Our plastic predicament – over to the supermarkets

With plastic bags near to extinction, we delve into the ongoing war with plastic and how supermarkets are acting.

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Four years on from the introduction of the 5p charge on plastic shopping bags, David Cameron’s coalition Government have effectively extinguished the vast usage of one-use bags from our society. The health secretary, Theresa Villiers, and her department have said that the major seven supermarkets (ASDA, M&S, Morrisons, Waitrose & Partners, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Co-op) have sold 550 million less plastic bags in 2018-19 compared to the year before. The average Brit only purchases 10 plastic bags a year compared to what was 140. There has been a further consultation that plans to increase the levy to 10p per bag as well as extending it out to all retailers.


What else are supermarkets doing?

But for many, this is just the start and the people are pressuring supermarkets to act with more vigilance for the sake of the environment. So how have they planned to do their bit for the future?

The majority of the supermarkets have signed the UK Plastics Pact which has four key aims for 2025. These are to make: 100% of plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable, 70% of plastic packaging to be effectively recycled or composted and achieve a 30% average for recycled content across all plastic packaging and eliminate single use packaging.

Despite the positivity about this collaboration, the first aim only encapsulates own brand products so many of the branded items will still be unrecyclable and tarnish the efforts to reduce plastic. With the aim to make all plastic recyclable and reusable, the amount of plastic is likely to increase. ‘Compostable’ materials require a specific system to be disposed efficiently and not every customer has this accessible to them. If the companies are ultimately focused on profits then they may try and get around these aims and a recent example is McDonalds who have issued paper straws that are too thick to be recycled easily, which puts the credibility of environmental changes by firms into question.

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The main source of frustration is the amount of packaging on many products that simply do not require it, especially fresh fruit and veg. In order to get consumers on side, shops must eliminate as much plastic from the shelves as possible and that is exactly what many are trying. Sainsbury’s has become the first supermarket to remove plastic for its loose fruit, vegetable and bakery items, which hopes to reduce their plastic contribution by 489 tonnes. Morrison’s and Tesco are currently trialling plastic free fruit and veg in a selection of stores. The most notable trial is that by the high-end retailer, Waitrose & Partners, who have recently extended the trial of their ‘UNPACKED’ scheme which allows customers to fill up reusable containers with dried and frozen fruit, seeds, cereals, rice, washing up liquids and many more. The prices of many loose items have fallen in price by 15% as a result of the scheme. This has been operating at the Botley Road store in Oxford Street which gathered hugely positive feedback and Tor Harris from the store has described the reaction as “incredible”.

Marks & Spencer have introduced a 25 pence discount on hot and cold lunch options from one of the 23 stores that include a M&S Marketplace. Trewin Restorick, chief executive, commented on the programme “It is massively encouraging to see M&S become the first major retailer to offer customers a financial saving encouraging them to make an important change to their shopping habits.”


So, who or what has driven the shopping superpowers into changing their ways?

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Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is key advocate who has been campaigning over the TV to urge consumers and firms to change. His first viral campaign that took place was over the recyclability of coffee cups and from then on, he persuaded the previous environmental secretary (Michael Gove) to compose a plan of action against plastic straws and packaging. He is currently presenting the show on BBC ‘War on Plastic’, alongside Anita Rani, which has sparked #OurPlasticFeedback which urges people to return their unrecyclable plastics to their retailers and this has attracted big names such a Sir David Attenborough and Prue Leith. The Blue Planet series has brought the problem into reality for many and Extinction Rebellion are a group that have conducted mass protests all around the UK mainly consisting of young people. Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish girl who has become a global phenomenon as she delivers speeches at some of world’s leading conferences regarding the planet.

With consumers willing to change, businesses must embrace the change – even if it means for a temporary dip in profits – in order to retain their shoppers and help the planet by ditching the plastic that is polluting our world.

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