Government is pushing for plastic-free aisles, but how realistic is this?

If supermarkets are reluctant to introduce the idea, is radical regulation on the way?

11 January 2018
image credit: deyangeorgiev/Thinkstock

A war on plastic waste has been declared by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, apparently.

Announcing a 25-year environmental plan, the Government aims to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042, as well as urging supermarkets to introduce plastics-free aisles and considering a tax on takeaway containers. May also said there will be a fund for new research into plastic innovation.

But the idea for plastic-free aisles in supermarkets is nothing new. Last year, former Asda CEO Andy Clarke called on supermarkets to create plastic-free aisles to cater to customer’s demands and showcase the alternative packaging available, including innovations like grass paper.

Clarke declared that a radical approach was needed to prevent plastics, after billions of pounds of investment in recycling had failed to resolve the world’s proliferation crisis.

But are the supermarkets ready to get radical?

What the supermarkets said

Late last year, Food Spark approached major retailers on Clarke’s idea and whether they were open to implementing such a strategy in their stores, as part of a story looking at what is changing with plastic packaging. Many chose not to answer the question, but Iceland was one retailer that was considering the implications of such a proposal.

On the idea, an Iceland spokesperson said: “We must be realistic about the challenges ahead and how best these can be addressed. Once we have a clear roadmap of what can be achieved, by when, and what the overall commercial implications are, we will publish our position in more detail.”

Aldi was “proud to have one of the highest proportions of loose fruit and vegetables of all British supermarkets, and continue to test and trial the removal of packaging throughout the range,” according to a spokesperson.

The discount supermarket said it was working closely with its suppliers to increase the proportion of recyclable material used, but there was not one single solution to stopping the problem.

“In tackling plastic pollution we believe that, rather than focusing efforts on one system and one waste stream, the most effective way to achieve this is through a fully developed and comprehensive approach to combatting littering, minimising waste and strengthening resource efficiency,” the Aldi spokesperson said.

At Co-op, the company selects packaging based on what is best for product safety, product shelf-life, and recyclability, a spokesperson said. “We are a convenience retailer, and as such our aisles offer a mix of packaged goods; however, there are a large number of items in stores that are not in plastic packaging, including canned goods, glass jars and bottles,” she said.

Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose didn’t directly address the question on introducing plastic free-aisles, but all said they were committed to reducing the impact of packaging waste on the environment.

A lot of hot air?

Many environmental groups are sceptical about May’s announcement, citing the Government’s poor record on green issues like air pollution, and adding that comprehensive legislation would be needed to implement many of the ambitions.

Greenpeace described the news as a missed opportunity, as there were no plans for a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles.

While supermarkets are working on innovative ideas for packaging, it may take a lot more than grand pronouncements for plastic-free aisles to make it into retailers.

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