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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 or add to our plastic-free kitchen article.

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.

The new plastic tax doesn’t go far enough

From 1st April 2022, a plastic tax has been applied to plastic packaging manufactured in or imported into the UK that is less than 30% recycled. The tax will be charged at a rate of £200 per tonne.

City to Sea's CEO and Founder, Natalie Fée commented,

“Although we’ve been demanding a plastic tax for years, this plastic tax doesn’t go nearly far enough. This tax will undoubtedly drive up recycled content rates of single-use plastics, which is positive and welcome. It won’t, though, address the underlying problem of our throw-away single-use consumer culture. And it won’t reduce the amount of plastic that we produce. That’s why City to Sea proposed a tax on all single-use plastic items.”

To make the government understand the scale of the problem of plastic waste, Greenpeace initiated The Big Plastic Count which took place in May 2022. People were invited to count their plastic waste for a week.

The Big Plastic Count results were published in July, and average participating household threw away 66 pieces of plastic in a week. Using those figures the organisers, Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic, estimate that the UK throws out nearly 100 billion pieces of plastic a year.

Greenpeace UK will use the results of The Big Plastic Count to push the UK government to introduce stricter policies to reduce plastic waste.

These include setting a target to reduce the UK’s single-use plastic by 50% by 2025, banning all plastic waste exports and implementing an all-in Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) for recycling and reuse.

Fruit and vegetables individually wrapped in 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.

(*Scotland's Deposit Return Scheme was postponed from 2021 and 2022 and is now due to go live in August 2023. 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.

Our coffee shop guide reviews which shops are taking action to reduce their use of disposable cups and encourage reusable ones.

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.

Some beers have wasteful excess packaging that is damaging to the environment, in particular the plastic rings that sometimes hold together multipack cans. Not only do these use petrochemicals and add to microplastic pollution, but they also endanger animals, getting tangled around them.

More and more companies are moving away from these, along with ditching shrink wrap packaging. If you do find yourself purchasing beer with ring carriers, the plastic may be recycled by supermarket collection schemes.

Our beer guide has more information of what beer companies are doing about tackling waste in their industry.

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 be law by the end of 2021. 

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.

In 2021 Scotland passed legislation to ban some single-use plastics from June 2022.

Plastic waste including bottles, blister packs and bags

It's time for a global plastics treaty

Plastic produced by the oil industry and big corporations like Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Nestlé, is ruining the health of communities across the world and killing wildlife.

Microplastics have been found on Mount Everest, in the 11 km deep Marianna trench in the Pacific, and in the Arctic.

Microplastics are building up in the air we breathe, our food and even our bodies. A WWF study has shown that we could be eating as much as “a credit card’s worth of microplastic every week”.

As plastic pollution is a global problem it needs a global solution. A ‘Global Plastics Treaty’ is gaining momentum led by campaign groups like Greenpeace. A strong treaty would finally give governments the power to hold polluters to account and would be a huge step towards a plastic-free future.

The first of its kind, according to Greenpeace, a strong treaty on plastics must:

  1. Be mandatory, not voluntary.
  2. Hold governments to account for their countries’ waste.
  3. Force big brands like Coca Cola and Nestlé to produce less plastic.
  4. Ensure richer countries fuelling the plastic crisis support poorer countries to tackle it.
  5. Keep oil in the ground – 99% of plastic is made from oil and gas.

Sign the petition supporting the Global Plastics Treaty at action.greenpeace.org.uk/global-plastic-treaty

New UK legislation: the Environment Act 2021

The long-awaited Environment Act was delayed until autumn 2021, the third delay since 2018 but is now law in the UK.

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

The Act will set clear statutory targets for the recovery of the natural world in four priority areas: air quality, biodiversity, water and waste, and includes a new target to reverse the decline in species abundance by the end of 2030.

It will clamp down on "illegal deforestation and protect rainforests, through a package of measures will ensure that greater resilience, traceability and sustainability are built into the UK’s supply chains."

It also makes specific provision for review and revision of requirements.