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What are supermarkets doing about plastic?

By Ellie Simmonds

Just how much of the UK's supermarket packaging is recyclable, and what have supermarkets pledged to change? 

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Try as we might, it’s virtually impossible to avoid plastic packaging - and nowhere more so than at the supermarket.

And while the idea of plastic-free food shopping sounds appealing, there are complex reasons behind the use of plastic packaging in supermarkets.  

Experts believe UK supermarkets create about 800,000 tonnes of plastic every year. But the exact amount is a closely guarded secret.

Plastic food packaging serves a number of important purposes – it helps protect food from damage, it helps it last longer and it makes food more visually appealing for consumers. And these are all important for reducing food waste. 

Food has a significantly higher carbon footprint than the packaging it comes in, and experts say food waste in general produces three times as much carbon as packaging waste.

However, when plastic gets into the environment, through improper disposal or by degrading into microplastic, it can end up causing huge amounts of damage to our ecosystems. 

It's important that we ensure that plastic is disposed of correctly, and that as much of it as possible is recycled rather than released into the environment or added to landfill.  

Supermarket packaging investigated

In May 2018, we investigated how much supermarket plastic packaging is recyclable. We ordered 27 of the most popular own-brand items from each of 10 major UK supermarket chains. 

We found that between 71% and 81% of the total packaging (by weight) was widely recyclable at kerbside – with Morrisons the best on this measure and Lidl the worst. 

Depending on the supermarket, between 12% and 22% of it was not recyclable: a significant amount of waste.

We found key differences in some of the packaging used - showing there's plenty more that most supermarkets could be doing to reduce their non-recyclable packaging. 

We were also surprised to find huge inconsistencies in the labelling of recycling information. Different systems of labelling were used. Some items weren’t labelled with recycling information at all. Others were incorrectly labelled and still more had labels which were only visible once the food was unwrapped – not helpful to those trying to make a considered choice in the supermarket aisle.

Here's how the different supermarkets compared: 

What is the UK Plastics Pact?

Almost all of the UK's major supermarket chains have signed up to the UK Plastics Pact, which launched in April 2018.

The pact, led by sustainability experts at WRAP, aims to tackle plastic waste by bringing together businesses from across the entire plastics value chain, UK governments and NGOs.

More than 50 organisations, including major food and drink brands, manufacturers and retailers, right through to plastic reprocessors have signed up to hit a series of targets by 2025. These include:

  • Eliminate problematic or unnecessary single-use plastic packaging through redesign, innovation or alternative (re-use) delivery models.
  • 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable
  • 70% of plastic packaging effectively recycled or composted
  • 30% average recycled content across all plastic packaging

What else are the supermarkets doing? 

But some supermarkets are going further than the UK Plastics Pact, too. We asked them about their plastic and packaging pledges. Here's a summary of what they told us:

ALDI

  • All own-label packaging will be recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2022 (where it does not have a detrimental impact on quality, safety or increase food waste)
  • Will reduce packaging by 50% (relative to 2015 baseline) by 2025
  • Will have 50% of its packaging made from recycled material by 2025
  • Will scrap all single-use plastic bags by the end of 2018

ASDA

  • Will reduce the amount of plastic in its own brand products by at least 10% in the next 12 months 
  • Will phase out single use carrier bags during 2018
  • Will replace the polystyrene boards on all fresh pizzas with cardboard – removing 178 tonnes of polystyrene
  • Will launch a zero profit re-usable coffee cup and replace 2.4m plastic drinking straws in cafes with paper

ICELAND

  • Will eliminate plastic packaging from own label range by 2023
  • Will replace all black plastic ready meal trays with paper-based or aluminium alternatives by the end of 2018, removing 100 million from circulation each year, and reducing its annual plastics usage by 2,000 tonnes
  • Has briefed suppliers to provide plastic-free solutions when they make submissions for any new item to be introduced
  • The only one of the major UK supermarkets not to have signed up to the UK Plastics Pact

LIDL

  • Will adopt the industry standard OPRL (On Pack Recycling Labelling) used by the majority of UK retailers
  • Will reduce plastic packaging by 20% by 2022
  • Will remove 5p reusable plastic bags from stores from the end of 2018, eliminating 67 million bags and 134 tonnes of plastic produced each year
  • 50% of packaging will be made from recycled materials by 2025 and by 2022, the amount of plastic packaging will be reduced by 20%

MARKS & SPENCER

  • To become a zero-waste business by 2025
  • By 2022 all M&S product packaging in the UK will be widely recyclable
  • This summer it will replace the 75 million pieces of plastic cutlery it gives out every year with wooden alternatives
  • Will remove the protective plastic covers off 500,000 cashmere jumpers, replace plastic straws with paper straws in its cafes, take plastics out of its tea bags and coffee pods

MORRISONS

  • Will target PVC and black plastic packaging
  • Will work with suppliers to avoid the use of mixed polymers wherever possible
  • Will avoid packaging that cannot be easily recycled at kerbside if suitable alternatives already exist

SAINSBURY'S

  • Has reduced its own brand packaging by 35% since 2005.
  • Nearly 40% of its packaging already uses recycled content.

TESCO

  • Will ensure that all paper and board used will be 100% sustainable by 2025
  • Will halve packaging weight by 2025 compared to 2007
  • Wants to work with government to create a close loop system for packaging

WAITROSE

  • Will stop using black packaging altogether for meat, fish and fruit and veg by the end of 2018
  • Committed to stop using black plastic packaging for all own label goods by the end of 2019
  • By September 2018 will no longer sell packs of single use plastic straws
  • Will remove all takeaway disposable coffee cups from its shops this autumn, saving more than 52 million cups a year

What is the Government doing about plastic? 

The Government plans to achieve 'zero avoidable waste' by 2050 with a series of initiatives, including a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles, where you pay deposits for single-use drink containers and get the money back when you return them.

Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove said the Government was also working with retailers on initiatives such as plastic-free aisles. And he said they were also looking at innovations in materials, products and processes to help eliminate waste.

But Which? thinks there's a lot more that could easily, and quickly, be done. We are calling on government and manufacturers to simplify and clarify packaging labels, and make recycling information labelling on all plastic packaging compulsory.

We are also calling on manufacturers to speed up their act to stop using non-recyclable packaging where recyclable options exist.

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