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We grilled the major UK supermarkets on what they’re doing to reduce plastic waste


Why are we wrapping so many items in plastic? (Picture: Getty)

Our planet is facing a plastic crisis.

What once seemed like a cheap and convenient way to protect food is now choking our oceans, causing harm to marine life who are essential to our ecosystem. It also ends up on your plate, via fish who have consumed microplastics, mistaking it for food.

The oceans are expected to contain more plastic than fish by 2050. That’s terrifying. Even if you don’t care about the environment or climate change, think of your next holiday. It’s no fun wading through plastic bags and wrappers when you’re trying to nail that Insta shot, amirite?

Many of the major UK supermarkets have signed up to WRAP’s (Waste and Resources Action Programme) UK Plastics Pact – an industry initiative which aims to transform the way businesses use plastic and prevent plastics polluting the environment.

Luckily Greenpeace is also breathing down the necks of each and every one of these retailers – it’s conducting a survey of the UK’s 11 biggest grocery stores, asking them what their current plastic use is, what their plans to reduce plastic waste are, and when they intend to meet target. They’ll publish this in autumn.

For now, we wanted to hear what each of the major players is doing, and where we should be spending out hard-earned cash.

See how your local supermarket fares below.

Iceland is leading the charge when it comes to packaging (Picture: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

Iceland

Iceland is the main gamechanger, largely because they’re a family business and private company, so they’re able to invest money in the planet without greedy shareholders putting a stop to it in favour of profit.

‘If I was the boss of Tesco, I’d have been sacked by now as I’m about to load up a load of costs on the business,’  Iceland’s managing director Richard Walker tells Metro.co.uk. ‘But a ) I think it’s the right thing to do and b) I hope it will actually be self-funding.’

Earlier this year, it became the first supermarket to announce plans to go plastic-free on all own brand products – yup, that includes frozen delights such as veg, burgers and hash brown fries – and is hoping to complete the move by the end of 2023.

It’s also trialling reverse vending machines, which reward you with 10p to spend in store for each plastic bottle (purchased from the store) that’s recycled.

‘We’ve given ourselves five years to make the transition out of plastic which to be honest, we need,’ says Richard.

‘If I could do it quicker I would, but five years is realistic.’

Finding sustainable packaging for frozen produce is a big move, and there are a number of options.

‘The thing for me is end of life, and what happens to the packaging once you’ve used it,’ he explains.

‘Cellulose film technology has potential so long as it’s the new type of biodegradable type – the traditional type doesn’t biodegrade. We’re looking at a whole range of different options, and it’s a mix of tradition and some really cool innovation.

‘In terms of tradition – board trays. We use 100 million black plastic trays every year which is horrific as they’re single-use, high carbon to produce, and you can’t recycle them. We’re only 2.5% of the market, imagine how many Tesco produce – it doesn’t bear thinking about.

‘By the end of the year, we’ll have removed all those black plastic trays, which is awesome and we’ll have replaced it with sustainable wooden board trays, which is the first big step for us.

‘Then we’re looking at some bio materials like PLA which is fairly new, and we’re looking at some lightweight glass options and some aluminium, but mostly it’s board and paper. So our big bags of veg and stuff which are currently in flexible big plastic bags, they are going to be replaced probably with a paper bag type technology.’

However it’s not all exciting new innovation – Richard points out that part of it is just ‘being sensible’ by scrapping the plastic wrap from frozen burgers in boxes, and just housing them in the box.

The company is also replacing plastic loyalty cards with a high quality card, which is ‘as durable as plastic’.

Bananas happy and loose in Morrisons (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Morrisons

Morrisons is working with the UK Plastic Pact, to ensure that all of its own-brand plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

One of the first pieces of packaging to be replaced will be black plastic trays, used for fresh meat and fish, which will be phased out by the end of 2019.

The supermarket also announced that it will reward customers with 100 loyalty points (worth 10p) if they bring their own plastic containers in for deli meat and fish.

Morrisons also introduced 100% recyclable brown paper bags instead of plastic bags for loose produce in 493 of its stores, with the intention of rolling out to the rest by the end of summer.

It’s working through its own brand products to identify, reduce and remove any unnecessary plastic packaging, and is trialling the effect of removing plastic packaging from fruit and vegetables in a number of stores.

The aim is to look at how plastic packaging which keeps food fresh, can be reduced without increasing food waste. The company does not know when results for this trial are expected.

Water fountains will also be installed in new stores, on top of water being made freely available in its cafés for customers who want to refill their water bottles.

 

Sainsbury’s

Sainsbury’s is also part of the UK Plastics Pact, with the aim of making all own brand packaging 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. Out of that, it wants 70% of plastic packaging to be effectively recycled or composted.

83% of their own brand packaging is already widely recyclable – they’ve also reduced their own brand packaging by 35% since 2005 and 40% of their packaging already uses recycled content.

My local big supermarket is a Sainsbury’s and I get some of my fruit and veg there, and some at the nearby greengrocer. I take my reusable produce bags and buy loose wherever possible, but annoyingly, sometimes that isn’t possible. There are loads of packaged mushroom options (in non-recyclable brown plastic trays) but hardly ever any loose mushrooms in the tray when I go.

‘We offer fruit and veg without packaging where we can, as long as it doesn’t compromise the quality and shelf life of the product,’ says Sophie Williams, Senior Media Relations Manager at Sainsbury’s.

‘With mushrooms, for example, we offer them both loose and packaged but we have to limit the amount of loose ones on display, to limit waste. This is because they deteriorate that bit quicker without protection. We replenish them as quickly as we can but if you ever struggle to bag enough, give one of our colleagues a shout and they’ll replenish the punnet for you.

‘There should be some out the back, covered up in the dark.’

Sainsbury’s also invests in recycling facilities at their stores for things that can’t be recycled kerbside i.e. single-use plastic bags, produce bags and trays that say ‘recycled at recycling point’.

Do those apples really need to be in bags?
(Picture: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Tesco

Tesco is part of UK Plastics Pact, which aims to make all own brand packaging 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

In May, Tesco announced its ambition for a closed loop system, and called on the government to ‘establish a consistent recycling infrastructure across the UK where variations in current levels of actual recycling are extreme’.

It’s working with its suppliers to redesign and reduce all packaging materials, and will remove all packaging that is hard to recycle from their business by 2019.

In October 2017, Tesco announced its Little Helps Plan where it said its aims are to make all packaging fully recyclable or compostable, all paper and board 100% sustainable and to halve packaging weight against a 2007 baseline. It aims to have all of this done by 2025.

 

Waitrose

Waitrose is part of the UK Plastics Pact, which again aims to make all own brand packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

80% of their packaging is already widely recyclable and they have reduced overall packaging by nearly 50% since 2009.

Black plastic is ‘a top priority’ for Waitrose, as it can’t be recycled and so far, they’ve removed 65% of black plastic packaging from fresh fruit and vegetables. From the end of this year they will stop using black packaging altogether for their meat, fish and fruit and veg. They’re committed to stop using black plastic packaging for all our own label goods by the end of 2019.

Last October, Waitrose trialled a food by-product punnet for Waitrose Duchy cherry and baby plum tomatoes which was made out of tomato leaf and recycled cardboard, as well as pulp punnets for Essential Waitrose cup mushrooms.

The tomato trial was a success and Waitrose Duchy cherry tomatoes on the vine will be in the tomato leaf and recycled cardboard tray from mid June. The remaining four Waitrose Duchy tomato lines will be in the new brown packaging from the end of July. This is great as it uses materials which would otherwise be wasted.

When questioned why there’s so much fruit and veg in (mostly non-recyclable) plastic packaging in the first place, Waitrose said: ‘We offer a range of loose fruit and vegetables. Packaging provides a range of benefits such as ensuring a product is not mis-sold, for example an organic banana accidentally being placed with non-organic loose versions.’

This is fine but a sustainable version of that packaging needs to be developed – and why then are there also non-organic bananas sold in bags?

They also said that packaging allows on-pack messaging, which it describes as ‘a combination of legal requirements, health advice and product specific information’ but we’re talking about fruit and veg here – your local market manages to sell their produce without all of this?

One thing we see a lot is twin packs of avocados. This doesn’t just happen in Waitrose, but we were shocked to see the twin packs in double-layered plastic packaging, when other stores use a cardboard tray.

Waitrose argues that the avocado packaging has been proven to increase shelf life by one day – but is that one day really worth it? The store also says the packaging allows ease and safety of transportation throughout the supply chain, reducing waste – but the loose ones always seem pretty great to me.

My mum uses Waitrose’s single-use coffee filters, which are made from a plastic that sits on top of your cup, but I was horrified when I noticed that the plastic is non-recyclable. When asked about this, Waitrose said: ‘We’re currently working on switching our single-use coffee filters to a widely recyclable version.’

Waitrose switched to paper straws from plastic in its cafés in April, and will stop selling single-use plastic straws by the end of the year. It’s also slowly phasing out disposable coffee cups.

Can’t we just have the loose peppers? (Picture: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Asda

Again, Asda is part of the UK Plastic Pact, which hopes to ensure all own-brand plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

‘As a starting point, we’ve committed to reducing the amount of plastic in our own-brand packaging by 10% by next February and are well on our way to delivering that,’ an Asda spokesperson told Metro.co.uk.

The Asda website states ‘We include scoops in some of our packs like batter mix and Scottish oats to help customers use the right amount’ and when Metro.co.uk questioned Asda about whether these are a) necessary and b) recyclable, their spokesperson said: ‘The scoops issue you raise is new to me, but our teams are reviewing the entire own-brand range, so I’m sure they will be looking at this as part of their work.’ Doesn’t sound like a dead cert to us.

Asda is changing its polystyrene bases in its pizzas to cardboard, removing 178 tonnes of plastic from customers’ homes. It will also switch the 2.4 million plastic straws used in their cafés each year to paper. By changing their coloured drinks bottles to clear plastic, 500 more tonnes of plastic will be recycled.

It will use more single polymer material in their packaging to make it easier to recycle. They will also switch from glued pads to loose in their meat, fish and poultry trays to ensure as much of the packaging can be recycled as possible

The company hasn’t given date targets for the above, but in its Plastic Unwrapped manifesto, President and CEO Roger Burnley says: ‘We’ll regularly share our progress and new ideas.’

All Asda stores have carrier bag recycling bins, which can also recycle certain plastic film.

 

M&S

M&S updated Plan A 2025 in June 2017, setting out three big goals, one of which was to become a zero-waste business by 2025.

It aims to do this by ensuring that all M&S product packaging in the UK becomes ‘widely recyclable’ (not just ‘recyclable’ which often means it can’t be easily recycled at kerbside) by 2022. It’s already 85% there, by weight.

It’s also assessing the fesability of making all M&S plastic packaging from one polymer to simplify recycling, by 2022. It’s already gone from 11 polymers in 2007, to the current four.

M&S is also part of the UK Plastic Pact, which aims to make all own brand packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

We have to say though, that the supermarket’s packaging manifesto is a little self-congratulatory at times, making out they cared about the planet before it was cool.

Pipe down huns, and direct your energy into reducing packaging – say for example, your bananas. Why sell loose and packaged bananas of the same sort? Bananas have their own protective skin. Leave them be.

Do we really need to gouse lettuce in non-recyclable plastic? (Picture: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Lidl

Lidl is part of the UK Plastic Pact, which aims to ensure all own-brand plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

The supermarket has launched a new packaging and plastic waste strategy, called ‘Circular Motion’, to simultaneously tackle food and plastic waste.

This includes reducing plastic packaging in own brand products by 20% and increasing recycle content in packaging to 50% by 2025.

 

Aldi

Aldi is also in the UK Plastic Pact, which means it hopes to make all own brand plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

Aldi also has its own plastic packaging pledges, aiming to reduce packaging by 50% and have of that made from 50% recycled materials, by 2025.

The store is also looking into a bottle deposit return scheme, to encourage recycling in store.

The store will keep the public updated on its progress, starting from 2019.

The war on plastic is a difficult one, and there have been some arguments that plastic alternatives e.g. glass, are actually worse for the environment as they’re heavier to transport.

‘To be fair, everything has two sides to the argument and there is no such thing as a free lunch,’ says Iceland’s Richard Walker.

‘Some people say plastic is lightweight and glass is heavy, so if you’re trucking round lots of glass, that’s more carbon emissions, and that’s true, but they seem to forget that plastic is made from a finite, fossilised carbon that we dig out the ground in the form of oil, which is about as bad for climate change as it gets.

‘If we’re using board trays, I’ve been to the mill and to the forest in Finland, which is FSC certified. For every tree they chop down, they plant four, so it’s actually a reforestation programme, which is cool.

‘I think it’s really important to witness, investigate and see the alternatives and properly understand because we don’t just want to shift the problem.’

Some supermarkets argue that plastic is still sometimes the best solution.

‘In some cases, plastic is still the best solution when you consider the complete environmental impact,’ Asda’s spokesperson tells Metro.co.uk. ‘But we’re working with partners such as the packaging experts at Leeds Beckett University to look for viable and scalable alternatives.’

There’s also the issue that loose fruit and veg is often more expensive than the packaged version of the same quality, so customers are given no incentive to choose loose. It’s usually cheaper to buy two avocados wrapped up in plastic than two loose ones, and in my local Sainsbury’s, three loose bell peppers costs 50% more than buying a (non-recyclable) plastic bag of three.

Why does being eco-friendly have to cost more? When we asked Sainsbury’s about this, we were told to speak to the BRC (British Retail Consortium) who we are awaiting an answer from.

However, it’s not just the supermarkets who need to pull their fingers out – it’s us, the consumers.

Always vote with your wallet – at the end of the day, most businesses care more about profit than the planet. If they see that consumers are choosing more eco-friendly options or defecting to competitors who give more of a sh*t, then they’ll take action.

Use reusable produce bags and buy loose wherever possible – the bags actually keep your produce fresh in the fridge. Plus, you reduce food waste by only buying what you need, not what a packaging size dictates to you.

It goes without saying – we need to make sure we’re all recycling properly. 91% of plastic bottles aren’t actually recycled, and that’s outrageous. We think it won’t make a difference if we’re pout and about and can’t see a recycling bin, so just chuck our soda bottle in the regular trash, but imagine if we all do that? Put the bottle in your bag until you find a recycling point.

And always make sure you wash your recycling – food scraps in recycling can cause entire loads of otherwise good recycling to be diverted to landfill.

We all have to pull together, as retailers and consumers, to try to make even the tiniest dent in reversing how much damage we’ve done to the planet.

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