Plastics pollute our food supply chains, but the Gov’t and big supermarkets are doing little to combat it

Amid growing concern about the damage and health risks to humans, wildlife and the environment caused by the increasing use of agriplastics in farming, little is being done by the UK’s major supermarkets and the Government to address the issue, a new survey reveals.

While supermarkets have measurable objectives to reduce the amount of plastic packaging used in their stores, for the most part they are failing to meaningfully help farmers and growers eliminate the damage caused by agriplastics in the production of foods such as fruit and vegetables for their shelves – and so is the Government.

Agriplastics use include protective greenhouse covers, plastic mulching, netting, pipes for irrigation and silage films. They increase short-term crop yields and extend local growing seasons, but can also reduce long-term productivity by deteriorating soil quality and, even more worrying, they contaminate land, rivers, the ocean and air quality.

In the wake of ongoing fruit and vegetable shortages, EIA questioned all the UK’s leading supermarkets about the issues for its new report Cultivating Plastic – Agriplastics and the UK grocery retail supply chain.

While all supermarkets have engaged somewhat with suppliers on the issue – through trials, raising awareness or third-party certification standards – only Lidl said it had sufficient information about the impact and risks of agriplastic pollution on the environment and human health; measurable objectives, company-level sourcing policies and funding were lacking for all.

EIA Senior Ocean Campaigner Lauren Weir said: “These findings are very concerning, given that major supermarkets have global purchasing power across international supply chains and help create the system in which the farmers and growers of our food operate.

“They have other sustainability targets, including plastic packaging reduction targets. but little or nothing regarding the plastics being used by their suppliers to cultivate food and the devastating pollution that results.”

EIA received answers to its survey from Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Sainsbury’s, Lidl, Waitrose, Tesco, M&S and Morrisons; Iceland declined to take part:

  • all respondents said there was a need for a sector-wide initiative dedicated to tackling agriplastic pollution
  • only Tesco and Sainsbury’s said they were ‘very concerned’ about agriplastics in the retail grocery supply chain, while M&S said it was only ‘somewhat concerned’
  • only Waitrose and Aldi were currently funding any projects trying to reduce pollution resulting from plastic in farming and both were related specifically to ongoing temporary trials with suppliers.

Other than an unsupported agriplastic burying and burning ban, the UK Government has no policy to address the issue, despite having the regulatory responsibility to do so. There are no mandatory reporting requirements on what is placed on the market, nor any compulsory extended producer responsibility schemes for agriplastic waste or bans in place for particularly damaging plastics.

Truck loading waste agriplastics, Spain (c) EIA

“Agriplastics may account for only about 3.5 per cent of annual global plastic usage, but the pollution they cause is devasting,” said Weir. “It extends far beyond farmland, especially if mismanaged at the end of life – whether burned, buried, dumped or illegally exported.”

Furthermore, current Government policy does not adequately address microplastic content in sludge applied as fertiliser to UK farmland. It also still allows plastic waste exports to other countries, which bear the brunt of trying to recycle any agriplastic waste shipped to them.

“Against the backdrop of growing awareness of UK food supply chain resilience and food security and the damage done by plastic pollution, we need the Government to address agriplastic use and support better waste management properly,” added Weir.

“We need genuinely sustainable alternatives and for those with the purchasing power, such as our major grocery retailers, to take unified action across their international supply chains to ensure the UK’s food supply chain does not result in driving damage in other sourcing regions.”

The new report is the first of four by EIA on agriplastics. The others will focus specifically on the environmental and human health harm from agriplastic use, waste management and corresponding criminality and, finally, will highlight important issues that need to be addressed to allow alternative solutions to be implemented widely.