Earlier this year, over 40 major UK businesses pledged to eradicate single-use (non-recyclable) plastics from their packaging by 2025. The voluntary move by some of the country’s biggest names, part of the UK Plastics Pact, was hailed as "bold and collaborative". Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Lidl all signed the pact, and they were joined by food-and-drink giants including Coca-Cola, Nestle, Unilever and Danone.
The promise was a significant one, although many campaigners responded by arguing that seven years is a long time to wait – a valid enough point, but for 100% of plastic in supermarkets to become recyclable, reusable or compostable, it will mean significant changes to packaging, as well as delivery and production processes.
These actions won’t happen unless we, as consumers, get behind them and pressurise our supermarkets to get on board
Brands – in particular supermarkets, with their vast buying power – will need to double their efforts and solve challenges such as how to recycle coloured plastics, thin-film plastics and laminates (where different materials are bonded together). They will also need to work to better understand consumer behaviour.
These plans won’t happen overnight, however. And, bearing in mind that the pact is not a compulsory one, they won’t happen unless we, as consumers, pick up the mantle and keep on pressurising our supermarkets to take action.
So, what things are our local supermarkets doing right now to help us shop a little smarter? Behind all the daily headlines and announcements, just how eco-friendly is my local food store? I decided to find out…
Sainsbury’s say they have already reduced their own-brand packaging by 35%. In the meantime, look out for:
- Cleaning products – last year Sainsbury’s changed the spray bottles in cleaning products, meaning that the whole bottle – including the trigger – can now be recycled.
- Shopping, food and produce bags – Sainsbury’s now offers recycling facilities in stores not just for carrier bags, but for produce bags, and some cereal and bread bags.
MY VERDICT: a bit lame – as consumers, we need to keep on campaigning, or progress in these retail giants will be painfully low. This applies to Tesco, too.
MARKS & SPENCER
M&S was way ahead of the curve when they launched their sustainability project Plan A back in 2007. They have big plans for the future, too – by 2022 they aim not just to phase out single-use plastics, but for the rest of their packaging to become “widely recyclable”. To do this, one of the things they aim to do is to produce all their plastic from one polymer, making recycling simpler for the authorities and consumer. In the meantime, look out for:
- Cutlery and drinks – this summer, plastic cutlery in store will be replaced by FSC-certified wooden alternatives and plastic straws used in M&S Cafés by paper ones.
- Cashmere – they are taking protective plastic covers off half a million cashmere jumpers.
- Tea bags – M&S is currently taking plastics out of all 450 million tea bags they sell. They are replacing plastic in coffee pods with recyclable aluminium.
MY VERDICT: M&S isn’t wowing us with big headline-grabbing moves, yet, but I believe their approach of careful research and focus on actioning things will make a real impact, and will pay off in the long run.
Tesco says it wants to work with the government “to establish a consistent recycling infrastructure across the UK”. In the meantime, look out for:
- Bread – all plastic-film packaging for bread made in 100 in-store bakeries is being removed and replaced with paper or bring-your-own bags by the end of 2019.
- Bags for life – single-use carrier bags are being phased out with bags for life made from 94% recycled plastic.
MY VERDICT: Tesco’s intention may be an ambitious one, but, given that the quality of recycling services varies from area to area, it is a good call. Only the power of a big brand like Tesco could persuade politicians to get behind it.
When it comes to UK supermarkets, Iceland was the first to pledge its intention to eliminate plastic packaging from all of its own label products by the end of 2023. In the meantime, look out for:
- Plastic-free labelling – Iceland has adopted the plastic-free Trust Mark on own-brand products. This label is awarded to food and drink products that are packaged without plastic.
- Reverse vending machines – the first one, in its Fulham (London) store has been installed in support of the government’s proposed Deposit Return Scheme (DRS).
MY VERDICT: Iceland started out making a big splash at the beginning of this year, but recent actions (or lack of) suggest that these moves may have been more for PR purposes than anything else.
Morrisons has stopped selling its single-use carrier bags and has been motoring on with new eco-friendly switches. Look out for:
- Meat and fish counters – in a bid to reduce packaging, customers are now allowed to bring in their own containers for meat and fish.
- Plastic-free fruit and veg aisles – there are now trials underway at certain stores that are looking at how plastic packaging can be reduced without increasing food waste.
- An end to black plastic trays – used for fresh meat and fish, black plastic is notoriously hard to recycle. Morrisons are phasing these out by the end of 2019.
- Drinking water fountains into new stores – plus, the supermarket has already made water freely available in its cafés for customers who want to refill their water bottles.
- Paper straws and cotton buds with paper stems – plastic ones have been phased out.
MY VERDICT: Morrisons seem to be quietly and consistently working on small actions that do make a difference, such as packaging in fresh produce. I say, watch this space.
Asda has already removed 500 tonnes of plastic by reducing the weight of their water bottles. In the next 12 months, look out for:
- Cardboard pizza boards – Asda is replacing the polystyrene boards with cardboard, stopping 178 tonnes of waste going into landfills.
- Reusable coffee cups – the supermarket is selling zero-profit reusable coffee cups as a cheap alternative to single-use cups.
- Paper drinking straws – 2.4m plastic straws are being replaced with paper ones in all cafes.
- Clear plastics – Asda is switching from coloured plastic to clear, starting with their soft-drink range. This is to help make at least 1,000 tonnes of packaging more recyclable.
- Single-polymer materials – like M&S, Asda proposes to use more single-polymer materials in their packaging to make it easier to recycle.
- An end to carrier bags – single-use carrier bags are being phased out in favour of bags for life.
MY VERDICT: Asda is making good progress and has committed to some clear programmes.
Waitrose has signed up to the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, a project finding solutions to abandoned fishing equipment in the sea, such as nets – often referred to as “ghost gear” – which can damage the environment and harm marine animals. In store, look out for:
- Innovative packaging that replaces plastic – for example, tomato punnets made from tomato vine and recycled paper, and gluten-free pasta boxes partly made from waste peas and lentils. Waitrose currently trials two own-label Italian ready meals in wood-fibre based trays with a purpose-made coating, which replace the black plastic they're normally in.
- Bin liners – earlier this year all Waitrose own-label bin liners were switched to 100% recycled plastic.
- Paper-stem cotton-buds, straws and easier-to-recycle food packaging – in summer 2017, Waitrose made sandwich wrappers easier to recycle as the cardboard can be separated from the plastic film much more easily.
MY VERDICT: Waitrose is known for high standards for responsible sourcing. I’d like to see more initiatives, but this is a good start.
Lidl claims to have one of the highest proportions of loose fruit and vegetables of all British supermarkets. In the meantime, look out for:
- Straws – packs of plastic straws have now been replaced by paper ones.
- Cotton buds – plastic-stemmed cotton buds have been replaced with biodegradable stems.
- Bags for life – by the end of this year Lidl will stop selling reusable plastic bags and in their place sell bags for life.
MY VERDICT: could do better.