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Supermarkets treading water in ocean of plastic packaging

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. In this article we review the current situation and what actions you can take.

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 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 supermarket plastic league table

Table ranking supermarkets for their action on plastic in 2019 and 2020
League table ranking supermarkets for their efforts to reduce plastic - from EIA / Greenpeace report Checking Out on Plastics III

Tesco, Sainsbury’s, ASDA, Morrisons and Aldi are the five biggest supermarkets in the UK. Because they have more stores and more customers, they produce a lot more plastic than some of the other supermarkets in the league table. That means they have a responsibility to lead the way – and an opportunity to have the biggest impact.

EIA Senior Campaigner Christina Dixon said: “In our third year of looking at plastic packaging in UK supermarkets, we had hoped to see a much sharper downwards trajectory as strategies and targets bear fruit. Instead, we are looking at a relatively static picture which represents a drop in the ocean of tackling plastic pollution. The sector urgently needs to pick up the pace of plastic reduction.”

Other findings in the survey include:

  • 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.

Own-brand vs branded plastic packaging

Dixon from EIA said: “Supermarket targets and reduction efforts are primarily focused on own-brand plastic packaging, which makes sense as they have more direct control over the supply chain.

“However, this means that the amount of packaging used for popular branded goods is not reducing, and 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. This can be achieved through sourcing policies that reflect packaging reduction requirements and the phasing out of problematic plastics, working with brands to test alternatives and, ultimately, pledges to de-list suppliers which will not comply.”

The worst plastic polluters were Coca-Cola, Pepsico and Nestle according to Changing Markets Foundation in their 2020 report Talking Trash.

Reuse and refill

A key recommendation of Checking Out on Plastics III is for supermarkets to devise strategies that include specific targets for increasing reusable and refillable packaging and delivery systems, both in-store and online, as a way to reduce unnecessary plastic packaging. Greenpeace is calling for 25% of packaging to be reusable by 2025, and 50% reusable by 2030.

Nina Schrank, Senior Plastics Campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said:

“All supermarkets should follow Sainsbury’s, and now Aldi, in committing to reduce plastic packaging by 50 per cent by 2025, at the very least. How these commitments are met is also crucial. 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.”

The effect of Covid

The pandemic has changed the way in which supermarkets must address plastic packaging. Panic-buying, increased demand and issues with supply chains initially forced supermarkets to loosen packaging requirements. Non-recyclable black plastic and plastic egg boxes made a return. However, the supermarket’s packing requirements did go back to normal in most cases after the first wave.

In some cases the disruption actually led to a decrease in plastic. Pieces of packaging like yogurt pot lids became unavailable, which helped supermarkets to realise that they weren’t actually necessary.

The supermarkets have been making massive profits during the pandemic. But these profits shouldn’t be lining the pockets of executives or shareholders. Instead supermarkets have a responsibility to build back better from the pandemic.

Checking Out on Plastics III argues that the growth in online shopping under the coronavirus pandemic should be seen as a major opportunity to ramp up reuse systems, such as doorstep deliveries of reusable containers, which can be picked up, washed and refilled before being sent out again – an innovation put into practice by Tesco and its partnership with Loop, an initiative from the recycling company TerraCycle.

Government action

To create a level playing field for businesses, the Government should:

  • set legally binding targets to reduce the use of single-use plastic overall,
  • incentivise retailers to introduce reuse and refill systems through the new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme, and
  • deliver a deposit return scheme for drinks containers of all materials and sizes. (This has been approved in Scotland.)

In addition, EIA and Greenpeace UK firmly believe Government-mandated reporting for companies’ plastic use is essential to achieve transparency and accuracy for both retailers and brands.

Take Action

Add your name to the Greenpeace petition and tell UK supermarkets to ditch throwaway plastic packaging.

Read the Checking Out on Plastics III report.