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10 June 2020

What are supermarkets doing about plastic?

How much of the UK's supermarket packaging is recyclable, and what have supermarkets pledged to change? 
Plastic bottles 2
Vicki Crowe

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.

  • Has switched pizza-base supports from plastic to cardboard and removed or reduced plastic packaging on a range of fruit and vegetables
  • Has scrapped all single-use plastic bags from the end of 2018
  • Will remove plastic glitter from 100% of own brand products by 2020, starting with Halloween and Christmas 2019
  • 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 
  • Has reduced the amount of plastic in its own brand products by at least 10% in 2018  
  • Has removed single use carrier bags during 2018 
  • Has replaced the polystyrene boards on all fresh pizzas with cardboard 
  • Has removed plastic wrap from swedes and similar vegetables
  • Has removed single-use plastic carrier bags from over 1,000 Co-op Food stores in 2018 and replaced them compostable carrier bags 
  • Has removed black plastic trays for all fresh fruit & vegetables 
  • Has backed the creation of a deposit-return scheme for plastic bottles, including running its own deposit return scheme pop-up stores at festivals in 2018
  • Hard-to-recycle own-brand black and dark plastic is being phased out, and will be eliminated by 2020 
  • Will eliminate black and dark plastic packaging by 2020
  • Will remove single-use plastic packaging from stores by 2023  
  • Has briefed suppliers to provide plastic-free solutions when they make submissions for any new item to be introduced
  • 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
  • Will eliminate plastic packaging from own label range by 2023
  • One of the major UK supermarkets not to have signed up to the UK Plastics Pact
  • Removed 5p reusable plastic bags from stores at the end of 2018, eliminating 67 million bags and 134 tonnes of plastic produced each year 
  • Requires selected plastic water bottles to contain a minimum of 25% recycled plastic
  • In the process of adopting the industry standard OPRL (On Pack Recycling Labelling) used by the majority of UK retailers 
  • Is committed to removing non-recyclable black plastic from fresh meat, fish and poultry products by August 2019
  • Will reduce plastic packaging by 20% by 2022 
  • 50% of packaging will be made from recycled materials by 2022 
  • In summer 2019 it will replace the 75 million pieces of plastic cutlery it gives out every year with wooden alternatives 
  • Will remove the protective plastic covers from 500,000 cashmere jumpers, replace plastic straws with paper straws in its cafes, and take plastics out of its tea bags and coffee pods  
  • Launched a trial in early 2019 to remove plastic packaging from over 90 lines of fruit and veg at its Tolworth store
  • Rolling out plastic take-back bins so customers can bring back any packaging that can’t be recycled at home – M&S plans to recycle this into store fittings and playground equipment
  • Has reduced its own brand packaging by 35% since 2005. 
  • Nearly 40% of its packaging already uses recycled content
  • Has removed plastic straws from sale
  • Offers 25p off hot drinks sold in a reusable cup
  • Has changed sparkling water from green to clear plastic bottles to improve recyclability
  • Has told suppliers it intends to ban the hardest-to-recycle plastics from its products
  • Has trialled a reverse-vending initiative, offering customers money back on returned plastic bottles
  • Will trial a refillable-container scheme for online shoppers
  • Will ensure that all paper and board used is 100% sustainable by 2025 
  • Will halve packaging weight by 2025 compared with 2007 
  • Wants to work with government to create a close-loop system for packaging
  • Promised to stop using black packaging for meat, fish, fruit and veg by the end of 2018 
  • Removed all takeaway disposable coffee cups from its shops in 2018, saving more than 52 million cups a year
  • No longer sells packs of single-use plastic straws 
  • Has committed to stop using black plastic packaging for all own-label goods by the end of 2019 
  • In mid-2019, launched a low-packaging trial in one of its stores, with refillable containers and loose fruit and vegetables

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.

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