We’ve had a lot to worry about in the last 18 months, but it seems that even a global pandemic hasn’t stopped our anxiety about one particular concern: plastics.
Around two in five Brits say they are very concerned about how much plastic is used in their food and drink packaging.
That is according to a new study by market research firm Toluna, and the supermarkets we visit week in, week out are causing a particular headache for shoppers.
Who is to blame for excessive plastic packaging?
The finger is mostly being pointed at brands and manufacturers, with 73% of the 1,000 respondents claiming plastic use is their responsibility.
But supermarkets haven’t got off lightly. More than half of Brits think that large chain stores haven’t done nearly enough to curb the amount of plastic on their shelves.
The reason behind it is simple: If supermarkets demanded change, brands and manufacturers would have to fall into line.
But despite promises to wage war on excessive plastic packaging, the UK’s largest supermarkets are still putting nearly 900,000 tonnes of plastic packaging onto the market each year, representing a plastic footprint which is bigger than in 2017.
This includes plastic bags. The top 10 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.
Shopping ‘plastic free’ at supermarkets
The new study found that although almost 90% of shoppers try to avoid plastic packaging at least occasionally, two-thirds feel as though there are not enough plastic-free options available for the products they want to buy.
Avoiding plastic has been made even more difficult by the pandemic which caused major disruption to supply chains and raised new challenges around plastic reduction.
So as the UK throws off Covid-19 restrictions, are the big four supermarkets still on track to achieve their plastic pledges?
In total, the supermarket reduced the size of its annual packaging footprint by 3,480 tonnes in 2020.
Tesco also became the first retailer to introduce recycled soft plastic packaging, launching a trial on cheese lines in September last year.
We've been working to reduce plastic in our products. Can you guess how many pieces we've removed so far? Hint: it’s enough to win us a Sustainable Retailer of the Year award. Click below and have a guess. #EveryLittleHelpshttps://t.co/IWy40UAefG
— Tesco (@Tesco) February 10, 2021
Speaking in December 2020, the firm pledged that: “Our work to Remove, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle will continue into 2021 – there is no place for unnecessary or non-recyclable packaging in our business.”
So far, it’s kept that promise. In May 2021, Tesco announced plans to ditch plastic rings and shrink wrap from its entire beer and cider range in a move it claims will see 50 million fewer pieces of unrecycled plastic produced each year.
Asda ramped up its plastic ambitions in 2019, when it brought forward its target to reach 30% recycled content in plastic own-label packaging to the end of 2020 – five years ahead of its original deadline.
The supermarket also pledged to slash the total amount of plastic used in its own-brand packaging by 15% by February 2021.
It’s unclear whether Asda hit those targets. However, in its first Environmental, Social and Governance report in May, the supermarket said it had “taken more than 9,300 tonnes of plastic out of more than 200 product ranges”.
Asda has announced several initiatives this year, including removing single-plastic bags from all its fresh produce aisles – saving more than 100 million pieces of plastic a year from its stores and ditching plastic trays across its entire fresh chicken range – saving 450 tonnes of plastic a year.
Sainsbury’s also set itself new targets in 2019 – when it pledged to reduce plastic packaging across its branded and own-label lines by 50% by 2025, but things haven’t gone exactly to plan.
“Covid-19 has had a significant impact on our usage this year due to an increase in sales volume which has led to an increase in plastic packaging used overall,” the supermarket said. Meaning that any progress made has been outweighed by the challenges of the pandemic.
Despite now being behind its “target trajectory”, however, Sainsbury’s continued implementing its plastic reduction initiatives and has so far managed to remove 290 million loose produce plastic bags and a further 358 tonnes of plastic from fruit and veg trays.
In March 2021, Sainsbury’s announced plans to remove 18.5 million plastic straws from its own brand lunchbox carton range. It is also removing the outer plastic wrapping from 11 products, saving 162 tonnes of plastic per year.
Morrisons set itself a target to reduce its own-brand plastic packaging by 50% and to make all own-brand plastic packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. So far, it’s reduced own-brand plastic packaging by 11% since 2017.
Elsewhere, Morrisons has removed plastic trays from fruit and veg including asparagus, carrots and tomatoes – saving 300 tonnes of plastic, removed secondary lids on products such as coleslaw – saving another 80 tonnes, and started using cardboard wrap on multipack cans.
Having introduced dedicated areas to buy loose fruit & vegetables to 63 stores in 2019, offering up to 127 loose varieties, it extended the reach of this range to 332 of its 497 stores in 2020.