Over the past five years, the issue of plastic pollution has gone from being a peripheral hurdle for retailers to being critical in terms of public image. Earlier this year, research from Ubamarket revealed that more than a third of consumers wouldn’t buy products from companies that are known to have poor environmental standards when it comes to packaging.
In response to the spotlight on packaging, major UK retailers have outlined plans to reduce the amount of plastic waste they contribute every year, with the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Greenpeace both pushing hard for decent, lasting change.
This began in earnest with a survey in 2018, ‘Checking Out on Plastics,’ which revealed the full extent of major supermarkets’ contribution to the plastic waste problem.
The follow up to this, ‘Checking Out on Plastics II,’ was unleashed this week and was designed “to gain insight into how the sector is working to tackle plastic pollution, and to track progress towards targets and policies reported in our '2018 Checking Out on Plastics’ survey.”
The results show the 10 biggest supermarket chains in the UK collectively increasing their single-use plastic packaging use from 2017 to 2018, by 17,000 tonnes, to a total of 903,000.
The report claims that the increase in plastic packaging was driven by sales of branded products, with plastic associated with these items increasing by nearly 20,000 tonnes.
Individually, seven of the 10 major UK supermarkets reported a higher plastic packaging tonnage in 2019 than in the previous survey, with only Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury’s decreasing their overall plastic packaging footprint.
Asda, Lidl and Aldi were at the bottom of the survey’s ‘league table,’ with companies’ year-on-year growth in packaging generally correlated to increases in sales: Aldi’s sales were up 12.1%, accompanied by an 8,000-tonne rise in plastic; Asda’s sales were up 3.5%, accompanied by 5,300 tonnes of plastic; and Lidl’s sales were up 8.1%, accompanied by 3,000 tonnes of plastic.
Recyclability – cited as a focus area across the industry – is another let-down area, according to the survey, with the percentage of own-brand plastic packaging classed as ‘widely recycled’ said to have dropped from 64.7% in 2017 to 63.8% in 2018 on a weight basis.
On a per-item basis, due to the presence of more numerous but lighter materials such as films, Greenpeace and EIA suggest that “about two-thirds of supermarkets’ own brand plastic packaging items cannot be widely recycled.”
Own-brand vs overall
Target: Remove all own-brand plastic packaging by 2023
Own-brand plastic packaging report (2018-2019): -2,100 tonnes, 16% decrease
Overall plastic packaging report (2018-2019): +784 tonnes, 2.6% increase
Sales change (2017-2018): +5%
Target: 10% reduction in primary plastic packaging between 2018 -2020
Change in own-brand plastic packaging (2018-2019): +21 tonnes, 0% change
Change in overall plastic packaging (2018-2019): +559 tonnes, 2.2% increase
Change in sales (2017-2018): +1.2%
Target: 20% reduction in own-brand plastic packaging between 2017 -2022 (relative to £ revenue, based on net turnover)
Own-brand plastic packaging report (2018-2019): +3,636 tonnes, 8% increase
Overall plastic packaging report (2018-2019): +3,080 tonnes, 5.5% increase
Sales change (2017-2018): +8.1%
Target: Remove 6,500 tonnes of own-brand plastic packaging by 2019 relative to 2017 sales
Own-brand plastic packaging report (2018-2019): +653 tonnes, 1% increase
Overall plastic packaging report (2018-2019): +5,300 tonnes, 4.1% increase
Sales change (2017-2018): +3.5%
Target: 25% like-for-like reduction in own brand plastic packaging by weight by 2025 (2017 baseline).
Own-brand plastic packaging report (2018-2019): -2,634 tonnes, 5% decrease
Overall plastic packaging report (2018-2019): +2,292 tonnes, 2.8% increase
Sales change (2017-2018): +2.2%
‘Check Out on Plastics II’ addresses the plastic bag situation too, with the ‘bags for life’ concept developing into quite the problem over the past two years.
The number of these bags – which are said to contain three times as much harmful plastic as ‘single-use’ bags – sold by just eight of the UK’s leading supermarkets reached 1.24bn in 2019, up from 960m bags in 2018.
Iceland, Tesco and Aldi were the worst offenders in terms of bags for life, the report says, with Iceland reporting “a near 10-fold increase in bag for life sales, from 3.5m in 2017 to 34m last year.”
It’s clear that doing away with single-use plastic bags hasn’t deterred people from changing their single-use ways, with these bags for life simply taking their place.
Greenpeace UK ocean plastics campaigner Fiona Nicholls said: “Despite pledging plastic reductions, supermarkets are pumping out more plastic than ever – and so-called bags for life are a symptom of that.”
Recommended single-use packaging targets from EIA and Greenpeace
- Set ambitious reduction targets and map out long-term plans for cutting single-use plastic, with shorter term milestones built in.
- Support a wholescale transition towards packaging-free ranges and reuse and refill systems.
- Eliminate all non-recyclable plastic polymers and packaging formats by the end of 2020.
- Avoid false solutions involving non-conventional plastics (bio-based, biodegradable, compostable).
- Promote shorter supply chains and seasonal produce,
- End sales and free provision of single-use items.
- End sale of single-use plastic bags and plastic ‘bags for life’ or increase the minimum price to at least 70p and offer reusable produce bags.
The EIA and Greenpeace note that the top 10 UK supermarkets all now have targets to reduce their plastic packaging footprint. Iceland are among the most ambitious (100% removal of single use plastic packaging from own-brand by the end of 2023) despite having dropped from first place in the 2018 plastics survey to seventh in 2019.
And they have been the most outspoken since the survey dropped last week, with the frozen giants sending out letters to 400 its supplier outlining plans for greater support and collaboration in tackling the plastics problem.
Interestingly, Iceland have said in the aftermath that a recent trial for loose fruit and veg, an encouraged concept among environmental groups, was scrapped after a 30% drop in sales. The trial also increased wastage, said the supermarket’s MD Richard Walker.
Conversely, Waitrose has reported an “overwhelming customer response” to a similar trial – Waitrose Unpacked – which removes the need for packaging for a multitude of products, with consumers instead encouraged to “fill up” with their own jars, pots and bottles.