This is what the UK’s major supermarkets say about plastic packaging and the environment

supermarkets plastic

(David Veksler, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Charlotte Edmond, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • Consumers are pressuring brands and retailers to reduce plastic packaging.
  • A new report from the Green Alliance suggests plastic alternatives may cause other problems for the environment, too.
  • Greater involvement from government would help drive a more coordinated response and bring about faster changes.

The vast majority of UK shoppers is now concerned about the volume of plastic waste, finds a new report.

But pressure on supermarkets to change their packaging could cause other problems for the environment, it says.

 

Compiled by environmental think tank Green Alliance and based on responses from leading supermarkets and consumer goods companies, the report finds increasing pressure from consumers to move away from plastics. All of the UK’s top 10 supermarkets now have plastic reduction targets, compared to just half of them in 2018.

plastic single use waste environment renewable solar energy change transition friendly environment carbon footprint carbon emissions reduction change natural climate change global warming air pollution clean energy power renewables plastic plastics
How concerned are consumers about plastic?
Image: Green Alliance

But the report suggests there has not been a significant reduction in the amount of plastic packaging in use – and says many companies are simply substituting single-use plastics for other single-use alternatives. It cites statistics from the UK National Packaging Waste Database, which show a year-on-year increase in all packaging types handled in 2019 with the exception of steel.

plastic single use waste environment renewable solar energy change transition friendly environment carbon footprint carbon emissions reduction change natural climate change global warming air pollution clean energy power renewables plastic plastics
The young people are more likely to swap brands due to concerns over their packaging.
Image: Green Alliance

Nearly half of consumers ages 18-34 say they have changed food brands based on packaging. But retailers said this has yet to be seen in real consumer behaviour. In other words, people say they have changed, but in reality, many habits remain.

This could, in part, be a chicken-and-egg problem. Plastic still dominates the supermarket shelves, with one report by Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency saying UK supermarkets put at least 59 billion items of single-use packaging on the market each year – that’s nearly 900 pieces per inhabitant.

Public confusion

More worrying, perhaps, is the fact the brands questioned say decisions to move away from plastics can sometimes be made without considering the environmental impact of the alternatives. A ban on all plastics is not necessarily the best response, the report suggests. Instead, current consumer sentiment should be used to fuel discussions about packaging choices and the consequences of alternatives.

For example, swapping drink bottles from single-use plastic to single-use glass could have a negative impact on carbon footprints, as glass is heavier and more bulky to transport.

Likewise, switching from plastic packaging to paper on fresh fruit and bakery products could be problematic. Paper bags can use more energy in production. Some research suggests that when taking factors like ecosystem toxicity, water and air pollution into account, a paper bag would have to be reused 43 times in order to have a lower impact than a plastic bag.

Circular economy

What is a circular economy?

The global population is expected to reach close to 9 billion people by 2030 – inclusive of 3 billion new middle-class consumers.This places unprecedented pressure on natural resources to meet future consumer demand.

A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and business models.

Nothing that is made in a circular economy becomes waste, moving away from our current linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy. The circular economy’s potential for innovation, job creation and economic development is huge: estimates indicate a trillion-dollar opportunity.

The World Economic Forum has collaborated with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for a number of years to accelerate the Circular Economy transition through Project MainStream – a CEO-led initiative that helps to scale business driven circular economy innovations.

Join our project, part of the World Economic Forum’s Shaping the Future of Environment and Natural Resource Security System Initiative, by contacting us to become a member or partner.

The study also identifies misinformation and confusion among the public about the differences between packaging types – such as between “bio-based,” “compostable” and “biodegradable” – which can lead to items being disposed of incorrectly.

plastic single use waste environment renewable solar energy change transition friendly environment carbon footprint carbon emissions reduction change natural climate change global warming air pollution clean energy power renewables plastic plastics
The types of packaging that cause the most concern for consumers.
Image: Green Alliance

So, what can we do?

Retailers may be slower to shift to plastic alternatives in the absence of clear-cut improvements, the report notes. And there are concerns about the cost of introducing some novel packaging types, such as plant-based compostables.

There have been some changes, though, with more focus from the industry on increasing recyclability and the volume of recycled materials being used. Retailers are also giving greater consideration to how they can incorporate refill models into their business.

Some supermarkets already offer refill options for some products, or allow customers to bring their own containers for delicatessen items, as two examples. But retailers highlighted the need for consumer buy-in for such models to be successful. Similarly, there are also environmental hurdles around losses, breakages and emissions from transport, as refilling generally requires heavier and more material-intense durable packaging than single-use options.

Greater involvement and direction from government would be an advantage, retailers say, helping to ensure companies’ plastics policies develop in compatible ways. And more focus on carbon footprints generally, as well as looking at how packaging innovations can contribute to broader market improvements rather than being treated simply as a competitive advantage, were also recommended.

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Boris as UK Premier to be cornered if attempting a no-deal Brexit

Malta: Human rights experts call for justice in case of murdered journalist

The company of the future must do well by doing good

Germany’s strong anti-bribery enforcement against individuals needs to be matched by comparably strong enforcement against companies

Parliament compromises on Banking Union but sends market abusers to jail

Here are 4 of the most politically charged World Cup games ever played

COP21 Breaking News_10 December: UN Climate Chief Calls for Final Push to Meet Adaptation Fund Goal Very Close to Target

EU car manufacturers worry about an FTA with Japan

Access to ‘affordable’ medicines in India: challenges & solutions

Myanmar doing too little to ensure displaced Rohingya return: UN refugee agency chief

Tuesday’s Daily Brief: hate speech, dementia, Libya and Yemen, human rights in Brazil and Lebanon

Civilian death toll continues to mount in Syria, UN relief chief tells Security Council

From a refugee camp to Davos: one Co-Chair’s story

EU and China resolve amicably solar panel trade dispute

‘By no means is this over’: WHO briefing

Sustainable development funding is broken. Here’s how to fix it

How COVID-19 is driving a long-overdue revolution in education

Ditching plastic straws isn’t enough. Here’s how to achieve zero waste.

Green Deal: Coal and other carbon-intensive regions and the Commission launch the European Just Transition Platform

US-EU trade war: Berlin fearful of the second round

This is what the world’s waste does to people in poorer countries

Gender inequality in the medicine field: two commonly issues

Scotland wants to create an ethical stock exchange (Post Brexit)

UN agency plan tackles ‘hidden cost’ of gold, paves way for safer, mercury-free mining

Measuring consumer confidence isn’t useful anymore. Here’s what we should do instead

State aid: Commission invites comments on simplified rules for State aid combined with EU support

Eurozone again whipped by Greek winds

This is how many people are forcibly displaced worldwide

Pandemic and mental health: what to do in this context?

Healthcare’s a human right, not ‘a privilege for the rich’ UNAIDS argues at Davos

Lithuania finds the ways to maintain its energy security

‘Regional security and integration’ in Central Africa under threat, Security Council warned

Protests and civil unrest show ‘renewed sense of patriotism’ in Iraq, UN envoy tells Security Council

Young students envision turning Europe into an Entrepreneurial Society

What the car industry has done to help fight climate change – and what it needs to do next

Ebola situation worsening in DR Congo, amidst growing ‘funding gap’ UN health agency warns

How can coronavirus lockdowns end safely and effectively? – WHO briefing

GSMA Reveals Shortlist For 2019 Asia Mobile Awards

New rules for temporary border controls within the Schengen area

World Malaria Day: 7 things to know about the deadly disease

China’s impact as a global investor; the Sting reports live from World Economic Forum 2015 in Davos

The challenges of Chinese investment in Latin America

Federalist EU ‘naively’ believes Washington shares her TTIP high fever

Japanese law professor elected new judge at the International Court of Justice

G20 LIVE: the EU trade gold rush continues as EU and Australia agree to launch Free Trade Agreement (FTA) live from Antalya Turkey

Combatting terrorism: EP special committee calls for closer EU cooperation

World Digital Media Awards winners announced at WNMC.19 in Glasgow, in association with The European Sting

Jean-Claude Juncker and Theresa May at last week’s EU Council. Source: EC Audiovisual Services / Copyright: European Union, 2017 / Photo: Etienne Ansotte

EU leaders open “Phase Two” of Brexit talks and warn Theresa May of tougher times

Globalization 4.0 will help us tackle climate change. Here’s how

EU invests more than €100 million in new LIFE Programme projects to promote a green and climate-neutral Europe

EU citizens disenchanted with Economic and Monetary Union over rising poverty and high unemployment

Shaping the future of democracy in Armenia

Brexit casts a shadow over the LSE – Deutsche Börse merger: a tracer of how or if brexit is to be implemented

Poorer countries set to be ‘increasingly dependent’ on food imports, says UN food agency report

Medical students as the critical link to address climate change

The Amazon is reaching a dangerous tipping-point. We need to scale solutions now if we have any chance of saving it

Portraits show ‘dignity and humanity’ of Holocaust survivors, 75 years after Auschwitz liberation

UN chief commends African Union on adoption of institutional reforms

Peru is building a new international airport near Machu Picchu – and archaeologists are worried

Investment, not debt, can kick-start an entrepreneurial Europe

More Stings?

Advertising

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s