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Home & garden.

13 July 2021

What are supermarkets doing about plastic?

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

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 guides on how to recycle in the UK to find out how to recognise different types of plastic. 

Big brand packaging investigated

We have investigated the packaging of popular groceries for the past three years. Our latest grocery packaging investigation (September 2020) looked at 89 best selling brands like Cadbury and Coca-Cola.

Our analysis found only just over a third had packaging that was fully recyclable in household collections. And almost four in 10 had no labelling to show if it could be recycled. And there were big differences in packaging for very similar products.  Some brands use easily recyclable packaging, while others offer almost-identical products with packaging that’s very hard to recycle.


Weight of recyclable packaging %
Weight of packaging recyclable at bring banks %
Weight of not easily recyclable packaging %
Proportion with recycling labelling
Chocolate
70%
0%
30%
1 out of 10
Fizzy drinks
100%
0%
0%
10 out of 10
Bagged snacks
3%
4%
93%
5 out of 10
Yogurts and potted desserts
94%
0%
6%
3 out of 10
Sports and energy drinks
94%
0%
6%
5 out of 5
Sweet biscuits
83%
0%
17%
2 out of 10
Juice drinks and smoothies
95%
2%
3%
9 out of 10
Cheese
66%
0%
34%
3 out of 10
Bread loaves
0%
100%
0%
4 out of 4
Cereals
90%
7%
3%
10 out of 10

Supermarket own label packaging investigated

When we first investigated supermarket packaging in 2018, we found up to 29% of supermarket food packaging (by weight) was not easily recyclable. Morrisons had the most easily recyclable content by weight, and Lidl had the least.  

In April 2019, we investigated again; ordering up to 46 of the most popular own-brand items from each of 11 major UK supermarket chains. 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. So we also 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, only 52% of items were easy to recycle. 

Easily recyclable packaging by number of items

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. 

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 was there at all. Of the items we purchased in 2019, 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.

Correctly labelled supermarket packaging

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 is government doing about plastic? 

A UK government ban on single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds came into force in October 2020. And the Government plans to introduce a tax on plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled plastic in 2022. 

But Which? still believes more needs to be done. 

Clear recycling labelling would make a big difference. We know 67% of Which? members often or always look for recycling info on grocery packaging before deciding how to dispose of it. That’s why Which? is calling for recycling labelling to be made compulsory on all UK grocery packaging – branded or otherwise – so that consumers know what can and can’t be recycled, and how.