The full extent of UK supermarket giants’ contribution to our plastic waste problem has been exposed by the most comprehensive analysis of the sector to date.
Drawing on detailed figures disclosed by firms for the first time, the survey of Britain’s largest supermarkets and grocery chains reveals 10 major retailers are placing over 810,000 tonnes of single-use plastic on the market every year.
Seven of them are putting in circulation the equivalent of some 59 billion pieces of plastic packaging – over 2,000 items for every household in the country.
Despite their huge plastic footprint, half of the supermarkets surveyed have no specific targets to reduce plastic packaging and most of those who do are moving at such a slow pace (just 5% per year) that it would take them 20 years to completely rid their shelves of throwaway plastic.
The survey by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Greenpeace UK also ranks retailers based on their commitments to reduce single-use plastic, eliminate non-recyclable plastic packaging, engage with supply chains and transparent reporting.
Iceland vs Sainsbury’s
Iceland comes out ahead of the pack thanks to an ambitious plan for phasing out own-brand plastic packaging within five years.
Most major retailers, including Tesco and Asda, lag further down the scoreboard, with Sainsbury’s at the bottom of the league.
Following a series of announcements from retailers about their action on plastic waste, the aim of the survey was to establish how far supermarkets are actually going in tackling the problem.
It found that on top of the plastic packaging already mentioned, the 10 leading supermarkets are also producing 1.1 billion single-use bags, almost one billion bags for life and 1.2 billion plastic produce bags for fruit and vegetables.
The survey also found that many supermarkets, including Aldi, Co-op, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose, have not yet adopted plastic-specific reduction targets.
Only four supermarkets offer customers some options to use refillable containers – an effective way to reduce single-use packaging. The survey reveals there’s considerable scope for supermarkets to scale up refillable and unpackaged product ranges.
‘Plastic pollution is now a full-blown environmental crisis and our supermarkets are right at the heart of it. Much of the throwaway plastic packaging filling up our homes comes from supermarket shelves, but high-street giants are still not taking full responsibility for it.
‘So far most retail bosses have responded to growing concern from customers with a pick-and-mix of different plastic announcements, but have failed to come up with the coherent plastic reduction plans required to solve this problem.
‘The success of the plastic bag charge shows big retailers can crack down on plastic waste if they really mean to. Every little may well help, but if we are to protect our natural world and ourselves from pervasive plastic pollution, supermarkets need to check out on throwaway plastic fast.’
Greenpeace UK oceans campaigner
Recycling before reducing
In general, retailers are focusing more on recycling than reduction – and even here, most have only committed to eliminate non-recyclable plastic packaging by 2025. Co-op tops the leaderboard for share of own-brand products that are widely recyclable (79%), while most others fall behind with around a third of their plastic (by weight) not widely recyclable.
Despite branded goods making up as much as 60% of retailers’ plastic packaging, few retailers were able to provide evidence that they’re using their buying power to push big consumer brands to reduce their plastic footprint.
Many supermarkets have taken action to end sales or provision of disposable items such as straws, cutlery and cotton buds, ahead of a planned government ban, and many are also committed to phasing out the most problematic forms of plastic, such as PVC, expanded polystyrene and black plastic, within the next two years. But no supermarket has pledged to completely remove plastic that can’t be recycled from its shelves before 2022.
Ocado was the only major grocery retailer who refused to participate in the survey, along with the convenience chains Spar, Premier Stores, Londis, Lifestyle Express and Best-One.