Measuring and managing – how Government policy can help drive plastic reduction

Since we started collecting data on plastics in the UK supermarket sector, we have seen awareness of the scale of the plastic pollution crisis rise exponentially.

Every major supermarket has a time-bound plastic reduction target and recognises that the current status quo cannot be maintained.

Our analysis – released yesterday in the new report Checking Out on Plastics III – shows that plastic packaging use went down 1.6 per cent between 2018-19, but is ultimately still 1.2 per cent higher than our first data year of 2017.

Yet we know from our dealings with the supermarkets that work is happening behind the scenes to solve packaging challenges, explore opportunities for reuse and refill and to find solutions for problematic single-use items.

In our report, we throw the gauntlet to supermarkets to do more on packaging reduction and scaling up reusable and refillable packaging systems nationally and also ask for more robust engagement with the big brand household names to pressure them to reduce plastic packaging.

This is particularly important as we have seen progress on own-brand plastic reduction offset by increases in branded packaging, as well as problems for the retailers in reporting consistent information on branded products.

Transparency is a huge piece of the plastic pollution puzzle. You can’t manage what you can’t measure and, right now, the sector is struggling to consistently measure its plastic footprint.

Different calculation methods, terminology and access to information varies wildly across retailers – and not for the want of them trying. Without a requirement to collect this information in a standardised manner, the sector remains on the back foot.

The big supermarkets have reported that they are engaging with suppliers on problematic polymers and packaging formats, as well as plans to delist, or refuse to stock, products with excessive packaging, but some have pointed out that they have limited influence on brands due to their size and buying power.

So where does Government policy come in and how can it help level the playing field for retailers in addressing plastic pollution?

A core message within Checking Out on Plastics III is urging the Government to use the Environment Bill to set legally binding targets to reduce single-use plastics by 50 per cent by 2025, alongside ambitious reuse targets, and to introduce mandatory corporate reporting on plastic use in order to create a fair system for all sections of the industry.

Another area where policy development will play a critical role, particularly as we experience a surge in online shopping during the coronavirus pandemic, is in creating an enabling infrastructure to scale up reusable and refillable packaging and delivery systems, particularly for refill at home.

Many retailers expressed their desire to expand such systems, but the capacity for a national roll-out needs significant investment, national reuse targets and guidance for the standardisation of reusable packaging formats to support implementation.

Upcoming Government policy initiatives such as the Extended Producer Responsibility and Deposit Return Scheme consultations are ripe opportunities to explore how measures can be designed to support retailers by incentivising eco-design, plastic reduction and facilitating reuse, with targets set nationally to effectively monitor progress.

There’s a lot of work to do, but it is clear that mandated plastic reporting and ambitious national targets will catalyse greater progress to reduce plastic packaging and support the design of systems aimed at reducing its impact on the environment.