The full extent of major UK supermarkets’ contribution to the plastic waste problem has been revealed in an analysis on the sector by Greenpeace.
Drawing on figures disclosed by firms for the first time, the survey of Britain’s largest supermarkets and grocery chains has shown that 10 retailers are placing over 810,000 tonnes of single-use plastic on the market annually.
From this, seven are putting in circulation the equivalent of 59 billion pieces of plastic packaging, said Greenpeace.
Half of the supermarkets surveyed have no specific targets to reduce plastic packaging, with most of those who do moving at a slow pace (just 5% per year) that it would take them 20 years to eliminate throwaway plastic from their shelves.
The survey by Greenpeace UK and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) also ranks the retailers based on their commitments to decrease single-use plastic, eliminate non-recyclable plastic packaging, engage with supply chains and transparent reporting.
Retailer Iceland comes out ahead due to a plan to phase out its own-brand plastic packaging within five years.
Tesco and Asda are lagging further down on the scoreboard, while Sainsbury’s comes last.
Following announcements from retailers about their action on plastic waste, the survey aimed to establish how far they are actually going to tackle the problem. It found that:
- On top of the plastic packaging, the ten leading supermarkets are also producing 1.1 billion single-use bags, almost one billion bags for life and 1.2 billion plastic bags for fruit and vegetables
- Many have not yet adopted plastic-specific reduction targets, including Aldi, Co-op, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose
- Only four supermarkets offer customers some options to use refillable containers
- In general, retailers are focusing more on recycling than reduction, and most have only committed to phase-out non-recyclable plastic packaging by 2025. Co-op tops the leadership for share of own-brand products that are widely recyclable (79%), while others fall behind, with around a third of their plastic (by weight) not widely recyclable
- Despite branded goods making up as much as 60% of retailers’ plastic packaging, few were able to provide evidence that they’re using their buying power to push consumer brands to reduce their plastic footprint
- Many supermarkets have taken action to end sales or provision of disposable items such as straws, cutlery and cotton buds, with many committed to eliminate the most problematic forms of plastic, such as PVC, expanded polystyrene and black plastic, within the next two years
- No supermarket has pledged to completely remove plastic that can’t be recycled from its shelves before 2022
- Ocado was the only major grocery retailer who refused to participate in the survey, along with convenience chains, Spar, Premier Stores, Londis, Lifestyle Express and Best-One.
Greenpeace UK oceans campaigner Elena Polisano said: “Plastic pollution is now a full-blown environmental crisis and our supermarkets are right at the heart of it. Much of the throwaway plastic packaging filling up our homes comes from supermarket shelves, but high-street giants are still not taking full responsibility for it.
“So far most retail bosses have responded to growing concern from customers with a pick-and-mix of different plastic announcements, but have failed to come up with the coherent plastic reduction plans required to solve this problem.
“The success of the plastic bag charge shows big retailers can crack down on plastic waste if they really mean to. Every little may well help, but if we are to protect our natural world and ourselves from pervasive plastic pollution, supermarkets need to check out on throwaway plastic fast.”
EIA senior ocean campaigner Sarah Baulch said: “Decisions taken by supermarkets today are resulting in thousands of plastic items flooding British homes every year. Despite public pressure for action on plastic being at an all-time high, our survey shows that UK supermarket giants are failing to keep up. With just seven supermarkets putting over 59 billion pieces of plastic packaging through their tills every year, the true scale of their footprint is now becoming apparent.
“It is abundantly clear that we cannot simply recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis, and yet this remains the priority area of focus for many major chains. Retailers must pioneer new ways to reduce their plastic footprint across the entire supply chain. Waste from the UK impacts wildlife and communities around the world and it’s high time that supermarkets move beyond incremental change and fundamentally rethink their relationship with single-use plastic packaging.”
Greenpeace and the EIA are calling on supermarkets to:
- Set year-on-year targets to reduce their single-use plastic footprint
- Urgently eliminate unnecessary and non-recyclable plastic packaging by the end of 2019
- Introduce transparency by publishing yearly audits of single-use plastic use.