A baffling array of plastics in the supermarket aisle.

Find out how your favourite supermarket fares when it comes to problematic plastic packaging.

Plastic has never been as unpopular as it is right now. For decades it was lauded as a miracle material – cheap, versatile, convenient – and the world gobbled it up tonnes and tonnes at a time. Now, though, we have a problem.

The plastic we use today will exist on the earth long after we’re gone. Indeed, the plastic we used as children will still be floating around somewhere on the planet. Many types of plastic are difficult – if not impossible – to recycle, so the material is doomed to clog up landfill, spoil natural environments and, as devastatingly depicted on the BBC’s Blue Planet series earlier this year, irrevocably damage wildlife and ecosystems.

Then, of course, there’s all the energy and natural resources used to create the material in the first place – and it’s a lot. Making enough plastic water bottles for the United States, for example, requires 17 million barrels of oil and enough energy to power 190,000 homes for a year. And that’s just one type of plastic product in one country! To fix climate change we have to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

There are lots of ways we can help tackle the problem, from buying refillable water bottles to using natural materials, but one of the biggest ways to make an impact is by changing our shopping habits. According to Greenpeace, UK supermarkets are responsible for churning out at least 59 billion pieces of plastic every year, so choosing stores and retailers that are themselves committed to making a change is a great step to take.

And it’s something they’re all getting on board with – however slowly – as research shows that reducing packaging waste will be shoppers’ biggest concern in the coming years. But even though supermarkets are now turning their attention to reducing single use plastic and getting rid of non-recyclable plastic entirely (and of course, shouting about their good efforts in the process) the question is, which supermarkets are really making a difference?

As research from Greenpeace shows, there’s a pretty significant variation when it comes supermarkets’ plastic-reduction efforts. Its plastic league table – which covers the UK’s top 10 supermarkets – takes a number of factors into account, including measures to influence suppliers and be transparent with customers, as well as getting rid of plastic itself. Here are the fast facts.

The best supermarket for plastic reduction activity is…

Iceland. The family-friendly frozen food chain is taking bigger strides than most in reducing single-use plastics and eliminating non-recyclable plastic packaging. It’s also doing a fair job of influencing its suppliers to do the same, and being clear and honest with its customers about what it is doing. However, while Iceland topped the charts, it still only achieved a score of 5.7 out of 10 – meaning there’s plenty more to be done.

The supermarket doing the least to combat plastic is…

Sainsbury’s. With a low score of 3.2 out of 10, Greenpeace says that this well-established retailer is at the bottom of the pile when it comes to policies designed to reduce plastic waste. On the upside, it is one of just four supermarkets that have initiatives underway for refillable and reusable packaging – the other three are Morrisons, Waitrose and Tesco. Iceland, by contrast has no current plans for such a scheme, nor does Co-op.

How did other supermarkets compare?

With a top score of 5.7 and a bottom score of 3.2, there’s not a huge amount of difference among supermarkets, but some have performed better than others. Here’s how they stack up:

  • Iceland: 5.7/10
  • Morrisons: 5.3/10
  • Waitrose: 4.7/10
  • M&S: 4.6/10
  • Tesco: 4.5/10
  • Asda: 4.3/10
  • Co-op: 4.2/10
  • Aldi: 4.1/10
  • Lidl: 4.1/10
  • Sainsbury’s: 3.2/10

When will supermarkets be plastic-free?

Plastic helps to keep some food fresh, makes goods easy to transport and it’s cheap, but anyone trying to go plastic-free knows there’s far too much of it in supermarkets. Plus, many supermarkets still charge a premium for loose fruit and veg! But some supermarkets have ambitious targets that mean we’ll see meaningful change within the next decade.
A number of UK supermarkets have signed the UK Plastics Pact. This is a voluntary scheme where companies and retailers commit to reducing the total amount of plastic packaging in their business models, and to make unavoidable plastics recyclable.

Other supermarkets have set their own targets. Iceland, for example, wants to reduce its own-brand single-use packaging by 100% come 2023. Aldi, Sainsbury’s and Tesco want to reduce all of their plastic packaging by 50% by 2025 at the latest. Waitrose, meanwhile, has trialled a plastic-free supermarket in Oxford, which proved very popular with customers. Others are making a less ambitious approach – Lidl is aiming to reduce its own-brand single-use packaging by 20% by 2022.

However, while some supermarkets are moving slower than others – and none of them are moving particularly quickly – they are at least moving. Without consistent pressure from their customers, their scores could have been even lower – so keep saying no to plastic, and one day supermarkets will stop giving us the option altogether.

We would love to hear your comments and stories about the issues raised in this article:


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