Inact

Are supermarkets really cutting back on plastic packaging?

  1. How is plastic usage monitored and controlled?
  2. Are plastic levels really going down?
  3. How have supermarkets done this?
  4. What does this mean for the environment?
  5. Can the government play a stronger role?
Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Tuesday 30 November 2021 19:06
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(Getty)

Since the mid 20th century, plasticwaste has ballooned, with our species extracting oil in order to produce around 300 million tonnes of plastic waste a year.

According to the UN, more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the early 1950s, and at least 60 per cent of that plastic has ended up in either a landfill or the natural environment.

One of the biggest sources of waste plastic is packaging. Often it is designed for single use to protect food, drink, and other delicate products. But this durability and resistance to degradation are the same properties which make plastics such a hazard in the natural environment.

The majority of plastics don’t break down organically, instead they simply get broken into smaller and smaller pieces, which results in animals mistaking them for food, and then the plastic particles entering the food chain. Microplastics are now found in most of the world’s drinking water. Larger pieces of plastic can also clog waterways, and provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other pests.

But while production levels of plastic have boomed, awareness of the problem it is creating across our planet is also growing, and there are now increasing efforts to rein-in unnecessary single use plastics.

As one of the biggest sources of single-use plastics, supermarkets are on the front line when it comes to halting plastic waste being spread around the world.

But how much are they really doing to cut back on plastic packaging?

  1. How is plastic usage monitored and controlled?

    All of the UK’s largest supermarkets, as well as numerous other businesses are members of Wrap’s UK plastic pact.

    The pact aims to eliminate problematic plastics which are particularly dangerous to the environment, and helps reduce overall levels of plastic on shelves, while aiming to make remaining plastic easy to recycle.

    This week marks the third annual report of the pact, showing progress on plastic reduction in the UK.

  2. Are plastic levels really going down?

    According to the report, some progress is being made. Yay. But the numbers are not wild.

    Overall plastic packaging on supermarket shelves dropped by 10 per cent between 2018 and 2020.

    But within this 10 per cent, much of the most damaging plastic has been weeded out, with a 46 per cent reduction in “problematic single use items”.

    Wrap’s report said the “most significant reduction” happened in PVC packaging, which it says remains a major contaminant to the recycling system.

    PVC levels have fallen by more than 80 per cent since 2018.

  3. How have supermarkets done this?

    Examples of plastic reduction at some UK retailers include Morrisons’ plans to remove plastic bags from bananas. Once rolled out this will reduce unnecessary plastic by 180 tonnes, that’s 45 million bags each year.

    Sainsbury’s has removed plastic film from its ‘By Sainsbury’s’ broccoli saving 49 tonnes of plastic per year. It has also removed extra lids from own brand cream pots saving 106 tonnes of plastic annually.

    Nestlé UK & Ireland has redesigned its confectionery sharing bags to use significantly less packaging. Narrower pouches for its brands including Milkybar, Aero Bubbles, Munchies, Rolo, Yorkie, and Rowntree’s Randoms will save 83 tonnes of plastic, the equivalent in area to 131 football pitches, according to Wrap.

    Marcus Grover, the chief executive of Wrap said: “Comparing 2020 against 2018, [the pact] has shown strong progress against its environmental targets during a period of unmitigated societal upheaval.”

  4. What does this mean for the environment?

    Aside from the reduction in waste which if not recycled could potentially end up going into the sea, or being buried in landfill, there are other benefits.

    The 10 per cent reduction equates to an equivalent CO2 reduction of 335,000 tonnes, which is the same as taking 150,000 cars off the road since the pact began.

    But the report warned that more action is required to eliminate other types of plastic such as polystyrene, while retailers need to improve efforts to cut use of unnecessary plastic.

    It also said that manufacturers and retailers need to ensure they don’t eliminate plastic only to then switch to materials with different environmental consequences.

  5. Can the government play a stronger role?

    Yes. While supermarkets produce the vast majority of single use plastics it is largely up to local councils to deal with the huge levels of household waste containing plastics.

    The government is currently consulting on banning certain single-use plastics, and is also looking at ways of making manufacturers responsible for the waste their products create.

    Jo Churchill, the resources and waste minister said: “The UK Plastics Pact is creating a real sea change and shows how businesses are rising to the challenge of cutting their use of plastic and increasing recycling. But there is more we must do – and that is why we are consulting on banning a range of further single-use plastics and, through our exciting new Environment Act, we will make manufacturers more responsible for their packaging.

    “With strong action from government and businesses, we can drastically reduce waste, make better use of our resources and protect our natural environment.”

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