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 Milestones

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

No more lead in PVC to protect public health, say MEPs

Macron’s Presidency: what the young generation’s expectations are

Teenagers’ career expectations narrowing to limited range of jobs, OECD PISA report finds

The Great Reset and digital trust: 3 lessons on digital tools from the COVID-19 crisis

The children’s continent: keeping up with Africa’s growth

Release of prize-winning Reuters journalists in Myanmar welcomed by UN

Clean air is good for business

Antarctica: the final coronavirus-free frontier. But will it stay that way?

Robot inventors are on the rise. But are they welcomed by the patent system?

This heroic doctor is waging war on rape and the stigma around it

Child victims of DRC Ebola outbreak need ‘special attention and care’: UNICEF

‘Mosques should be safe havens, not sites of terror’, says Guterres announcing UN plan to help safeguard religious sites

These are 2018’s stats of the year

Here’s how we can make innovation more inclusive

An electric motorbike could help tackle big game poaching. Here’s how

Big impact vs big exit: the social side of the start-up game presented at the WSA Global Congress in Vienna

3 charts that show how global carbon emissions hit a record high in 2018

What lessons to draw from the destruction of Syria

Draghi proposes timeframe for full Banking Union in five years

First-ever UN report on disability and development, illustrates inclusion gaps

Lack of investment and ambition means Youth Guarantee not reaching potential

FROM THE FIELD: Murals help heal wounds of bloody conflict in Guatemala

A new European banking space is born this year

Impressions of China

Parliament in favour of lifting visa requirements for Kosovars

‘Digital divide’ will worsen inequalities, without better global cooperation

This tool shows you which cities will flood as ice sheets melt

Coronavirus global response: EU Humanitarian Air Bridge to Iraq and new funding

Betazone: The Beauty of Inclusion

Eurozone closer to a deflation – stagnation trap

New volunteering programme for young people in Europe and beyond agreed

This US city sends mental health workers instead of police to non-criminal emergency calls

State aid: Commission approves €30 billion French subordinated loan scheme to support companies affected by the coronavirus outbreak

Financial services: Commission sets out its equivalence policy with non-EU countries

Employment and Social Developments in Europe: 2019 review highlights that tackling climate change can be a driver for growth and jobs

What could a no-deal Brexit mean for developing countries?

EU’s Mogherini visits Turkey “to step up engagement” and highlight interests

Would you let an AI vote for you?

How can we safeguard and improve the future of global health?

Global spotlight on world drug problem ‘is personal’ for many families, says UN chief

Veteran public official from Portugal elected to lead UN migration agency

Students & Allies Unite Globally To Launch #Students_Against_COVID

A new proposal breaks the stalemate over the Banking Union

Western Sahara: a ‘peaceful solution’ to conflict is possible, says UN envoy

The challenges of mental health: an inconvenient reality

5 times people predicted the future and got it really wrong

Renewed pressures on Berlin to adopt growth policies

What’s the latest on coronavirus antibody tests?

Mali peace process in a ‘critical phase’, says head of UN Mission

Roma integration: fight social exclusion, poverty and anti-gypsyism, MEPs demand

COVID-19 a year later: What have we learned?

Working Muslim women are a trillion-dollar market

India’s agro-food sector has made strong progress, but a new policy approach is needed to meet future challenges, says new report by OECD and ICRIER

How Bangladesh’s leaders should respond to the economic threats of COVID-19

How regenerative agroforestry could solve the climate crisis

Coronavirus Dashboard: EU Cohesion Policy response to the coronavirus crisis

First-ever EU defence industry fund to finance joint development of capabilities

Expanding the care for the quality of life and quality of death

‘Nothing left to go back for’: UN News hears extraordinary stories of loss, and survival as Mozambique rebuilds from deadly cyclones

This entrepreneur is helping farmers get food to consumers during lockdown

More Stings?



  1. really informative posts

Speak your Mind Here

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

You are commenting using your 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