What are supermarkets doing about plastic?
Try as we might, it’s virtually impossible to avoid plastic packaging – and nowhere more so than at the supermarket.
Experts believe UK supermarkets create around 800,000 tonnes of plastic every year. But the exact amount is a closely guarded secret.
While the idea of plastic-free food shopping sounds appealing, there are complex reasons behind the use of plastic packaging in supermarkets.
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. 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.
With so many different types of plastic, it can be hard for shoppers to know what they can and can't recycle, and how to do so. Use our guide on how to recycle to find out how to recognise different types of plastic.
Supermarket packaging investigated
In April 2019, we investigated how much supermarket plastic packaging is recyclable. We ordered up to 46 of the most popular own-brand items from each of 11 major UK supermarket chains.
When we did similar research in May 2018, we found that between 71% and 81% of supermarket food packaging (by weight) was widely recyclable at the kerbside. Morrisons had the most easily recyclable content by weight, and Lidl had the least.
This year, Morrisons also came out on top for easy recycling by weight, while Aldi had the least recyclable packaging. But weight alone may not truly represent how good a supermarket is, as a few heavier recyclable items can easily skew the results.
Easily recyclable packaging by number of items
Some of the least-recyclable packaging is plastic film. This is much lighter than, for example, PET bottles – which are easy to recycle. So for 2019, we fine tuned our research to also look at the number of individual items of packaging (when broken down into their component parts) that can and can't be recycled.
We found that, on average, 52% of items were easy to recycle. We think every supermarket could do more, but Tesco and Waitrose performed the best on this measure, and Morrisons the worst.
We also found key differences in some of the packaging used to wrap the same types of product, showing there's plenty more that most supermarkets could be doing to reduce their non-recyclable packaging.
Here's how the different supermarkets compared for number of recyclable items, and by weight.
Below, you can see how joint top-ranked shop from Waitrose looked before and after we unwrapped each product – move the slider to the right to see the food in its packaging, and to the left to see the packaging after we unwrapped the food.
And this is how lowest-ranked Morrisons looked.
While the images show the total amount of packaging, rather than just the proportion that can't be easily recycled, pay attention to the amount of 'crinkly' plastic in the Morrisons photo. Typically, plastic films and bags are harder to recycle – particularly the kind that isn't stretchy.
Supermarket recycling labels
With so many different types of plastic in use, it can be hard for shoppers to know what types can and can't be recycled, and how to recycle it. Good labelling is essential.
So we were surprised to find huge inconsistencies in the clarity of recycling labels if, indeed, labelling exists at all. Of the items we purchased, on average less than 60% of packaging was correctly labelled. Issues we found included:
- Different supermarkets labelled things in different ways, which has the potential to be confusing if you shop at multiple supermarkets.
- Some items weren’t labelled with recycling information at all.
- Some items were incorrectly labelled. For example, we found a Tetrapak container (which contains plastic) that was incorrectly labelled as paper.
- A number of items had labels that were only visible once the food was unwrapped – unhelpful to those trying to make a considered choice in the supermarket aisle.
Here's how the different supermarkets compared for how good we felt their recycling labelling was.
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 (Waste and Resources Action Programme), aims to tackle plastic waste by bringing together businesses from across the entire plastics value chain, UK governments and NGOs.
More than 120 organisations, including major food and drink brands, manufacturers, retailers and 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.
Not sure where to shop? Find out which supermarket is the best rated by Which? members
What else are the supermarkets doing?
Some supermarkets are going beyond the commitments in the UK Plastics Pact. We asked the UK's leading supermarkets about their plastic and packaging pledges. Here's a summary of what they told us.
What is government doing about plastic?
The government plans to achieve 'zero avoidable waste' by 2050 with a series of initiatives. These include 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.
Last year, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said government was working with retailers on initiatives such as plastic-free aisles. He said it was also looking at innovations in materials, products and processes to help eliminate waste.
Which? thinks there's much 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 plans to stop using non-recyclable packaging where recyclable options exist.