Prime Minister is right to back the measure, it’s clear that the future of retail has to embrace plastic-free packaging solutions, rather than no packaging at all. A plastic-free aisle should showcase the wealth of plastic-free pack options that are emerging all the time. We have to turn off the plastic tap.

‘In backing a plastic-free aisle, Theresa May joins thousands of people around the country who are demanding that supermarkets give us this simple choice. We hope Britain’s biggest supermarkets take up the mantle and make a plastic free aisle a reality as soon as possible.’

Co-founder of A Plastic Planet

Frederikke Magnussen, co-founder of A Plastic Planet, added that ‘we are all part of the problem’, in that we are all ‘plastic addicts’. He added, ‘It is wonderful to hear the Prime Minister backing what we have been saying all along which is that we can only wean ourselves off our addiction if we are given the choice. A plastic-free aisle gives us the ability to together be part of the solution.’

The idea of a plastic-free aisle has already garnered support from major players including Andy Clarke, former CEO of Asda; Sir Ian Cheshire, chairman of Debenhams; Lord Rose of Monewden, former CEO of Argos and former chairman and CEO of Marks and Spencer, Lord MacLaurin of Knebworth, former chairman of Tesco and Lord Stone of Blackheath, former managing director of Marks and Spencer.

It was also championed by Jayn Sterland, MD of Weleda UK, who was ranked No 1 in the Who’s Who of Natural Beauty in 2016 and 2017.