Fruit and vegetables from a supermarket with associated plastic waste

Major UK supermarkets are treading water in a growing ocean of plastic packaging

Too many of the UK’s leading supermarket chains are treading water in the fight against mounting plastic pollution, our latest research reveals.

The third annual plastics survey by EIA and Greenpeace UK, Checking Out on Plastics III, showed that the 10 leading supermarkets collectively put almost 900,000 tonnes of plastic packaging on the market in 2019 – that’s the equivalent weight of almost 90 Eiffel Towers.

But while the 896,853 tonnes was a reduction of 1.6 per cent on 2018, it’s actually a 1.2 per cent increase from 2017 when the survey was first conducted and they produced a total of 886,021 tonnes of plastic.

The new report ranks the 10 in terms of efforts to reduce plastic pollution and this year’s scorecard shows Waitrose at the top for the second consecutive year, with Iceland in tenth place. Of the five largest UK supermarkets by market share, Aldi ranked first, followed by Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda and Morrisons.

EIA Senior Ocean Campaigner Christina Dixon said: “In our third year of looking at plastic packaging in UK supermarkets, we had hoped to see a much sharper downwards trajectory as strategies and targets bear fruit. Instead, we are looking at a relatively static picture – the sector urgently needs to pick up the pace.”

Other significant findings in the survey, based entirely on data supplied by the supermarkets themselves, include:

  • more than 1.58 billion plastic ‘bags for life’ (which contain more plastic than thinner single-use bags) were issued in 2019, a 4.5 per cent increase over 2018. This represents almost 57 bags per UK household during the year;
  • the number of single-use plastic carrier bags issued fell by 33 per cent and several supermarkets have banned them entirely;
  • almost 2.5 billion plastic water bottles were sold or given away in UK supermarkets in 2019;
  • while most companies reported reductions on own-brand plastic packaging, the percentage of branded packaging in 2019 increased by five per cent compared to 2017.

Dixon added: “Supermarket targets and reduction efforts are primarily focused on own-brand plastic packaging, which makes sense as they have more direct control over the supply chain.

“However, this means that the amount of packaging used for popular branded goods is not reducing and we’d like to see supermarkets increasingly taking the fight to the big manufacturers and compelling them in turn to drive down their own plastic footprints.”

EIA and Greenpeace UK firmly believe Government-mandated reporting for companies’ plastic use is essential to achieve transparency and accuracy for both retailers and brands.