Supermarkets failing to act quickly on single-use plastic, report says

Tess de la Mare, PA
·4 min read

The UK’s 10 largest supermarket chains put plastic equivalent to the weight of 90 Eiffel Towers on to the market in 2019, a report by two environmental charities has found.

In its third annual Checking Out On Plastics report, the charity revealed almost 900,000 tonnes of plastic packaging had passed through the tills of the biggest retailers.

The study, which was conducted in partnership with the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), found 2019 saw a dip of 1.6% on 2018’s plastic waste total.

But overall waste levels increased by 1.2% from 2017’s figure.

Greenpeace accused major names of “treading water” in their efforts to stem the flow of plastic waste.

The report found 1.58 billion plastic “bags for life” were issued across the top brands, dwarfing the number of single-use carrier bags, which fell by 33% to 525 million compared to 2018.

Elsewhere, it found 2.5 billion plastic water bottles were sold or given away.

The research found most supermarkets managed to reduce plastic packaging on their own-brand products but were being undermined by lack of action from brands they stocked.

Packaging on branded goods increased by 5% between 2017 and 2019.

Waitrose was found to have made the most progress, reducing packaging by 6.1% since 2017 through amending its own ranges and active engagement with its suppliers.

Waitrose trial
Waitrose was ranked top for its efforts to reduce waste (Waitrose & Partners/PA)

Aldi came in second – having come 10th in the previous survey – partly through eliminating single-use carrier bags and by reducing use of loose produce bags and sales of bags for life.

Iceland was ranked last.

Despite reducing plastic in its own products by 29% since 2017, increases in packaging on branded goods left its overall reduction between 2.7% and 3%.

The chain disputes its ranking, emphasising it is operating on a fraction of the scale of larger retailers who are responsible for the largest proportion of plastic waste.

Greenpeace and the EIA are calling on supermarkets to use their influence to force brands they stock to dramatically cut their plastic footprints, and refuse to stock those that will not change.

They also want the big chains to commit to ensuring at least 25% of packaging is reusable by 2025, increasing to 50% by 2030.

In addition, they argue retailers should ensure 75% of the packaging used in transport is reusable by 2025, rising to 90% by 2030.

Greenpeace and the EIA said there should be two distinct targets for consumer and transport packaging to ensure companies do not rely on reductions in the latter to meet their commitments.

They praised both Sainsbury’s and Aldi for pledging to reduce plastic packaging by 50% by 2025.

EIA senior campaigner Christina Dixon said: “We had hoped to see a much sharper downwards trajectory as strategies and targets bear fruit.”

Ms Dixon added: “We’d like to see supermarkets increasingly taking the fight to the big manufacturers and compelling them in turn to drive down their own plastic footprints.”

Nina Schrank, senior plastics campaigner at Greenpeace UK, urged all supermarkets to match the pledges made by Aldi and Sainsbury’s.

“How these commitments are met is also crucial,” she said.

“Half of that reduction should come from reuse and refill systems, so we can ensure that packaging stays in those systems and out of the environment.”

On its current trajectory, by 2040 the global plastics industry is forecast to have used up 19% of the Paris Agreement’s remaining carbon budget set out to limit global warming to 1.5C.

Plastic pollution
Millions of tonnes of single-use plastic end up in the ocean every year (Marcus Eriksen/5 Gyres Institute/PA)

The UK is one of the world’s biggest polluters, generating around 99kg of plastic waste per person each year.

Up to 40% of the single-use plastic generated each year is estimated to end up in the environment, usually in landfill.

Thirteen million tonnes is thought to leak into the ocean annually – a figure expected to triple by 2040 under a “business as usual” scenario.

Current Government and private sector targets will still only lead to a reduction of 7%.