Plastic News

We give an update on what companies are doing to get rid of single use and non-recyclable plastic, and list campaigns that encourage them to do so.

According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now estimated to be three times the size of France, and 46% of it is composed of discarded nets and other kinds of fishing gear.

Aside from the environment, plastic could be affecting the health of humans and other animals. The WWF found that the average person ingests the equivalent of a credit card of plastic every week.

From these facts, it's clear that something's got to give. We must change the way that we interact with plastic.

How to avoid plastic waste

Plastic-free tips

Have you got any tips to share about how to live a plastic free life? Let us know and we’ll publish them on this page. Email enquiries{at}ethicalconsumer.org or post on our Facebook or Twitter

Here’s a few to start you off:

  • Avoid packaged vegetables by buying loose or getting a veg box; 
  • Carry a reusable cup, bottle and shopping bag; 
  • Get your milk delivered in glass bottles rather than buying plastics ones;   
  • Use tupperware boxes instead of clingfilm; 
  • Avoid coffee capsules which cannot be recycled.

You could also send us your tips about how to have a plastic-free Christmas.

Plastic- free Friday

Friends of the Earth have a really good website devoted to living without plastic. One of their initiatives is Plastic Free Friday, a similar idea to Meat Free Mondays, where people are encouraged to give up plastic for one day a week, to ease them into a longer term plastic-free life. Join the campaign - pledge to go plastic free on Fridays.

Plastic Free July

Plastic Free July is a global movement to provide resources and ideas to help everyone reduce single-use plastic waste everyday at home, work, school, and local businesses. Currently there are 177 countries involved. As well as tips, videos and challenges to sign up to, there's a global map of events such as talks, workshops and beach clean ups.

Sir David Attenborough's plastic message

Cover of report on plastics in supermarket with tomatoes under clear plastic
EIA / Greenpeace report Checking Out on Plastics III

Supermarket news: checking out on plastics

Supermarkets and their plastic footprint

The third annual plastics survey conducted by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Greenpeace UK showed that the ten leading supermarkets collectively put almost 900,000 tonnes of plastic packaging on the market in 2019.

That’s the equivalent weight of almost 90 Eiffel Towers.

According to Greenpeace: “Up to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans every year, and plastic pollution is now the biggest killer of marine life. Supermarkets are playing a major part in this tragedy, but they can also be a major part of the solution.”

The new report, Checking Out on Plastics III, by Greenpeace and EIA ranks the ten leading UK supermarkets in terms of their efforts to reduce plastic pollution, and this year’s scorecard shows Waitrose at the top for the second consecutive year, with Iceland at the bottom in tenth place.

The report also found that:

  • Aldi climbed from last place to second. They reduced their overall plastic footprint, removed single-use plastic carrier bags and committed to halve their plastic footprint by 2025.
  • Morrison’s slipped down to ninth place as their plastic use increased. A significant rise in plastic bags and water bottles is a particular area for concern.
  • More than 1.58 billion plastic ‘bags for life’ (which contain more plastic than thinner single-use bags) were issued in 2019, a 4.5 per cent increase over 2018. This represents almost 57 bags per UK household during the year.
  • The number of single-use plastic carrier bags issued fell by 33 per cent and several supermarkets (Aldi, Lidl, Iceland, M&S) have banned them entirely.
  • Almost 2.5 billion plastic water bottles were sold or given away in UK supermarkets in 2019.
  • While most companies reported reductions on own-brand plastic packaging, the percentage of branded packaging in 2019 increased by five per cent compared to 2017.

Read the full report Checking out on Plastics III and tell supermarkets to ditch throwaway plastic packaging.

Table ranking supermarkets for their action on plastic in 2019 and 2020
League table of UK supermarkets from Checking Out on Plastics III - report by Greenpeace & EIA

Bags for life and single-use plastic bags

Getting rid of single-use plastic carrier bags came one step closer in May 2021 when it was announced that the charge would double to 10p in England. Crucially this applies to all retailers, large and small.

Campaigners say that by charging more for bags for life, giving discounts to those who reuse them or bring in their own reusable bags, supermarkets could reduce demand.

When the 5p charge was introduced in 2015 in England, it only applied to businesses with more than 250 staff which meant that too many plastic bags were still finding their way into rivers and seas. According to Surfers Against Sewage:

“Plastic bags are one of the most common items of plastic pollution washed up on UK beaches and strewn across our natural spaces.”

In an unintended consequence of the original charge, some retailers have reported substantial increases in sales of long-life ‘bags for life’ – which contain more plastic – since ending the availability of free single-use plastic carrier bags in their stores.

Friends of the Earth plastics campaigner, Camilla Zerr, said: “It seems that many plastic ‘bags for life’ are being used just once, and not re-used for the bag’s lifetime, as is their purpose. So, while the increased charge for single-use bags should see good results, it won’t fix bigger problems. That’s because plastic bags are a drop in a heavily polluted ocean."

“If ministers want to get to the root of this problem, they need to take a tougher stand against all single-use plastics and support re-use and refill. For too long, government has allowed a piecemeal approach which is why targets that are legally binding are now needed, and urgently. ” said Camilla.

Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales administer their own schemes to reduce plastic bag use including setting their own prices. For example, Scotland increased its charge to 10p from April 2021.

We must do more than remove plastic bags from our stores

Whilst all the supermarkets have phased out 5p carrier bags and now just sell 10p plastic ‘bags for life’, Dr Sue Kinsey, senior pollution officer with the Marine Conservation Society, said:

“We are concerned that the difference between a five and a 10 pence charge may not be sufficient to change buyer behaviour further, given the volume and longevity of the material used in a plastic’ bag for life’. We keenly await the results of the change across the business to see if customers will be using their bags again and again.”

The Co-op’s pledge on plastic will see all its own-brand packaging become easy to recycle by 2023. But that’s not a ban on single use packaging just a ban on non-recyclable packaging. 

It has also promised to use a minimum of 50% recycled plastic in bottles, pots, trays and punnets by 2021. All own-brand black and dark plastic packaging, including black ready meal trays, will be eliminated by 2020. It will also roll out lightweight compostable carrier bags.

Lidl removed black plastic from fruit and veg range in September but that still leaves loads of other products like ready meals in black plastic.

M&S trials plastic-free fruit and veg

Marks and Spencer is launching a trial of 90 lines of plastic-free loose fruit and vegetables.

“M&S were ranked fourth out of the ten biggest supermarkets when Greenpeace assessed their plans to tackle plastic waste, so it’s encouraging that M&S is now being more ambitious when it comes to reducing its plastic footprint. 

“M&S must now go further and introduce plastic-free fruit and vegetable lines in all stores nationwide, and we urge other supermarkets to follow suit.” Elena Polisano, ocean plastics campaigner for Greenpeace UK.

Sainsbury’s agrees to cut plastic pollution 

Image: sainsburys couldnt care less campaign by greenpeace
Greenpeace activists place a sign reading “Couldn’t care less” under Sainsbury’s logo during an action at the supermarket’s London HQ to deliver 4,724 Twitter complaints.

In April 2019, Sainsbury’s announced steps to cut plastic packaging, to bring it closer in line with the other supermarkets.

A Greenpeace survey of supermarket plastic policies last year placed Sainsbury’s in last position and the group called on Sainsbury’s to set yearly plastic reduction targets, and start by eliminating unnecessary and unrecyclable plastic by 2020.

Following the report, Greenpeace launched a campaign targeting Sainsbury’s.

Most major supermarkets including Sainsbury’s have now committed to eliminating non-recyclable plastic packaging by as late as 2025 as part of the UK Plastics Pact. Many retailers have additional targets to eliminate problematic plastics such as PVC, expanded polystyrene and black plastic within the next two years.

Elena Polisano, ocean plastics campaigner for Greenpeace UK, responded to Sainsbury’s announcement: “We’re surprised Sainsbury’s has publicly announced that they’ve so far removed  309 tonnes of plastic as if that is an achievement - that’s just 0.25% of their 2018 plastic footprint.

“Greenpeace has been pressuring Sainsbury’s to tackle their plastic problem, and we’re pleased they’ve listened to us and to their own customers by moving away from black plastic and hard-to-recycle plastics, as other supermarkets are doing already.

“However, inviting customers to remove unwanted plastic packaging as they leave the store shows Sainsbury’s is missing the point. They’re producing too much plastic packaging in the first place and should be cutting it out rather than focusing on recycling and shifting responsibility for plastic packaging onto their customers.

“Sainsbury’s must go much further and set yearly reduction targets and pledge to eliminate unnecessary plastic by the end of next year.”

Meanwhile, Waitrose is surging ahead of the rest with plans to trial refillable options in-store.

What can consumers do?

Friends of the Earth is calling for:

  • Legally binding targets to reduce plastic pollution to be included in the Environment Bill.
  • Government and businesses to do far more to challenge the throwaway culture by prioritizing a circular economy through waste reduction, refill and reuse.
  • A Deposit Return Scheme for all drink containers (bottles, cans and cartons) to be introduced in 2023 as originally planned – not 2024 – in England*
  • An increase in drinking water fountains and water refill stations to reduce plastic bottle use.

You can also sign the FoE petition to demand a new law to end plastic pollution.

(*Scotland's Deposit Return Scheme was postponed from 2021 and is due to go live in July 2022. A consultation on a scheme for England, Northern Ireland and Wales closed in June 2021.)

Anti-plastic campaigns

Throwaway cup levy

The government introduced a 25p cup charge in Parliament and it’s seen a huge 74% decrease in cup usage. Urge the government to introduce a charge for the whole of the UK.

Ban single-use plastic cups in football stadiums

Give plastic the red card by signing the Friends of the Earth petition to make football stadiums plastic-free by getting them to ditch single-use plastic pint cups, bottles, coffee cups and stirrers.

Plastic can rings

Now that Walkers has succumbed to pressure from the public and announced the world’s first national recycling scheme for plastic crisp packaging, we know that we have a chance to improve packaging matters in other industries. Email Carling, Tennent’s and Strongbow asking them to get rid of plastic can rings like Corona, Guinness and Carlsberg.

Supermarket packaging

In September 2019, Greenpeace volunteers and shoppers have been handing items of single-use plastic packaging back at tills in over 60 supermarkets across the UK, with notes to store managers calling for action to reduce excessive throwaway packaging.

UK supermarkets generate more than 900,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year. Shoppers were encouraged to remove unnecessary plastic packaging from items they had purchased and leave it at the checkout, handing responsibility for its disposal back to the company selling it.

Greenpeace UK’s most successful environmental petition is asking supermarkets to reduce the volume of throwaway plastic packaging they produce. It has been signed by over 700,000 people across the UK.

Image: Walkers Crisps

Bread bag recycling scheme launched across the UK

A new initiative has been launched by Hovis and TerraCycle to encourage people to recycle the plastic bags that bread is sold in.

The Bread Bag Recycling Programme will create a network of bread bag recycling points with schools, charities and community groups. The plastic bread bags will then be turned into public benches and outdoor furniture. See the dog food guide for more on TerraCycle’s involvement in recycling pet food sachets.

Consumers can either register as a private collector and post collected bread bags to TerraCycle or locate a community collection point using a map on the TerraCycle website.

Only one in ten local authorities currently recycle bread plastic bags, according to Recoup. Most bread bags can also be recycled through the plastic bag collection points at larger supermarkets, but these are not being used to their full potential, maybe because consumers don’t realise they can recycle there.

Laure Cucuron, general manager for TerraCycle Europe, said:

 “Bread is a product that is consumed by many families on a daily basis so there is significant scope to alter consumer behaviour and to encourage people to recycle used bread bags.”

“Hovis is helping to lead the agenda for the bread industry and we hope to see more brands and industries making moves in the same direction.”

A better solution could be that manufacturers alter their behaviour and don’t sell bread in plastic bags, or there is some sort of refill scheme. A more sustainable option available now is to buy your bread unpackaged from your local baker.

Single-use plastics ban approved by European Parliament

On October 24th 2018, the European Parliament voted for a complete ban on a range of single-use plastics across the union in a bid to stop pollution of the oceans. EU states still have to back the directive, but is expected to go through in November and be law by the end of the year. 

The proposed directive contains: 

  • A ban on plastic cutlery and plates, cotton buds, straws, drink-stirrers and balloon sticks by 2021, because there are readily available alternatives for them.
  • A requirement that 90% of all plastic drinks bottles will need to be collected for recycling by 2025. Currently, bottles and their lids account for about 20% of all the sea plastic.
  • A requirement that single-use plastic for food and drink containers “where no alternative exists”, like plastic cups, burger boxes and sandwich wrappers, are reduced by 25% in each country by 2025.
  • An amendment requiring cigarette makers to reduce the plastic in cigarette filters by 50% by 2025 and 80% by 2030. Cigarette filters are a plastic pollutant that is common on beaches. A plan to tackle discarded fishing gear such as plastic lines and nets. They take about 600 years to biodegrade and account for nearly a third of all the marine litter found on EU beaches.

The European Commission proposed a ban in May, following a surge in public support attributed to documentaries such as David Attenborough’s BBC Blue Planet series.

One MEP said, if no action was taken, “by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans”.

The UK will have to incorporate the rules into national law if the ban becomes a fully-fledged directive before the end of a Brexit transition period.

UK legislation: the Environment Bill

The long-awaited Environment Bill has been delayed until autumn 2021, the third delay since 2018.

The Bill redraws rules post Brexit. Greenpeace have called it “the most important piece of environmental legislation for decades.”

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