UK top supermarkets flood Britain with 59 billion pieces of plastic packaging every year

The full extent of UK supermarket giants’ contribution to our plastic waste problem is exposed today by the most comprehensive analysis of the sector to date.

Drawing on detailed figures disclosed by firms for the first time, Checking Out on Plastics, our survey of Britain’s largest supermarkets and grocery chains, reveals 10 major retailers are placing over 810,000 tonnes of single-use plastic on the market every year. Seven of them are putting in circulation the equivalent of some 59 billion pieces of plastic packaging – over 2,000 items for every household in the country.

Despite their huge plastic footprint, half of the supermarkets surveyed have no specific targets to reduce plastic packaging and most of those who do are moving at such a slow pace (just five per cent per year) that it would take them 20 years to completely rid their shelves of throwaway plastic.

The survey by Greenpeace UK and ourselves ranks retailers based on their commitments to reduce single-use plastic, eliminate non-recyclable plastic packaging, supply chain actions and transparency. Iceland comes out slightly ahead of the pack thanks to an ambitious plan for phasing out own-brand plastic packaging within five years, while most major retailers, including Tesco and Asda, are clumped together with mid to low scores, with Sainsbury’s at the bottom of the league.

Following a series of announcements from retailers about their action on plastic waste, the survey aimed to establish how far supermarkets are actually going in tackling the problem. It found that:

  • On top of the plastic packaging already mentioned, the 10 leading supermarkets are also producing 1.1 billion single-use bags, almost one billion bags for life and 1.2 billion plastic produce bags for fruit and vegetables, as well as over half-a-billion units of bottled water every year
  • Only four supermarkets offer customers some options to use refillable containers – an effective way to reduce plastic packaging – for example, for over-the-counter products such as meat and fish or loose produce such as nuts and dried fruits
  • Many supermarkets are yet to adopt plastic-specific reduction targets. In general, retailers have a greater focus on recycling than reduction but even here, most major supermarkets have only committed to eliminate non-recyclable plastic packaging by 2025. The Co-op tops the leaderboard for share of own-brand products that are widely recyclable (79 per cent), most others fall behind, with around a third of their plastic (by weight) not widely recyclable
  • Despite branded goods making up as much as 60% of retailers’ plastic packaging, few retailers were able to provide evidence that they’re using their buying power to push big consumer brands to reduce their plastic footprint
  • Many supermarkets have taken action to end sales or provision of disposable items such as straws, cutlery and cotton buds, ahead of a planned Government ban, and many are also committed to phasing out the most problematic forms of plastic, such as PVC, expanded polystyrene and black plastic, within the next two years. But no supermarket has pledged to completely remove plastic that can’t be recycled from its shelves before 2022
  • Ocado was the only major grocery retailer who refused to participate in the survey, along with the convenience chains, Spar, Premier Stores, Londis, Lifestyle Express and Best-One.

Sarah Baulch, Senior Ocean Campaigner, said: “Decisions taken by supermarkets today are resulting in thousands of plastic items flooding British homes every year. Despite public pressure for action on plastic being at an all-time high, our survey shows that UK supermarket giants are failing to keep up. With just seven supermarkets putting over 59 billion pieces of plastic packaging through their tills every year, the true scale of their footprint is now becoming apparent.  

“It is abundantly clear that we cannot simply recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis, and yet this remains the priority area of focus for many major chains. Retailers must pioneer new ways to reduce their plastic footprint across the entire supply chain. Waste from the UK impacts wildlife and communities around the world and it’s high time that supermarkets move beyond incremental change and fundamentally rethink their relationship with single-use plastic packaging.”

We’re calling on supermarkets to:

  • Set year-on-year targets to reduce their single-use plastic footprint
  • Urgently eliminate unnecessary and non-recyclable plastic packaging by end of 2019
  • Introduce transparency by publishing yearly audits of single-use plastic use.

Read the special summary