Following on from Blue Planet 2 Teresa May set out her vision for plastic free aisles in supermarkets. Judging by the amount of tweeting about the subject, as well as the general opinion (see last week’s post) that suppliers have a responsibility to reduce packaging, it would seem that this is a vision shared by a large percentage of the population. So it is interesting to note that there is now such a thing – the first plastic free supermarket aisle has been introduced – unfortunately in the Netherlands, but did Ms May specify that it was in British supermarkets that she wanted to see the plastic free move?
There then followed a flurry of announcements from supermarkets pledging various things over the space of a month as well as pointing out how much they had reduced their packaging since whenever. All very laudable, but the thing most noticeable is that with the exception of Iceland, none of them have committed to removing plastic packaging from any of their own brand products, and none of them have pledged to put pressure onto their supply chain to change from plastic.
Supermarkets (and they are not the only purveyors of plastic) will claim that plastic packaging can reduce food waste by extending the life of food (and of course food is not the only thing wrapped in plastic). For example on M&S’ website they claim that ‘1gm piece of film can double the life of a cucumber, apples and bananas ‘ But Apples already have a long storage life and bananas are shipped around the world in perfect health and I don’t often see lots of loose bananas going off in Waitrose. I would argue that, judging by the mushrooms being sold off sweating under film in their plastic punnets that their shelf life is not enhanced (I rarely see loose mushrooms going off mainly because they sell out very quickly or do they stock too few?). Likewise, potatoes and bread seem to sweat and go off more quickly in plastic. In some products, e.g. Cheese I can taste the plastic on the slices from the outside of the block – possibly due to chemicals leaching from the film into the fats? More on that in another post.
But this is what they say, and not necessarily what they do – the advent of social media has resulted in the outing of various poor examples of packaging – for example the Metro headline ‘Marks & Spencer is being slammed by shoppers and scientists for selling apples in a plastic tube to fit in car cup holders.’ and from Sky News ‘Lidl has come under fire for selling peeled onions wrapped in “unnecessary” plastic packaging. ‘.
The majority of the supermarkets have reduced their packaging, or at least the weight of their packaging – they have made thinner films or thinner card, or, like Asda have switched from glass to plastic bottles for their vinegar. Not necessarily a move in the right direction. There are some good moves such as removing the plastic lining in boxes of tissues and polystyrene boards in pizza boxes (which makes sense from a health perspective as well).
So, the majority of the pledges include a reduction in packaging (that will be packaging weight, not necessarily the items in plastic), making their own brand packaging widely recyclable, reusable or compostable by some time in the mid-2020s, supporting Deposit Return Schemes and phasing out single use plastic bags (now that the government has done the hard bit and made them charge for them). To be fair Lidl has been charging for years and has already removed them from their stores. I don’t see a backlash from consumers yet? Cotton buds and drinking straws get a mention, as do the almost impossible to recycle black plastic trays – but, I am not sure why the supermarkets find these so difficult to get rid of – I can only assume it is aesthetics rather than necessity – especially for things like baby sweetcorn!
The widely recyclable is also open to interpretation. The supermarkets have the same frustration as I do – try telling people what they can and can’t recycle at work when even in the same county there are different collections. But, there are things that all councils will collect – such as plastic bottles, and yet only 58% are recycled – the rest are landfilled, littered or incinerated. So, is the widely recyclable the answer, rather than elimination? Statistics would suggest not. One of the big things they can do (and some are looking at this) is to make their packaging from one plastic only which does increase both its value and its recyclability. I’d like to see more of a commitment to this too.
But, by talking about the difficulty and inconsistency in recycling, they are passing the buck. In a recent survey on Moneysavingexpert.com for over half of the examples they bought, the cost of buying fruit and veg without packaging was higher than with packaging. And, that is assuming that you can actually buy fruit and vegetables not wrapped in plastic (not always the case).
So, good for Iceland (although most of its sales are prepackaged food which in itself is an issue) and shame on the rest of the supermarkets. Although they are all pledging to increase the recyclability of their packaging, or to reduce the packaging (and, with about 1 million tonnes of plastic being generated by the supermarkets they have a lot of work to do), none seem to be giving the consumer the option of going completely plastic free, even for fresh food. As with most environmental improvements, perhaps a change in the law is required – if Ms May really does want a plastic free aisle, she might have to legislate for it, just as they finally did with the single use plastic bags.
Things you can do to reduce your plastic:
- Buy fruit and veg at the market – often this is cheaper (I have started doing this as Waitrose seem to have fewer and fewer items not in plastic)
- Switch to glass bottles from the milkman (but this is more expensive and doesn’t work for everyone)
- Take your own bags to the supermarket for fruit and veg
- Leave the plastic wrapping at the supermarket – let them pay for it rather than the cash strapped councils
- Don’t buy bottled water – buy a reusable bottle instead
- Buy in glass rather than plastic e.g. Vinegar