Look around any British supermarket. First, you’ll spot the sandwiches, encased in plastic film and plastic-covered cardboard. Then bottles of water, Coca-Cola or Fanta in high-density plastic. There might be crisps in a metallic plastic film or fruit, also in plastic film. Walk further along the aisle and you’ll find strawberries encased in polyvinyl chloride baskets and plastic film, next to cucumbers wrapped in plastic film or bags of potatoes in high-density polyethylene. And that’s just the first aisle.
Supermarkets are one of the worst contributors to plastic waste in the UK. For every item of yogurt, fruit or even loo roll, you can be assured there will be some form of plastic packaging encasing it. While it’s hard to quantify exactly how much plastic waste supermarkets produce (companies are reluctant to release data), a Greenpeace report estimates that the top ten UK supermarkets create 810,000 tonnes of single-use plastic – the kind that consumers must recycle or thrown in a landfill – a year. On top of that, those companies also produce 1.1 billion single-use bags, 958 million reusable bags (‘bags for life’), as well as 1.2 billion plastic fruit and vegetable bags a year. Even if many of those single-use plastics are recycled, plastic can only be recycled a limited number of times, and the UK’s refuse system is not without its issues. A 2018 report from the National Audit Office said that the system, “relies on exporting materials to other parts of the world without adequate checks to ensure this material is actually recycled.”
If you were confused about where to focus your environmental outrage, take aim at plastic.
Despite huge consumer demand (a Greenpeace petition calling for less plastic packaging has garnered over 1.3 million signatures), mounting pressure from charities, and a younger generation better versed in the environmental crisis than ever before, supermarkets are failing to make essential changes to the way they package food.
VICE and Greenpeace found that supermarkets are routinely finding ways around their plastic targets by ‘lightweighting’ – the process by which plastic packaging is thinned to weigh less but not removed – and in some cases, even switching out glass products for plastic in order to hit the environmental targets they have set for themselves.
VICE reached out to six major supermarkets: Asda, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons, Waitrose and Marks and Spencer, and all were able to supply plastic-cutting targets or goals. These ranged from small changes, such as Tesco’s promise to “inform suppliers” that they “intend to ban” non-recyclable plastics (rather than actually banning them) to more effective ideas like running trials on bottle return schemes, or encouraging shoppers to bring reusable containers. If you read the supermarkets’ ‘pledges’ and ‘commitments’ at face value – along with the signatures on the WRAP Plastic Pact, a charity initiative to help companies reduce waste – then the message seems clear: of course we want to get rid of plastics. Of course.
But all is not as it seems. Many supermarket plastic pledges imply a reduction in plastic overall, while only reducing the weight of packaging. Until recently, for example, Sainsbury's’ plastic reduction targets only referred to the weight of packaging – a target launched by the company in 2011/12, rather than its plastic packaging specifically. The problem with this target is that packaging made from a heavy substance, like glass, which is more efficiently recycled than plastic, would be swapped out in favour of lighter plastic packaging. Although the supermarket claims that this reduces carbon emissions, as plastic is lighter to transport than glass, it was unable to supply data showing this reduction when requested by VICE.
On a grey July day, I head to a large Sainsbury’s in north London to look for evidence of the effect of these plastic targets in action. I scan the aisles of booze and condiments, searching for any bottles made of plastic that would have previously been glass – a lightweighting tactic that Greenpeace first noted the supermarket doing earlier this year.
On my visit, I find seven items that changed from glass to plastic after Sainsbury’s’ plastic reduction targets were set. Both the Sainsbury's own-brand distilled malt vinegar and malt vinegar bottles are plastic, as is its ‘Superior’ white rum bottle (35cl) and Superior dark rum bottle. A Sainsbury’s spokesperson confirmed the switch from glass to plastic in the vinegar and rum bottles, and that the changes happened in 2018 and 2019 respectively. They added that the rums' plastic bottle switch is only temporary.
I also find that the supermarket’s ‘Basics’ French brandy (70cl) is in plastic, as well as its ‘Caribbean spiced spirit drink’ (35cl), unlike the products' larger counterparts which are glass. Sainsbury’s was unable to confirm when these changes took place, however online listings for the Caribbean spiced spirit drink erroneously describe the item as glass, implying a recent change. The Sainsbury's extra virgin olive oil (all sizes) also switched from glass to plastic in 2015. All these confirmed changes took place after Sainsbury’s plastic weight targets were set.
I asked Sainsbury’s the reason for these changes. A spokesperson for the supermarket said: “In terms of the small number of examples you have found where, over many years, we have moved some items from glass to recyclable plastic. It’s important to note each update was the result of regular reviews of our packaging, which are designed to ensure they’re as environmentally friendly as possible.”
Sainsbury’s claims that it is moving from glass to recyclable plastics for a number of reasons, one being to reduce its carbon footprint, as well as “reducing the amount of materials we use to package each product.”
Another lightweighting tactic that fails to meaningfully reduce plastic waste – while still seeming to fulfil packaging weight targets – is redesigning product packaging to be thinner.
In these cases, plastic packaging may be thinner and lighter, but the plastic unit still exists – along with all the environmental damage it causes. Numerous supermarkets use this technique. Marks and Spencer has redesigned crisp and popcorn packets to make them smaller – reducing the amount of plastic but maintaining the unit of packaging. (After purchasing the crisps and popcorn myself, I found that the packets aren’t even recyclable.) Sainsbury’s has redesigned its milk bottles to be thinner, reducing the weight of plastic produced but not reducing the number of plastic units produced. Asda has redesigned its plastic water bottles to reduce the weight. It seems almost every major supermarket is rethinking its plastic packaging in terms of ‘weight,’ rather than actual units.
A spokesperson for Marks and Spencer said: “Our priority is to remove plastic packaging where we can. If this isn’t possible, we work hard to reduce the amount of plastic we use and ensure it can be reused or recycled. All our packaging will be widely recyclable by 2022.” Asda had not responded to my request for comment at the time of publishing.
Not only this, but when Greenpeace analysed Sainsbury’s plastic waste commitment as part of its annual report on supermarkets and plastic waste, it found the supermarket to be it to be the worst performer out of the top ten UK supermarkets. This led Greenpeace to look closer at the targets. In analysis shared with VICE, it noted that Sainsbury’s was setting targets it was already halfway through completing. In 2011/2012, the supermarket committed to reducing packaging by half by 2020, compared to the amount of packaging in 2005. But at the time the target was set, the supermarket had already reduced its plastic waste by 23.4 percent. Five years later, it had only reduced its target by 33 percent overall. This is an average reduction of 1.92 percent, with a drop in the pace of reduction by over half. Even if the rate of reduction stays the same, this means Sainsbury’s won’t reach its commitment until at least 2026, six years past their target. A spokesperson for the supermarket said that the plastic waste commitment is "one of a range of targets we have set over the years in our drive to reduce plastics and packaging. We understand we still have more to do and have additional targets to reduce, reuse, replace and recycle more plastic and we are proud of our progress so far."
It seems that once you scratch the surface of supermarket plastic targets, they begin to fall apart.
“A lot of these targets are too slow, too little and there’s not enough accountability in them,” Emma Priestland, plastics campaigner for charity Friends of the Earth tells me over the phone. “With many of the targets, there’s a lack of clear goals. There are no clear figures on exactly how much they are going to reduce, and sometimes the language is quite ambiguous. For example, if you ever see a supermarket commit to making all their packaging recyclable, this is something that should throw major red flags because technically almost all plastic is recyclable. So, the question is, 'Is it easy to recycle in the existing infrastructure and is it going to be economically feasible to recycle?'”
Sainsbury’s says that its plastic weight targets are in line with WRAP’s Plastic Pact, alongside other supermarkets including Morrisons, Tesco and Asda. However, organisations like WRAP are far from perfect. Over 100 different companies signed up to WRAP’s Plastic Pact to create a more “sustainable future.” A year later, two-thirds of the companies that signed up have reported no progress at all. Not only is the pact proving ineffective, but of the eight plastics listed by WRAP for supermarkets to eliminate, most are to be banned by law anyway (such as plastic straws or plastic stirrers).
“What's crucial is that this has to be underpinned,” Louise Edge, senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace, tells me. “We can't rely on supermarkets – it's such a competitive sector and that means it's quite risk averse. So we need the government to put in place legislation that incentivises changes.
Priestland agrees. “I am sceptical of any voluntary targets from companies because, at the bottom line, they always have profit and not the protection of the planet. That’s why you have to have government intervention; you have to have a level playing field and clear targets that the companies have to meet to reduce plastic use.”
Although food waste and suitability of alternative materials is an understandable concern for supermarkets, the real reason plastic isn’t removed is, according to the campaigners like Priestland and Edge, down to money.
“[This lack of positive change] is because it’s a real challenge to ‘business as usual’,” Edge, explains. “They're going to have to set up their stalls in different ways, and it will cost more money in the short term. The reality is, that because the oil prices have remained low, plastic has remained incredibly cheap, and that's why it's used. It's the cheapest packaging option.”
In response to the claim that Sainsbury's is failing to meet plastic reduction targets due to cost, a spokesperson for the supermarket told VICE: "Plastic is sometimes the only material available to businesses of our scale which can protect and prolong the life of a product. We’re committed to working with producers, manufacturers, suppliers and other retailers to make the most of the research and innovation communities available to us, who can help us transition to a more sustainable world at scale and pace." Asda had not responded at the time of publishing.
With a Conservative leader who has a questionable history of environmental policy, a near future with plastic-free supermarkets seems unlikely. However, some supermarkets are making changes without these governmental policies. Iceland, for example, has committed to removing all plastic packaging (recyclable or not) from its own-brand range by 2023, while Waitrose’s refillable trial is one of the most promising shifts towards reusable packaging. A governmental consultation on packaging producer responsibility ran earlier this year, interrogating whether supermarkets should be held financially accountable for recycling. All of these changes could make a real difference to the UK’s plastic waste, but it’s not enough.
“The UK is really one of the top plastic users per capita in the world,” says Priestland. “We are absolutely outdated for plastic packaging and so much of that is coming from the supermarkets. The whole supermarket business model is reliant on plastic packaging, so if supermarkets are able to break away from that business model and really operate without that reliance, it would make a massive difference to the generation of waste in this country.”
Supermarkets, pay attention. Just like that translucent packaging that fills your stores, we see through your seemingly empty ‘pacts.’