UK supermarkets not doing enough to cut plastic use, says report

Supermarkets are still putting nearly 900,000 tonnes of plastic packaging on to the market, representing a plastic footprint which is bigger than in 2017, a new report has found.

The retailers sold more than 2bn plastic bags, according to the study by Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency, which called for the government to require companies to publish independently verified audits of their plastic footprint, alongside their financial reports each year.

In 2019 the 10 biggest UK supermarkets put 896,853 tonnes of plastic packaging on the market. The weight of plastic waste was down on 2018, but up 1.2% from 2017.

The report found an average 57 ‘bags for life’ per UK household in 2019 – a 65% increase since 2017.
Production of plastic bags was down 8% on 2018, but still significant. The supermarkets sold 2.1bn plastic bags in 2019, including 1.58bn “bags for life” which are intended to be reusable. This equates to almost 57 “bags for life” per UK household in 2019, more than one a week, and is a 65% increase since 2017.

The report, Checking Out on Plastics, said: “Overall, the scale of plastic carrier bag usage remains incredibly high … The government charge for single-use carrier bags is due to increase to 10p in April 2021, but the data suggests the current plastic ‘bag for life’ model, whereby a heavier bag is offered at a slightly higher price to encourage reuse, is not working.”

The amount of plastic cutlery sold or given away has also risen sharply, from 143m items in 2017 to 195.5m in 2019.

Christina Dixon, a senior campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency, 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.”

Waitrose was ranked as the leader in plastic reduction by the study, reporting an absolute plastic reduction of 6.1% since 2017, with the lowest plastic use per unit market share of all 10 retailers.

Iceland was bottom. Although the supermarket has reduced the plastic in its own-brand products by 29% since 2017, increases in plastic from branded goods offset its progress.

Iceland also sold 73m more “bags for life” in 2019 than in 2018.

The report said Aldi had done the most to change its position, from bottom to second place. The supermarket was praised for its high level of transparency, and for its elimination of single-use carrier bags and reductions in ultra-light produce bags and “bags for life”. Lidl was also picked out for progress, for a plastic reduction of 2.6% in its own brands since 2017.

Morrison’s position fell from second place to ninth, primarily because of an increase in sales of plastic bags since 2018.

The report praised the positive news that many supermarkets had stopped selling single-use plastic bags completely and that overall sales of single-use carrier bags had fallen by 56% between 2017 and 2019.

But not enough was being done to cut plastic packaging. “A higher and more consistent trajectory across the board would be expected if plastic reduction efforts were sufficient and having the necessary impact,” the report said.

The report said supermarkets could do more to press companies to reduce plastic. “We urge all the supermarkets to undertake more robust engagement with the major polluting brands, such as Coca-Cola, Nestlé and PepsiCo, to rapidly scale up initiatives in reuse, refill, recycled content, recyclability and overall packaging reduction.”

While supermarkets have become more open about their plastic footprint, more transparency was needed, said the report.

“The next step in terms of increasing transparency in the sector would be to disclose plastic reports in a sector-wide standardised format and to treat these reports like financial audits, having them independently verified and publicly available,” the authors said.

All the supermarkets were approached for comment. The following responded.

A Tesco spokesperson said: “We recently announced we successfully removed 1bn pieces of plastic and got rid of hard-to-recycle materials. Through these actions, Tesco is driving change.

“We continue to remove excess packaging from our business, and despite major challenges of Covid, we have made good progress in tackling the impact of plastics through our 4Rs packaging strategy – remove, reduce, reuse, recycle – and we have ambitious plans for 2021 and beyond.”

An Asda spokesperson said: “We are pleased that Greenpeace has recognised the steps we are taking to reduce plastic waste by highlighting that more than half of the total plastic weight reduction across the industry in 2019 was the result of measures introduced by Asda.

“However, we know there is more to be done and have an ambitious goal to remove 3bn pieces of plastic packaging from our operations by 2025.”

A Co-op spokesperson said: “We have one of the smallest plastic footprints of any major food retailer and almost half of our packaging uses recycled content. We are committed to eliminating unrecyclable plastic and will make all of our packaging recyclable this year and we continue to rollout compostable carrier bags as an alternative to bags for life.”

A Sainsbury’s spokesperson said: “We were the first major retailer in the UK to make a significant commitment to reduce our use of plastic packaging by 50% by 2025, and then go further. We reduced plastic by 4% in 2019. We know there is more to do and by collaborating across the industry, together we can protect the environment for future generations.”

A Waitrose spokesperson said: “We’re proud that Greenpeace has recognised our efforts to decrease our plastic packaging footprint. The last 12 months has inevitably created challenges for the industry, but we’re committed to ensuring that by 2023, all own-label packaging will be widely recycled, reusable or home compostable. Our leadership in innovating to find packaging alternatives, or ways to boost reuse, will continue at pace this year.”

Sian Sutherland, the co-founder of the campaign group A Plastic Planet, said that three years on from the launch of the world’s first plastic-free aisle in Amsterdam, supermarkets were giving far too many “plastic pledges” and too little real action.

“We call today, yet again, for national reduction targets to be set by our government and for mandatory plastic footprint transparency throughout all supermarkets and industry.”