Summary

In 2018, EIA and Greenpeace UK undertook the first comprehensive study to gain a better understanding of how UK supermarkets are planning to address the plastic pollution crisis. Our second reveals that insufficient tangible progress has been made over the last year.

Despite reduction pledges made by companies, the total amount of plastic packaging placed on the market has continued to rise in the last year. Targets need tightening in order to guarantee a wholescale shift away from single-use materials.

A growing number of companies are trialling reuse and zero-waste solutions, however these generally remain small in scale and scope. Despite being the main focus of industry, the recyclability of packaging has only marginally improved in the last year.

It’s time to scale up commitments and fasten the pace of action, moving towards truly sustainable grocery supply chains.

903000 tonnes

of single-use packaging distributed by the UK’s 10 largest supermarkets.

20000 tonnes

of additional branded plastic packaging since last year’s survey

1.5 billion

‘bags for life’ sold by leading supermarkets

Summary

In 2018, EIA and Greenpeace UK undertook the first comprehensive study to gain a better understanding of how UK supermarkets are planning to address the plastic pollution crisis. Our second reveals that insufficient tangible progress has been made over the last year.

Despite reduction pledges made by companies, the total amount of plastic packaging placed on the market has continued to rise in the last year. Targets need tightening in order to guarantee a wholescale shift away from single-use materials.

A growing number of companies are trialling reuse and zero-waste solutions, however these generally remain small in scale and scope. Despite being the main focus of industry, the recyclability of packaging has only marginally improved in the last year.

It’s time to scale up commitments and fasten the pace of action, moving towards truly sustainable grocery supply chains.

903000 tonnes

of single-use packaging distributed by the UK’s 10 largest supermarkets.

20000 tonnes

of additional branded plastic packaging since last year’s survey

1.5 billion

‘bags for life’ sold by leading supermarkets

Scoring criteria

In May 2019, EIA and Greenpeace sent a survey to the UK’s largest grocery retailers. We asked questions and scored companies using the following criteria:

  1. Reduction in plastic footprint and use of reusables: Progress made to reduce single-use items and packaging and expand reusable and refillable ranges.
  1. Forward-looking commitments on reduction and reuse: Level of ambition of reduction and reuse commitments and targets.
  1. Recyclability and recycled content: Targets, commitments and progress made on removing non-recyclable plastics and increasing recycled content levels.
  1. Supply chain and stakeholder engagement: Engagement with suppliers, staff and customers about reducing plastic use, and public policy positions on Government proposals such as Deposit Return Schemes.
  1. Transparency: Provision of full data regarding plastic items and packaging footprint, information on recyclability and recycled content and public policy positions.

Scoring criteria

In May 2019, EIA and Greenpeace sent a survey to the UK’s largest grocery retailers. We asked questions and scored companies using the following criteria:

  1. Reduction in plastic footprint and use of reusables: Progress made to reduce single-use items and packaging and expand reusable and refillable ranges.
  1. Forward-looking commitments on reduction and reuse: Level of ambition of reduction and reuse commitments and targets.
  1. Recyclability and recycled content: Targets, commitments and progress made on removing non-recyclable plastics and increasing recycled content levels.
  1. Supply chain and stakeholder engagement: Engagement with suppliers, staff and customers about reducing plastic use, and public policy positions on Government proposals such as Deposit Return Schemes.
  1. Transparency: Provision of full data regarding plastic items and packaging footprint, information on recyclability and recycled content and public policy positions.

Scorecard: How the supermarkets measure up

Scorecard: How the supermarkets measure up

Single-use packaging

Single-use plastic packaging used by the ten UK supermarket giants increased from 886,000 tonnes in 2017 to 903,000 tonnes in 2018. This was driven by sales of branded goods, with packaging associated with these items rising by 20,000 tonnes since last year.

Plastic reduction targets

Ten companies reported plastic reduction targets in place, up from 5 reported in the 2018 survey. All the supermarkets that had targets in place last year reported they had achieved these. However, these companies also reported to have increased their overall plastic footprints. This is because targets are currently limited in scope and scale – often only covering own-brand goods, and calculated based on a sales ratio, rather than considering the overall increase or decrease in packaging placed on the market.

All companies are currently achieving targets in a large part through substituting one single use material for another (i.e. plastic for paper), and reducing the weight of packaging items, rather than taking them off the shelf altogether. Neither of these are long-term solutions to address the resource and waste crisis and shift the market away from single-use.

Single-use packaging

Single-use plastic packaging used by the ten UK supermarket giants increased from 886,000 tonnes in 2017 to 903,000 tonnes in 2018. This was driven by sales of branded goods, with packaging associated with these items rising by 20,000 tonnes since last year.

Plastic reduction targets

Ten companies reported plastic reduction targets in place, up from 5 reported in the 2018 survey. All the supermarkets that had targets in place last year reported they had achieved these. However, these companies also reported to have increased their overall plastic footprints. This is because targets are currently limited in scope and scale – often only covering own-brand goods, and calculated based on a sales ratio, rather than considering the overall increase or decrease in packaging placed on the market.

All companies are currently achieving targets in a large part through substituting one single use material for another (i.e. plastic for paper), and reducing the weight of packaging items, rather than taking them off the shelf altogether. Neither of these are long-term solutions to address the resource and waste crisis and shift the market away from single-use.

Reusable and packaging-free solutions

The number of companies trialling reusable alternatives has considerably increased since last year, however trials currently remain small in scale and scope.

Leaders on this area include Morrisons and Waitrose with their wide-ranging trials. Lessons from these pilot stores can be applied as companies roll out these concepts in stores nationwide. Tesco will shortly be introducing reusable packaging for online shopping, an area where we encourage more innovation from other companies.

All the major supermarkets said they were looking to increase their offering of loose fruit and vegetables, with many working to ensure the prices were the same (or less) than packaged options. Morrisons customers reported that being able to buy loose produce helped reduce food waste at home, as they were able to purchase the quantity needed.

Morrisons is leading the pack in setting the first quantifiable target on reusables, namely to double the amount of reusable and refillable transactions year-on-year. Other companies reported they were also scoping quantifiable targets on reuse.

Morrisons, Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s allow customers to use their own containers for certain products bought over-the-counter, and Morrisons is also trialling a refillable format for nuts, seeds and dried fruit. Several companies are also increasing loose fruit and veg options.

Reusable and packaging-free solutions

The number of companies trialling reusable alternatives has considerably increased since last year, however trials currently remain small in scale and scope.

Leaders on this area include Morrisons and Waitrose with their wide-ranging trials. Lessons from these pilot stores can be applied as companies roll out these concepts in stores nationwide. Tesco will shortly be introducing reusable packaging for online shopping, an area where we encourage more innovation from other companies.

All the major supermarkets said they were looking to increase their offering of loose fruit and vegetables, with many working to ensure the prices were the same (or less) than packaged options. Morrisons customers reported that being able to buy loose produce helped reduce food waste at home, as they were able to purchase the quantity needed.

Morrisons is leading the pack in setting the first quantifiable target on reusables, namely to double the amount of reusable and refillable transactions year-on-year. Other companies reported they were also scoping quantifiable targets on reuse.

Morrisons, Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s allow customers to use their own containers for certain products bought over-the-counter, and Morrisons is also trialling a refillable format for nuts, seeds and dried fruit. Several companies are also increasing loose fruit and veg options.

Recyclability and recycled content

Limited progress in increasing the amount of own-brand ”widely recycled” plastic packaging was reported since last year, moving from an average of 64% to 66% based on tonnage. Some companies reported a decrease in the amount of own-brand plastic packaging classified as “widely recycled” since last year, including Sainsbury’s (-0.5%), Tesco (-5.6%) and Waitrose (-5%).

Reporting on recyclability by tonnage skews the real recycling story however, since heavier items (such as plastic bottles) are more widely recycled than the more numerous but lighter items such as plastic films, which have very low recyclability levels.

The average proportion of “widely recycled” items based on unit data from the three companies was 40%, which is likely higher than the sector-wide figure since Co-op has an above average proportion of ‘widely recycled’ plastic packaging.

All ten supermarkets have commitments to phase-out non-recyclable packaging: by 2022 (Aldi and M&S); 2023 (Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Iceland, Co-op); and 2025 (Asda, Lidl, Morrisons, Tesco). Many companies have additional targets to eliminate the most problematic polymers and packaging format types within the next two years, including black plastics and PVC.

Recyclability and recycled content

Limited progress in increasing the amount of own-brand ”widely recycled” plastic packaging was reported since last year, moving from an average of 64% to 66% based on tonnage. Some companies reported a decrease in the amount of own-brand plastic packaging classified as “widely recycled” since last year, including Sainsbury’s (-0.5%), Tesco (-5.6%) and Waitrose (-5%).

Reporting on recyclability by tonnage skews the real recycling story however, since heavier items (such as plastic bottles) are more widely recycled than the more numerous but lighter items such as plastic films, which have very low recyclability levels.

The average proportion of “widely recycled” items based on unit data from the three companies was 40%, which is likely higher than the sector-wide figure since Co-op has an above average proportion of ‘widely recycled’ plastic packaging.

All ten supermarkets have commitments to phase-out non-recyclable packaging: by 2022 (Aldi and M&S); 2023 (Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Iceland, Co-op); and 2025 (Asda, Lidl, Morrisons, Tesco). Many companies have additional targets to eliminate the most problematic polymers and packaging format types within the next two years, including black plastics and PVC.

Single use items and plastic bags

No material should be sourced, extracted, transported, manufactured, marketed and sold to be used for just a matter of minutes before being disposed of. We do not support the simple substitution of single-use plastic items with those made of other materials such as paper or aluminium, as this will also have a negative environmental impact.

There was a general downward trend in the number of single use plastic items such as cutlery and coffee cups, although numbers still remain unnecessarily high.

There was a drastic and worrying rise in the number of so-called ‘bags for life’. This year 1.5 billion were reported by 10 companies, representing a 25% increase from last year when calculated on a market share basis. This confirms our concerns that many people are simply swapping ‘single-use’ plastic bags for these plastic bags for ‘life’. Some companies reported an enormous jump in sales – Iceland reported a tenfold increase from 3.5-34 million

Over 805 million

Single use water bottles
(8 supermarkets)

1.5 Billion

‘Bags for Life’
(10 companies)

166 Million

Items of single-use plastic cutlery
(10 companies)

Single use items and plastic bags

No material should be sourced, extracted, transported, manufactured, marketed and sold to be used for just a matter of minutes before being disposed of. We do not support the simple substitution of single-use plastic items with those made of other materials such as paper or aluminium, as this will also have a negative environmental impact.

There was a general downward trend in the number of single use plastic items such as cutlery and coffee cups, although numbers still remain unnecessarily high.

There was a drastic and worrying rise in the number of so-called ‘bags for life’. This year 1.5 billion were reported by 10 companies, representing a 25% increase from last year when calculated on a market share basis. This confirms our concerns that many people are simply swapping ‘single-use’ plastic bags for these plastic bags for ‘life’. Some companies reported an enormous jump in sales – Iceland reported a tenfold increase from 3.5-34 million

Over 805 million

Single use water bottles
(8 supermarkets)

1.5 Billion

‘Bags for Life’
(10 companies)

166 Million

Items of single-use plastic cutlery
(10 companies)

Supply chains

Plastics that customers find in the aisle are just one part of a supermarket’s total footprint. From the tiny pellets used to manufacture all plastic items, to fields of polytunnels on the farm, plastic is pervasive throughout the supply chain.

Most retailers are only in the early stages of monitoring and managing plastic in supply chains. It does not appear that the UK’s largest supermarkets are systematically applying their buying power to encourage brands to eliminate single-use or non-recyclable plastics.

Branded goods

Our survey leaves little doubt that branded suppliers are standing in the way of a significant reduction in single-use packaging and shift into reusable solutions – with seven out of ten companies reporting an increase in sales of these goods. A more robust approach to engagement is needed to focus big companies like Unilever and Coca Cola to focus on reduction and reuse. Tesco has shown leadership through by committing to assess the size and suitability of all packaging, and if it is excessive or inappropriate, reserving the right not to stock the product.

Packaging in supply chains

The packaging used to transport, protect and distribute goods is one of the lowest hanging fruit when it comes to the introduction of reusable solutions. All companies reported that reusable options were widely used within these ranges.

Working with agricultural suppliers

Use of plastics in agricultural production (known as agriplastics) has intensified across Europe in recent years. Where these are not recovered, they are often buried in the soil, abandoned in fields or watercourses (which can act as a passage to the oceans) and even illegally burnt.
A growing number of companies have projects underway to ensure responsible management of plastics used on the farm, with just Aldi reporting no initiatives on this area. Learnings from these now need to be cemented in best practices which are mandated through supply chain policies.

Plastic pellets

Small plastic pellets, also known as nurdles, are melted down and used in the manufacture of all plastic products. They can enter the environment at every stage of the plastic production, manufacturing and recycling process, and are the second largest source of marine microplastic pollution by weight.
A growing number of companies are looking towards Operation Clean Sweep to provide best practices to prevent pellet loss. Tesco reported to have a comprehensive site audit programme for all own-brand suppliers, and Aldi have updated their quality standards policy to require suppliers implement best practices in pellet loss prevention. Disappointingly, Asda and Iceland reported that this is an area they have not acted on.

Working with fishery suppliers

Plastic pollution also occurs in the fisheries supply chain, with at least 640,000 tonnes of abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear (also known as ghost gear) entering oceans each year. We were pleased to see an increasing number of companies engaged on the issue, with Co-op and Lidl having joined the multi-stakeholder platform Global Ghost Gear Initiative, and companies including Morrisons, Tesco and Waitrose looking to embed best practices into their supplier policies.

Supply chains

Plastics that customers find in the aisle are just one part of a supermarket’s total footprint. From the tiny pellets used to manufacture all plastic items, to fields of polytunnels on the farm, plastic is pervasive throughout the supply chain.

Most retailers are only in the early stages of monitoring and managing plastic in supply chains. It does not appear that the UK’s largest supermarkets are systematically applying their buying power to encourage brands to eliminate single-use or non-recyclable plastics.

Branded goods

Our survey leaves little doubt that branded suppliers are standing in the way of a significant reduction in single-use packaging and shift into reusable solutions – with seven out of ten companies reporting an increase in sales of these goods. A more robust approach to engagement is needed to focus big companies like Unilever and Coca Cola to focus on reduction and reuse. Tesco has shown leadership through by committing to assess the size and suitability of all packaging, and if it is excessive or inappropriate, reserving the right not to stock the product.

Packaging in supply chains

The packaging used to transport, protect and distribute goods is one of the lowest hanging fruit when it comes to the introduction of reusable solutions. All companies reported that reusable options were widely used within these ranges.

Working with agricultural suppliers

Use of plastics in agricultural production (known as agriplastics) has intensified across Europe in recent years. Where these are not recovered, they are often buried in the soil, abandoned in fields or watercourses (which can act as a passage to the oceans) and even illegally burnt.

A growing number of companies have projects underway to ensure responsible management of plastics used on the farm, with just Aldi reporting no initiatives on this area. Learnings from these now need to be cemented in best practices which are mandated through supply chain policies.

Plastic pellets

Small plastic pellets, also known as nurdles, are melted down and used in the manufacture of all plastic products. They can enter the environment at every stage of the plastic production, manufacturing and recycling process, and are the second largest source of marine microplastic pollution by weight.

A growing number of companies are looking towards Operation Clean Sweep to provide best practices to prevent pellet loss. Tesco reported to have a comprehensive site audit programme for all own-brand suppliers, and Aldi have updated their quality standards policy to require suppliers implement best practices in pellet loss prevention. Disappointingly, Asda and Iceland reported that this is an area they have not acted on.

Working with fishery suppliers

Plastic pollution also occurs in the fisheries supply chain, with at least 640,000 tonnes of abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear (also known as ghost gear) entering oceans each year. We were pleased to see an increasing number of companies engaged on the issue, with Co-op and Lidl having joined the multi-stakeholder platform Global Ghost Gear Initiative, and companies including Morrisons, Tesco and Waitrose looking to embed best practices into their supplier policies.

Engaging with key stakeholders

From the millions of customers passing through supermarket doors every day, to the staff who engage with them and handle products in-store, through to policy makers working on packaging legislation, grocery retailers interact with stakeholders whose behaviour and actions collectively shape the UK’s relationship with plastic and single-use packaging.

All companies reported a wide range of engagements to encourage a shift away from single-use and encourage an uptake in recycling, including through internal communications; staff education and training programmes; customer communications and engagement; as well as wider awareness raising.

Engagements to encourage staff and citizens to reduce their plastic footprint must be backed up with widely available and accessible means for people to do so in practice. This might include through offering reusable produce bags for purchase with loose fruit and vegetables, as being introduced by Asda, Lidl, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s.

We also asked companies how they were engaging with policy-makers around important reforms underway in the UK. Most were transparent about their policy engagements, generally taking a less ambitious position than Greenpeace and EIA. For example, many companies were against the inclusion of glass bottles within Deposit Return Schemes (DRS), despite evidence that these are a source of pollution and that DRS’s can increase the recycling and reuse rate for these items.

Engaging with key stakeholders

From the millions of customers passing through supermarket doors every day, to the staff who engage with them and handle products in-store, through to policy makers working on packaging legislation, grocery retailers interact with stakeholders whose behaviour and actions collectively shape the UK’s relationship with plastic and single-use packaging.

All companies reported a wide range of engagements to encourage a shift away from single-use and encourage an uptake in recycling, including through internal communications; staff education and training programmes; customer communications and engagement; as well as wider awareness raising.

Engagements to encourage staff and citizens to reduce their plastic footprint must be backed up with widely available and accessible means for people to do so in practice. This might include through offering reusable produce bags for purchase with loose fruit and vegetables, as being introduced by Asda, Lidl, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s.

We also asked companies how they were engaging with policy-makers around important reforms underway in the UK. Most were transparent about their policy engagements, generally taking a less ambitious position than Greenpeace and EIA. For example, many companies were against the inclusion of glass bottles within Deposit Return Schemes (DRS), despite evidence that these are a source of pollution and that DRS’s can increase the recycling and reuse rate for these items.

Transparency

Ocado, Booker Group and Best Way were the only survey recipients not to submit a response. All of the major supermarkets that we contacted responded to the survey and engaged in follow up discussions and clarifications.

There were some areas where companies were not able to disclose data due to deficiencies and challenges in data collection. Companies struggled to provide information on the proportion of branded packaging that is ‘widely recycled’ (Asda, Co-op, Iceland) and the level of recycled content that packaging contains (Iceland, Lidl, Tesco). Asda and Co-op were not able to provide unit data for branded products. Furthermore, Asda, Lidl and Sainsbury’s did not provide unit sales data on single-use water bottles.

Transparency

Ocado, Booker Group and Best Way were the only survey recipients not to submit a response. All of the major supermarkets that we contacted responded to the survey and engaged in follow up discussions and clarifications.

There were some areas where companies were not able to disclose data due to deficiencies and challenges in data collection. Companies struggled to provide information on the proportion of branded packaging that is ‘widely recycled’ (Asda, Co-op, Iceland) and the level of recycled content that packaging contains (Iceland, Lidl, Tesco). Asda and Co-op were not able to provide unit data for branded products. Furthermore, Asda, Lidl and Sainsbury’s did not provide unit sales data on single-use water bottles.

Recommendations

A summary of key recommendations is provided below. We encourage companies to collaborate and share learnings to enable faster progress across the sector.

Single-use packaging

Recommendations

A summary of key recommendations is provided below. We encourage companies to collaborate and share learnings to enable faster progress across the sector.

Single-use packaging

Reduction targets
Set long-term quantitative reduction targets for single-use packaging (both plastic-specific and for all materials), achieved primarily through prevention and a wholescale shift into reusables, rather than through light-weighting or substituting one single-use material for another. Targets should span branded and own-brand ranges, and focus on achieving an absolute reduction in packaging, rather being set relative to sales
Eliminate non-recyclable packaging
Urgently eliminate all non-recyclable plastic polymers and formats by the end of 2020 and make it mandatory for branded suppliers to do the same
Address the drivers of single-use packaging
Promote shorter supply chains and seasonal produce; ban excessive packaging used for marketing objectives; challenge the ‘convenience’ culture underpinning the wasteful on-the-go market
Refillable and reusable packaging
Support a wholescale transition towards refill and reuse systems across stores, supply chains and product lines nationwide; ensuring price parity, availability, accessibility and awareness of these. Introduce online reusable ranges
Non-conventional plastics
Avoid false solutions involving non-conventional plastics (bio-based, biodegradable, compostable)

Single-use plastic items

Single-use plastic items

End sales and provision of single-use items
This includes but is not limited to plastic cutlery, bottles, cups, straws, stirrers, sanitary items and plastic stemmed cotton buds. Focus on removing single-use items altogether and shifting to reusables.
End sale of single-use plastic bags and ‘bags for life’ or increase the price to at least 70p
and offer reusable produce bags.

Supply chains

Supply chains

Robust engagement with branded suppliers
Engage with brand suppliers on reducing single-use plastics and packaging by requesting target-setting, sharing best practices and collaborating on refillable packaging ranges. Delist companies that are unwilling or unable to adapt
In-store operations and transportation
Introduce a comprehensive policy requiring reusable distribution containers for transportation of all products
Plastic pellet loss
Introduce requirements for suppliers to implement best practice supply-chain approach measures to prevent plastic pellet loss, with third party auditing and reporting requirements
Agriplastics
Work with fruit and vegetable suppliers on the reduction and responsible management of plastics used on the farm to prevent pollution of soil, rivers and oceans. Formalise this into a policy enforced among across all suppliers
Fisheries-related plastic waste
Work with fishery suppliers on implementing best practice to prevent abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear and other plastic waste. Adopt sourcing policies that incorporate best practices such as those advocated by the Global Ghost Gear Initiative

Engagement with staff, customers and policy makers

Engagement with staff, customers and policy makers

Staff, customer and community engagement campaigns
Utilise all internal and external communication channels to empower staff and customers to reduce plastic, removing financial and non-financial barriers to behavioural change
Transparency
  • Publicly disclose full breakdown of plastic footprint including on website and within Annual Report.
  • Investors and shareholders in these companies are encouraged to promote these recommendations through their engagements.
Engage with policy makers to support reduction of plastic and single-use packaging
Engage individually and through industry bodies to promote ambitious policy reform significantly reduce single use packaging and shift into reusable ranges

Recommendations to policy makers

Recommendations to policy makers

We urge policy makers to adopt and implement ambitious legislation to ensure a rapid reduction in plastic waste, including:
  • Introducing legally binding reduction and reuse targets for packaging, reducing the production of single-use packaging by at least 50% by 2025
  • Using Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) packaging reform to ensure that producers cover the full costs associated with the packaging they place on the market, with fees set to incentivise design for reduction and reuse, as well as recyclability
  • Introducing an all-inclusive Deposit Return Scheme covering all materials and formats (including glass), set up in a way to enable reuse as well as recycling
  • Banning single-use plastic bags, and so-called bags for life, as well as other unnecessary single use items such as cutlery and coffee cups
  • Introducing taxes and charges to disincentivise the use of any virgin materials in packaging applications
  • Phasing out overseas exports of packaging waste and banning waste incineration as false solutions to addressing the UK’s lack of domestic recycling capacity
  • Introducing EPR schemes for agriplastics and fishing gear
  • Extending the UK microbead ban to cover intentionally added microplastics in all household and industrial appliances.

Checking Out on Plastics II
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