A plastic-free push: what are the retailers’ latest moves?

Waitrose looks to refillable options, Sainsbury’s ditches plastic bags in fresh produce and bakery, while loose fruit and veg is a major target across the board.

7 June 2019

Independent retailer Thornton’s Budgens overhauled a lot of its packaging late last year, introducing 1,800 plastic free-products along with plastic-free zones in-store – a move that saw store sales increase by 4%. Now, the major retailers are following in its footsteps.

To much fanfare, Waitrose unveiled a pilot store in Oxford this week that it has described as the future of shopping. It includes a dedicated refillable zone stocking 28 products, including pasta, rice, couscous, lentils, cereals, dried fruit and seeds, available through dispensers, as well as 160 varieties of loose fruit and vegetables.

Customers can bring in their own containers or, if they forget, there’s a borrow-a-box scheme for a £5 deposit, which is refundable upon return of the container.

Other items available for refill, from wine and beer on tap that can be poured into reusable bottles, to coffees that can be ground in store.  

In a UK supermarket first, Waitrose has also created a frozen ‘pick and mix’ section for fruit like mango, strawberries, blueberries, cherries, pineapple and raspberries.

Plastic-free vs packaged

Waitrose’s packaging-free initiative is not only a win for the environment but also a win for consumers – prices are generally 15% cheaper compared to packaged equivalents.

Packaged versions of products will remain in their usual areas in the Oxford store for the time being, so that the retailer can track how many people opt to go plastic-free when a choice is available.

The pilot scheme, which has been branded as ‘Waitrose Unpacked’ across the shop to maximise awareness, will run for a period of 11 weeks until August 18.

“We are determined to build on the work we’ve already done to reduce packaging – and this test will take our efforts to a whole new level, as we help the growing number of customers who want to shop in a more sustainable way,” said Tor Harris, head of CSR for Waitrose.

“This test has huge potential to shape how people might shop with us in the future, so it will be fascinating to see which concepts our customers have an appetite for. We know we’re not perfect and have more to do, but we believe this is an innovative way to achieve something different.”

Plugging up plastic bag production

When it comes to loose fruit and veg, many of the supermarkets have begun rolling out trials for select line. It’s already proving a popular move with consumers: Kantar figures from April show loose fruit and vegetables sales were growing twice as quickly as those wrapped in plastic.

Sainsbury’s, however, looks set to pip its competitors to the post, promising to ditch plastic bags for fresh produce across all stores by September. Customers will be encouraged to bring in their own receptacles for fruit and veg or buy a reusable bag made from recycled materials.

This initiative will be accompanied by the removal of plastic bags for bakery items, and altogether the supermarket believes it will be able to reduce plastic output by 489 tonnes annually using these two levers, making them a major part of the overall ambition to shave off 1,284 tonnes of plastic this year.

Packaged fruit and vegetables are also in the cutting line: plastic film, plastic trays from asparagus, sweetcorn, tomatoes and carrot, along with plastic sleeves from herb pots are all for the chop.

Meanwhile, in other retailers…

Back in May, Morrisons announced it was rolling out plastic-free fruit and veg aisles in 60 stores, after a 10-month trial across three stores found it boosted sales by as much as 40%. The scheme covers 127 varieties and would save an estimated three tonnes of plastic taste a week (156 tonnes a year).

The supermarket also unveiled paper carrier bags at its checkouts earlier this year, which it said would save 1,300 tonnes of plastic a year.

While Tesco isn’t going as big as some of the other supermarkets, it has launched a trial at its Watford and Swindon Extra stores to remove packaging across 45 foods, including apples, mushrooms, peppers, onions, bananas and avocados. If the model proves successful, it will extend it across its UK stores.

Iceland introduced a loose fresh produce aisle with 35 fruit and veg products in a Liverpool branch in March, ranging from bananas, oranges and limes to leeks, carrots to swedes, while Aldi has taken four varieties of cabbage and cauliflowers out of plastic in a trial in Scotland.

Back in January, Marks & Spencer not only removed best-before dates from items like potatoes, bananas, soft fruit and berries, but also singled out a south west London store to trial 90 new plastic-free fruit and veg in two aisles. Specially trained employees were also brought in as greengrocers to offer customers advice, including how best to preserve fresh produce and prevent food waste.

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