Fruit and vegetables from a supermarket with associated plastic waste

Bold action could see supermarkets slash the plastics they produce by half in just four years!

Despite the world slowly waking up to the plastic pollution crisis in our oceans and food chains, if we keep on as we are then we’re on course to actually quadruple plastic production by 2050.

But this alarming prognosis isn’t the whole story and new research indicates a far better outcome if we’re prepared to take bold, decisive action to change the way we do business.

A new report from our plastics campaigning partner Greenpeace shows a way forward as it makes a strong case for a fundamental shift in retail operations to drive down the use of harmful single-use plastics.

The report, Unpacked: How supermarkets can cut plastic packaging in half by 2025, builds on our collaborative work with the supermarket sector via our Checking out on Plastics project which evaluates the ‘plastic footprint’ of the top 10 grocery retailers in the UK and encourages them to embrace ambitious plans to reduce the amount of plastic produced by their operations.

Last year’s report shockingly revealed that plastic packaging was actually going up not down, despite the targets set, and found that in 2018 more than 900,000 tonnes of plastic packaging was put on the market by these 10 chains alone.

Greenpeace has looked at product components, weight and sales units to identify those areas where we could reap the biggest benefits through a reduction in plastic packaging and a switch to re-use and refill systems.

Unpacked singled out 13 product categories with a plastic reduction potential of 70-90 per cent, including bottled water, vegetables, carbonated drinks, detergents, bath and shower products and more and estimates that reduction and reuse alone could be the means to achieve a whopping 50 per cent reduction in plastic packaging.

What’s particularly encouraging is that such proposals aren’t just an idle wish list scrawled on the back of a napkin but are based on real-world, operational examples currently available.

The World Economic Forum recently stated that if we continue with business as usual, we’re facing the unpalatable prospect that plastic production will double over the next 20 years and quadruple by 2050.

To turn the tide on plastic the headline message is clear – we need bold, systemic action and a re-imagination of how we produce, design and consume products.

The benefits of making such a significant change are not purely environmental and will also include job creation in the circular economy, reduction in waste disposal costs and increased brand loyalty.

For the big supermarket chains and for society in general, there’s is a clear financial win to be had for shifting into a more sustainable business model.

A shopper in Waitrose filling a reusable container with pastaIn EIA’s work with supermarkets, we’ve seen that a large proportion of single-use plastic packaging is generated from what are called ‘branded products’, those household name companies you can find in the majority of stores.

There’s huge potential to leverage the collective power of the sector in urging branded suppliers to rethink their packaging and to push into more innovative models of product design and distribution and we echo the new report’s call for retailers to engage their supply chains and use their buying power to bring about the changes we need to see.

In the case of plastic pollution, there’s literally no time like the present – 2020 has been a year of huge transformative change as the coronavirus pandemic has threatened supply chains and radically changed the way we consume products and services, with supermarkets playing a front line role serving customers throughout.

In the midst of this global upheaval, we have a unique opportunity to embrace a bold reimagining of our systems as more and more people look for more home delivery options and reliable, local supplies.

As we look towards a post-coronavirus world and the potential for green recovery, it’s clear that factoring in the scaling up of refill and re-use while reducing our over-reliance on virgin plastic should be at the core of future planning.