New research claims reducing the plastic packaging used in 13 product categories could see UK supermarkets cut single-use plastic consumption by 35%.


Research by the Environmental Investigation Agency and Greenpeace found that UK supermarket consumption of single-use plastic had risen to more than 900,000 tonnes in 2019 (Credit: Pixabay)

In November 2019, Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) conducted research looking at how much plastic packaging major UK supermarkets use.

It was the second time the not-for-profit organisations had combined to do such a study, with a similar report published in 2018.

The latest research found UK supermarket consumption of single-use plastic had risen to more than 900,000 tonnes in 2019.

The report, Checking out on plastics II: Breakthroughs and backtracking from supermarkets, also discovered seven out of the 10 chains in the UK had increased their plastic footprint.

It also found that eight supermarkets used 58.3 billion pieces of single-use plastic during this period.

In August 2020, the EIA and Greenpeace published another supermarket study — this time looking at what the industry could do to halve its use of such plastic by 2025.

It models how supermarkets could make significant reductions to the amount of plastic they produce by focusing attention on packaging for 54 grocery categories.

The Unpacked: How supermarkets can cut plastic packaging in half by 2025 report also shares new data analysis for the amount plastic packaging UK supermarkets are producing each year, based on 2019 figures.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall — celebrity chef, food writer and presenter of BBC TV show War on Plastic — said: “Greenpeace has worked out how supermarkets could halve their plastic packaging in just five years.

“That’s a brilliant target, and there’s no doubt supermarkets could hit it if they really wanted to.

“We need to make them want to — by supporting every plastic reduction initiative and avoiding throwaway plastic where possible.

“Leave over-packaged plastic-covered produce on the shelves, buy unpackaged produce whenever you see it and switch to shops and supermarkets who are making real changes that help you to shop with less plastic.

“We need to get the supermarkets competing to reduce plastic — by letting them know our continued custom depends on it.”


Plastic packaging reduction in 13 categories could cut UK supermarket plastic output by 35%, says report

Although the report recommends supermarkets reduce plastic packaging across 54 product categories, it found that large cuts can be made to their plastic footprints by focusing on 13 categories with the highest potential.

These include bottled water, fizzy drinks, milk, still drinks and fruit juices, household cleaning products, detergents and softeners, sports and energy drinks, rice, vegetables and salads, fruit, dilutables, and bath and shower products.

Plastic packaging cuts across these categories could reduce UK supermarket plastic output by approximately 35% — which is 70% of the 2025 target of 50%.

It is also equivalent to removing 45 billion pieces of supermarket plastic from the shelves, and more than 300,000 tonnes of the material — equivalent to the weight of more than 7,000 supermarket delivery lorries, which, if parked nose to tail, would stretch from Birmingham to Manchester.

It also highlights the claim that five product categories within the set of 13 are estimated to contribute 247,000 tonnes of plastic packaging annually — these being fizzy drinks, milk, vegetables and salads, and wrapped fruit.

UK supermarkets plastic packaging
Fruit juices were one of the 13 categories highlighted by researchers that could drive a significant reduction in plastic usage at supermarkets (Credit: Pixabay)

Greenpeace UK plastics campaigner Nina Schrank said: “For the first time, data specialists have mapped out where the greatest potential lies for drastically reducing the volume of plastic packaging going through our supermarket tills.

“It kick-starts one of the most important environmental questions of our time: How and where can we reduce throwaway plastic packaging? And fast.

“The challenge to change our plastic habits, move to widespread reuse and refill systems, and turn the tide on plastic pollution, is vast.

“It will not be easy but it will be possible, and we think UK supermarkets can do it.”

EIA senior oceans campaigner Christina Dixon added: “Supermarkets are busily completing our annual survey about their progress in reducing single-use and other unnecessary plastics from their operations, and later this year the EIA and Greenpeace will report back on progress.

“The last two years have shown a year-on-year increase in the plastic footprints of UK supermarkets, so we’d love to see some meaningful reductions that match the level of ambition required to radically reduce the amount of plastic pollution in our environment.”


What can retailers do to reduce plastic usage?

Compiling the report, researchers cross-referenced industry-wide data with detailed product sales data shared in confidence by one UK supermarket, allowing them to map plastic packaging in terms of its weight, number of items and components.

It also enabled them to identify which product categories are using the most plastic packaging — pinpointing areas best-placed to drive a reduction in plastic pollution.

It analysed 54 retail product categories for amounts of single-use plastic packaging used by UK supermarkets through the lenses of weight, sales units, and number of plastic components, and then cross-referenced each product category against a list of proven reuse systems.

The biggest reductions are possible in 13 product categories where there is potential to cut waste by at least 70%.

Based on the data, researchers found that vegetables and salads use the most individual components of plastic packaging in UK supermarkets by sales units, but milk, bottled water, and fizzy drinks produce the most single-use plastic by weight.

As a product range, bottled has a reduction percentage of 90% — with researchers claiming cuts could be delivered through a mixture of the elimination of plastic and a shift to refill models.

Fizzy drinks, milk, still and juice drinks, household cleaning, detergents and softeners, sports and energy drinks, and rice have a reduction potential of 80% — possible through a shift to reuse-based systems.

In terms of what retailers and brands can do to tackle plastic packaging, the report suggests four types of actions that should be taken.

UK supermarkets plastic packaging
Based on the data, researchers found that vegetables and salads use the most individual components of plastic packaging in UK supermarkets by sales units (Credit: Pixabay)

It firstly recommends they commit to tackling the issue by setting ambitious targets to at least halve their single-use plastic by 2025 — ensuring at least 25% of this is met by reusable packaging systems.

Halting damaging pack formats is the next suggestion, achieving this by eliminating all non-recyclable packaging, including laminates and films, in supply chains and ending UK sales of single-use water bottles.

The third action recommends brands and retailers actively promote more sustainable solutions that are currently available — including the likes of concentrates and naked products.

This could also feature selling and promoting at-home water carbonating devices, supporting national water refills networks by offering free refills in-store for customers, and developing in-store and home delivery reuse options.

The report’s final action suggests brands and retailers should work together — through the likes of collaborating on standardised reusable packaging and supply chain projects.

As part of this collaboration, it says that businesses should share any learnings found on reuse, as well as work together to resolve any legal and infrastructure issues around switching to reuse, including current controls on carrying used packaging in supermarket delivery vans.

The report also recommends that retailers and brands agree to report detailed yearly data on single-use plastic and reusable packaging to a shared industry-wide independent reporting body.

Alongside this, it believes the drivers of single-use packaging needs addressing — achieving this by promoting shorter supply chains and seasonal produce, banning excessive packaging used for marketing, and by challenging the “convenience” culture underpinning the wasteful on-the-go market.


What can the UK government do to reduce plastic usage?

As part of the report’s recommendations, the researchers also looked at action the UK government could take to drive plastic reduction.

It says that it should use the Environment Bill to set legally-binding targets to reduce single-use plastic by 50%.

Incentivise and support reusable packaging standardisation is another policy called for, including supporting trials of new systems and reuse innovation.

It also recommends providing financial incentives to help the sector shift over to reuse — such as using Enhanced Capital Allowance schemes to assist companies with investments in plant and machinery for reuse applications.

UK supermarkets plastic packaging
The report says the government should use the Environment Bill to set legally binding targets to reduce single-use plastic by 50% (Credit: Pixabay)

Ensuring that the reform of extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation incentivises reuse and reduction.

The EPR reforms, which are part of the UK government’s Environment Bill, aim to minimise the use and impact of single-use plastics.

It believes that reforming EPR to make manufacturers financially responsible for the full environmental impact of the plastic they produce would make both retailers and producers more likely to invest in reuse solutions.


Opportunities arising from home deliveries

One byproduct of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the significant shift to people having food home-delivered.

Data compiled by purchase intelligence platform Cardlytics in June found that consumer spend on delivery services rose by 15% across the year up to April 2020 – which was driven by a higher number of transactions per consumer.

Over the year, consumers spent 36% more on meal kits, while takeaway services such as Just Eat and Deliveroo experience a 21% rise in spending.

Alongside this, UK-based direct-to-home food delivery specialists Ocado announced in May that its sales jumped 40% in the second quarter of 2020.

The company said it had increased capacity at its warehouse in London from 80,000 to 110,000 orders per week — however, it had seen “more normal shopping patterns” returning towards the end of the quarter.

The Greenpeace and EIA report says at-home delivery of food opens up huge potential for reusable packaging, as reuse is based on delivery from warehouses rather than stores.

It adds that one of the benefits of this delivery model is that it allows for both the drop-off of food and the pick-up of used packs, saving people the additional job of transporting containers to and from their homes.

Some experts also suggest that home delivery could improve the take-up of concentrates — with products, such as concentrated washing-up liquid and cleaners supplied by start-up Splosh, allowing bottles to be reused.

Another business model highlighted by the report is one used by Abel & Cole, an organic food delivery company that recently introduced refillable containers as an option for their customers.

UK supermarkets plastic packaging
Data compiled by purchase intelligence platform Cardlytics in June found that consumer spends on delivery services rose by 15% across the year up to April 2020 (Credit: Pixabay)

Rolling out a permanent nationwide refillable service in February 2020 after a successful trial, it saw the company remove single-use packaging from its most popular pantry items.

Instead, it allows customers to receive their chosen goods in returnable, refillable pots nicknamed VIPs, or Very Important Pots.

The scheme, named Club Zero, sees consumers pay a membership fee of £10 and then shop from a selection of products.

Following that, customers receive a returnable VIP, which they then use before leaving it outside their home, where it is collected and reused.

Speaking at the time, Abel & Cole managing director Hannah Shipton said: “We know that our customers are concerned about the environment and are looking for less wasteful ways to shop, so we hoped Club Zero would resonate with them, but we underestimated just how many customers would want to be involved and how positively they would react to the trial.

“It became clear very quickly that we needed to launch this service across the country.”

The second model highlighted by the report is Loop, an online reusable packaging platform that recently launched a UK pilot programme in partnership with supermarket chain Tesco.

Launched by recycling company TerraCycle at the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos, Loop is operational in cities such as Paris and New York.

Described by TerraCycle as the “21st-century milkman”, it allows people to order products including beverages, yoghurt, shampoo, and toothpaste in customised, brand-specific refillable packaging.

When a user is finished with the product, the packaging is placed back into the bag, collected, and returned to the organisation.


What major UK supermarkets have said about the plastic packaging report

Greenpeace and EIA’s report received support from the vast majority of major UK supermarket chains.

Stuart Lendrum, head of packaging, quality and food safety at Iceland — which has committed to eliminating its own-label plastic packaging by the end of 2023 — said: “This new report from Greenpeace paints a stark picture of the scale of plastic packaging as an issue, the opportunities for change and the need for the supermarket sector act unequivocally, whilst acknowledging the challenges will help kickstart the opportunity for industry and governmental rethink.

“The retail and packaging sectors continually demonstrate the ability to innovate and change.

“Supply chains are often shared — we all need to do better on cutting plastic packaging and that starts with accepting and acknowledging the scale of the challenge.”

The report has called on supermarkets to commit to at least halve the amount of plastic used in their stores.

In September 2019, Sainsbury’s became the UK’s first major retailer to make this commitment, with Aldi making the same pledge eight months later.

Commenting on the report, Sainsbury’s head of quality and innovation Claire Hughes said: “We are making good progress in the five categories Greenpeace highlights as having the most reduction potential.

“However, in order to reach this ambitious target, we need transformational thinking and collaboration across the industry.

“We will work alongside our suppliers, manufacturers, customers and other retailers to reduce the amount of plastic across the supply chain, whilst also investing in research and development.”

UK supermarkets plastic packaging
Launched in June 2019, Waitrose’s Unpacked scheme allows consumers to use their own containers to purchase certain products (Credit: Pixabay)

Aldi UK’s plastic and packaging director Chris McKenry added: “Aldi is committed to reducing plastic waste, which is why we were one of the first supermarkets to set a target to halve plastic packaging by 2025.

“We’ve already made good headway and have to date removed over 6,000 tonnes of plastic from across our product range.

“Cutting our plastic packaging footprint in half is a challenge, but one we’re confident that we can rise to.”

Over the past 12 months, Waitrose’s work to reduce the amount of plastic it uses has also gained attention.

Launched in June 2019 as an 11-week trial in Oxford, Waitrose’s Unpacked packaging-free scheme — which allows consumers to use their own containers to purchase some products — received widespread coverage both in the UK and across the globe.

Responding to Greenpeace and the EIA’s report, Waitrose and Partners’ environment manager Ben Thomas said: “Removing unnecessary plastics is a priority for us and something we know is equally important to our customers.

“We’re already removing unnecessary packaging in our supply chain where we can, and introducing alternative packaging materials to make recycling easier for customers.

“We’ve gained valuable learnings from our Unpacked tests, which include refillable and reuse systems, and we’re now looking at how we develop it in our business.

“The next big challenge for the supermarket sector will be minimising single-use packaging and enabling customers to easily refill containers — wherever they shop.”