Biodegradable plastic food bags in the fruits and vegetables aisle in a big hypermarket in Romania

The plastic problem

Removing plastic from supermarkets requires changes along the supply chain

News that the amount of plastic packaging produced for Britain’s supermarkets increased last year appears to be completely at odds with claims by the nation’s major food retailers to be successfully waging war on the frowned-upon material.

But plastic packaging use and recycling is a topsy-turvy world, where the blame game favoured by woke members of the millennial generation may need to change its sights.

Take single-use plastic bags. Characterised as a major pollutant and climate change contributor, they possess just one-tenth of the carbon footprint of ‘bags for life,’ which are typically used about ten times but need at least 250 outings just to mitigate the carbon emitted in their creation.

Removing packaging from fresh fruit and vegetables meanwhile results in exchanging plastic waste for food waste, with some stores seeing a doubling of bruised or damaged foodstuffs shorn of plastic protection.

‘Like plastic straws, plastic bags are a tiny, tiny percentage of the overall problem,’ says Kevin Vyse, head of technical at sustainable packaging firm Rapid Action Packaging and a motivational speaker on the circular economy. ‘The biggest single plastic pollution problem in the world’s oceans is not to do with plastic bags and only a very tiny part of it comes from European coastlines. Movements need poster children and plastic bags very quickly became one, as did plastic straws, but the irony is that this has exacerbated the problem hugely.’

It reflects the fact that this is difficult

Supermarket plastic levels rose from 886,000 to 900,000 tonnes in 2018/19, with Britain’s major grocery groups ordering and producing 58 billion pieces of plastic, according to a report published by Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency. Seven out of the UK’s top ten supermarkets increased their plastics use, with Asda and Aldi the worst offenders. Budget supermarket Iceland dropped to seventh place in the report’s supermarket plastics league table from top position the previous year, despite its managing director Richard Walker stating that the only way of dealing with the plastic crisis is to ‘turn down the tap on production’.

Only Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury’s achieved marginal reductions. The report’s findings chime with recent evidence from Britain’s high streets. In December, Iceland abandoned a Liverpool trial to sell loose fruit and vegetables in supermarkets after experiencing a 30 per cent drop in sales of the produce. The retailer has pledged to become the first in the world to remove all plastic packaging from its own-label ranges by 2023. However, while customers still want efficiency and practicality, Iceland found many were unwilling to foot the additional cost brought about by the move to sales of loose produce.

German rival Lidl is also considering a dramatic change to its plastic bag reduction strategy after admitting that many of its 9p ‘bags for life’ are being used only once and thrown away, with less than one per cent returned for replacement. If a trial of removing all ‘bags for life’ from sale at 54 stores in Wales is successful, the company will withdraw them from all UK stores, saving 80 million bags and 2,500 tonnes of plastic a year.

Tesco, which fared comparatively well in the report, has also had to delay some of its single-use plastic reduction actions. After initially pledging to stop using black plastic microwave meal trays by the end of 2019, the group has admitted that 13 per cent of packaging on its own-brand products is hard to recycle. It now plans to ditch plastic ready-meal trays, yoghurt pot lids, straws and loose fruit bags this year, removing one billion pieces of plastic from its own-label products and banning brands with too much non-recyclable packaging from its shelves.

Asda, meanwhile, seems determined to remedy last year’s performance, bringing forward its target to reach 30 per cent recycled content in its own-brand plastic packaging to the end of this year – five years ahead of its original deadline. It says this will avoid the annual use of 19,500 tonnes of ‘virgin’ plastic, while it will make all its own-brand packaging 100 per cent recyclable by 2025, having removed more than 6,500 tonnes of plastic packaging from its own-brand range since February 2019.

Such pledges are laudable. Yet the failure of so many of Britain’s supermarkets to reduce their plastics use last year suggests that there are multiple factors at work. ‘It reflects the fact that this is difficult,’ says Mike Barry, the former director of sustainable business at Marks & Spencer who is now an adviser at CoGo, a New Zealand purpose-driven organisation with a stated ambition to ‘change business to change the world’.

He adds: ‘Supermarkets need to get all the moving parts aligned; from plastics, packaging and food manufacturing to retailing, customers’ homes, council collection, waste industry separation and plastic industry reuse. All that then needs to be wrapped up in a new emerging government policy and tax system and then you have to get traditionally-siloed competitors to work together. It’s not easy.’

Dan Dicker, managing director of waste consultancy and eco-product development company Ashortwalk, is more hard-hitting in his diagnosis of the problem. ‘Britain’s supermarkets don’t actually know how to reach their targets,’ he says. ‘It’s due to a lack of understanding and leadership, but mainly the lack of infrastructure and solutions being offered to them by the government, big industry and supply chain sectors.

‘The danger is they are reacting like rabbits in headlights with ill-thought solutions that actually cause more harm than good. They need to proactively seek guidance from academia, researchers, pioneers and coal-face industry rather than just lazily leveraging established supply chains.’

Liz Goodwin, senior fellow and director of food loss and waste at sustainability research organisation The World Resources Institute, believes that ‘some retailers are clearly doing more than others’. She says: ‘All the major retailers are trying to reduce single-use plastics and make their packaging more recyclable, but it’s quite tricky given the existing supply chains and the need to find alternatives.

‘The other point to note is that some retailers are moving to alternatives which have larger carbon footprints – and so the balance of issues needs to be carefully thought-through. UK retailers are working on the issue. Not enough is being done but there is a lot of consumer pressure which is helping drive progress.’

Making packaging recyclable is quite tricky given the existing supply chains and the need to find alternatives

Some concrete conclusions are clear. One reason for last year’s plastic production figures is that Britain continued to see growth in its groceries market, which increased food sales by two per cent, adding to packaging needs. There was also strong growth in demand for on-the-go food, which is almost exclusively sold in single-use packaging, while two hot summers led to an uptick in the figures for single-use plastic bottles.

The report notes that there was also an increase in sales of branded products, which account for between 40 and 60 per cent of an average supermarket’s sales. Shruti Choudhary, senior strategy consultant at brand purpose agency Given London, says this suggests a need for much more robust and systematic engagement between retailers and fast-moving consumer goods suppliers. ‘Most retailers already have rigorous processes in place to assess own-brand suppliers packaging footprint and this approach needs to be extended to all suppliers,’ she says. There are already signs, however, of resistance among some of the world’s biggest food and drink producers, with Coca-Cola’s head of sustainability Bea Perez telling the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, that the company will not ditch single-use plastic bottles because consumers still want them.

The drinks group, which produces three million tonnes of plastic packaging a year, was last year found to be the most polluting brand in a global audit of plastic waste by the charity Break Free From Plastic. It has pledged to recycle as many plastic bottles as it uses by 2030, though some campaigners want it to do so sooner.

‘Business won’t be in business if we don’t accommodate consumers,’ said Perez. ‘So, as we change our bottling infrastructure, move into recycling and innovate, we also have to show the consumer what the opportunities are. They will change with us.’

The packaging industry is also pushing back at some of the criticism. ‘In my judgment, a lot of the increase is to do with much more accurate accounting,’ says Vyse. ‘Until five years ago, nobody gave a toss about this subject so nobody kept detailed records. As time has gone on, this detail has got more and more granular and we now have a system whereby supermarkets have to account for every kilogramme of plastic they produce.

‘Supermarkets are now being a lot more open about what they’re doing and drawing a line under what went on before. The accounting has got better and therefore the numbers are getting more polished.’

Choudhary agrees: ‘The scale of our concern and scrutiny around plastics is a relatively recent phenomenon. Many retailers have had to adapt historic data collection processes and systems to deliver the new level of data on packaging expected from brands, and inaccuracies in previous data reported may play a role in the increased packaging footprint from 2017 to 2018.’

The regulatory environment is also set to change. At present, the only regulation of plastic recycling is through Packaging Recovery Notes, an effective tax levied on packaging to pay for recycling. The levy is set at 15 per cent of the recycling costs but under the new Resources and Waste Strategy, the Government is considering increasing this to 100 per cent – and stipulating that the rise must not be passed on to customers.

Plastic recycling costs under the PRN system have been volatile. A year ago, the price was about £75 a tonne, making the total tax bill for a small retailer about £1.5 million a year. During 2019, however, the price increased to about £450 per tonne, increasing the annual costs of a small retailer to about £5 million.

‘It’s not a great system and there isn’t enough transparency about where the funds go,’ says Goodwin. Such problems need to be resolved speedily because there are few signs that millennials and other concerned consumers are changing their tune.

Vyse believes the industry has now got its house in order and predicts that the 2019/20 figures will show flat production or a slight decline in plastic packaging for supermarkets. ‘The various groups involved in the supply chain have finally talked to one another,’ he says. ‘Up until recently, packaging designers, retailers, polymer providers, bottle-makers and waste recyclers all worked in isolation. Now designers are very much more aware of what they have to do. The youth market is increasingly eschewing products that overtly come in plastic. Marketers will increasingly not want to go down that road because they know it will result in alienation.’

That’s the risk driving the whole movement but Britain’s supermarkets need to have some hard evidence that they are walking the talk. Another rise in production this year would test even the most skillful of communicators.