Supermarkets rated for plastic

Major UK supermarkets are ‘treading water in a growing ocean of plastic packaging’

Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod

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Published: 26 January 2021

This Article was Written by: Katie Hill - My Green Pod

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Too many of the UK’s leading supermarket chains are treading water in the fight against mounting plastic pollution, according to new research.

The third annual plastics survey conducted by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Greenpeace UK showed that the 10 leading supermarkets collectively put almost 900,000 tonnes of plastic packaging on the market in 2019 – that’s the equivalent weight of almost 90 Eiffel Towers.

While the 896,853 tonnes was a reduction of 1.6% on 2018, it equates to a 1.2% increase compared with 2017 when the survey was first conducted and they produced a total of 886,021 tonnes of plastic. 

Supermarket plastic scores

The new report, Checking Out on Plastics III, ranks the UK’s 10 leading supermarkets in terms of their efforts to reduce plastic pollution.

This year’s scorecard shows Waitrose at the top for the second consecutive year, with Iceland* in 10th place.

Of the five largest UK supermarkets by market share, Aldi ranked first, followed by Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda and Morrisons.

‘In our third year of looking at plastic packaging in UK supermarkets, we had hoped to see a much sharper downwards trajectory as strategies and targets bear fruit. Instead, we are looking at a relatively static picture which represents a drop in the ocean of tackling plastic pollution. The sector urgently needs to pick up the pace of plastic reduction.’

CHRISTINA DIXON
EIA senior campaigner

Time to de-list suppliers?

Other significant findings in the survey, based entirely on data supplied by the supermarkets themselves, include:

The survey, based entirely on data supplied by the supermarkets themselves, reveals that the number of single-use plastic carrier bags issued fell by 33%, and several supermarkets have banned them entirely.

More than 1.58 billion plastic ‘bags for life’ (which contain more plastic than thinner single-use bags) were issued in 2019, a 4.5% increase over 2018. This represents almost 57 bags per UK household during the year.

Almost 2.5 billion plastic water bottles were sold or given away in UK supermarkets in 2019.

While most companies reported reductions on own-brand plastic packaging, the percentage of branded packaging in 2019 increased by 5% compared with 2017. 

‘Supermarket targets and reduction efforts are primarily focused on own-brand plastic packaging, which makes sense as they have more direct control over the supply chain. 

‘However, this means that the amount of packaging used for popular branded goods is not reducing and we’d like to see supermarkets increasingly taking the fight to the big manufacturers and compelling them in turn to drive down their own plastic footprints.

‘This can be achieved through sourcing policies that reflect packaging reduction requirements and the phasing out of problematic plastics, working with brands to test alternatives and, ultimately, pledges to de-list suppliers which will not comply.’

CHRISTINA DIXON
EIA senior campaigner

Reuse and refill

A key recommendation of Checking Out on Plastics III is for supermarkets to devise strategies which include specific targets for increasing reusable and refillable packaging and delivery systems, both in-store and online, as a way to reduce unnecessary plastic packaging.

Checking Out on Plastics III argues that the growth in online shopping under the coronavirus pandemic should be seen as a major opportunity to ramp up reuse systems, such as doorstep deliveries of reusable containers which can be picked up, washed and refilled before being sent out again.

This innovation has been put into practice by Tesco and its partnership with Loop. 

‘Supermarkets have assured their customers that they share their concerns on plastic waste, but we need to see far more ambition than this from the sector if we’re going to even start to turn the tide on plastic pollution.

‘All supermarkets should follow Sainsbury’s, and now Aldi, in committing to reduce plastic packaging by 50 per cent by 2025, at the very least. How these commitments are met is also crucial. Half of that reduction should come from reuse and refill systems, so we can ensure that packaging stays in those systems and out of the environment.’

NINA SCHRANK
Senior plastics campaigner at Greenpeace UK

Government action

To create a level playing field for businesses, the government should set legally binding targets to reduce the use of single-use plastic overall, incentivise retailers to introduce reuse and refill systems through the new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme and deliver a deposit return scheme for drinks containers of all materials and sizes.

Government has promised consultations on the latter measures in early 2021.

In addition, EIA and Greenpeace UK firmly believe government-mandated reporting for companies’ plastic use is essential to achieve transparency and accuracy for both retailers and brands.  

* Iceland disagrees with this analysis. As a frozen food specialist which is not a full part of the market, it argues that evaluating plastic use relative to market share as one of the assessment tools has disproportionately disadvantaged it.

Iceland states that the model used for ranking the bigger retailers, who it is clear remain responsible for the largest proportion of plastic waste, cannot be applied to Iceland as a budget retailer operating at a fraction of the scale.

Iceland’s commitment to tackling single-use plastic in its own-brand range over the next few years remains world-leading.

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