UK supermarkets give insight into plastic plans in Green Alliance report

Materials World magazine
29 Jan 2020

Green Alliance reveals information on what the UK grocery industry is doing about plastic and the potential pitfalls of using alternatives. Idha Valeur reports.

In a new report published by charity Green Alliance, senior employees of UK brands and supermarkets have shared insights into how the sector is swapping plastics for substitutes that may be even more harmful to the environment. These replacements are often in response to customer demand, without adequate research into the material’s overall impact.

The report, Plastic promises: what the grocery sector is really doing about plastic, released in January 2020, was carried out by the charity as  part of its work for the Circular Economy Task Force.

Green Alliance Senior Policy Adviser, Libby Peake, said the group conducted interviews with senior representatives from five of the 10 leading supermarkets in the country, as well as brands that produce food and beverages. The information was gathered anonymously to allow for full honesty.

‘The current work programme is focused on plastic and encouraging a more systemic approach. This particular report came about as we were looking for market information about shifts away from plastic, which might have been expected given all of the commitments made since the airing of Blue Planet II,’ Peake said.

‘However, while there have been some notable niche market shifts – away from plastic bags and towards paper bags for instance, and new types of containers edging in on the bottled water market – supermarket shelves look remarkably similar now to how they looked two years ago.’

The supermarket perspective

According to Peake, most interviewees reported a lack of joined up thinking in the industry and said they wanted more government involvement. They would welcome standards and even firmer direction on material use, which could hopefully end the tough competition in packaging innovations that they believe is hindering progress.

Growing consumer awareness is influencing the industry to make changes, which in itself is positive, but can lead to hasty decisions. One supermarket representative said, ‘there is a lot of pressure to move to alternatives, which are not necessarily better from an environmental and climate impact point of view’.

The report highlighted that while the transition from single-use plastic bags for loose produce to single-use paper may be perceived by consumers as more sustainable, thorough investigations suggest this is not the case. ‘This is a worrying trend as paper bags, which are often just as unnecessary as their plastic counterparts, can have much higher carbon impacts, though this can depend on material sources and product specification. A 2011 study for the Northern Ireland Assembly found that paper bags generally require four times as much energy to manufacture as plastic bags,’ the report read.

It further stated that when taking into account all factors, such as water and air pollution, and ozone depletion, a single paper bag would have to be used 43 times to be more sustainable than plastic.

One UK supermarket responded that it had made such material switches to satisfy customers, despite knowing this would increase the carbon footprint.

‘The main worry is there will be unintended consequences from the war on plastics - that we will focus so much on simply getting rid of plastics, that we will not make the wider, systemic changes that are needed to make the packaging system sustainable,’ Peake said.

What to do?

To solve this, the report suggested taking a more holistic approach to materials use and embracing a collective effort between government, industry and consumers to solve the ‘systemic problems of our throwaway society, to avoid the risk of simply substituting current environmental problems with new ones.’

Peake believes change will start with the materials. To first identify which materials we can do without, and which can be used less or reused, and finally, how to ensure there is a proper and consistent system for recycling the leftovers.

‘[Plastic] was developed before ideas like the circular economy existed, and problems have occurred because of the proliferation of many incompatible material types without thinking about what would happen to them after they are used,’ Peake said. ’It is really important to think about how different materials can work in a system, to ensure they are used where appropriate, and that the collection and treatment infrastructure is in place to handle them once they have reached the end of their useful life.’

Read the full report here: