Environmental concerns about waste plastic have grown in recent years, due to the damaging effect it has on the environment when it isn’t disposed of properly.
Plastic contains toxic pollutants that can cause sea, land and air pollution. It can take hundreds of years to break down, so the environmental damage (particularly to our oceans) has long-lasting effects.
Marine life can die through ingesting plastic, as it can poison minute organisms, such as plankton, which in turn contaminates the larger plankton-eating fish. The toxins work their way through the food chain and can end up in the fish served on our dinner table.
Animals, marine life and birds can become entangled in plastic packaging, such as plastic ring can-holders, which can lead to their death.
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Why do supermarkets use plastic packaging?
As a result of increasing environmental concerns, supermarkets are starting to remove plastic from the shelves. However, it’s challenging to strike a balance between preserving the environment, while running a retail business without a financial loss.
The concept of plastic-free food shopping sounds appealing, particularly when analysts estimate UK supermarkets generate around 800,000 tonnes of plastic annually, but there are several reasons why supermarkets have continued to use plastic packaging.
Sealing food in plastic helps to protect it from damage, making it last longer and ensuring it’s more visually appealing to consumers. This is an important factor for supermarkets, helping them to reduce food waste.
However, there’s no denying the fact that when plastic gets into the environment, it can cause a massive amount of damage to our ecosystems.
Supermarket packaging survey
In 2018, a survey by the consumer magazine, Which, investigated how much supermarket plastic packaging could be recycled. The survey was based on 27 popular own-brand items purchased from each of ten major supermarket chains in the UK.
Between 71% and 81% of the total packaging was found to be widely recyclable, with Morrisons being the best supermarket in this respect. However, the survey also found between 12% and 22% of plastic packaging wasn’t recycled, which created a considerable amount of waste.
The survey concluded that supermarkets could do more to reduce their non-recyclable packaging. In addition, some items didn’t have recycling information on the label, which was unhelpful to shoppers trying to make an informed choice before buying.
What are supermarkets doing to help?
Almost all major supermarkets in the UK have signed the UK Plastics Pact, which was introduced in April 2018. It is being spearheaded by the environmental organisation, WRAP, bringing together businesses across the spectrum to tackle plastic waste.
They have signed up to meet certain targets by 2025, including making 100% of plastic packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable and eliminating single-use plastic packaging.
Introduced in supermarkets in October 2015, the 5p charge per plastic bag has made some progress in reducing their use, but almost two billion were still sold to UK shoppers in the past year. Some supermarkets have stopped using the 5p disposable bags altogether and sell only the “bags for life”, which cost 10p each.
Other supermarkets, such as Morrisons, have gone one step further – eight of its 493 stores are currently trialling a scheme where paper bags are being used instead of plastic ones.
Which brands are ditching plastic?
Some major manufacturers have pledged to eliminate plastic waste by 2025, including bottled water manufacturer Nestle Waters UK, Lucozade Ribena Suntory and Harrogate Water Brands.
They have collaborated with scientists at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership to produce a blueprint for eliminating plastic over the next six years.
Marks and Spencer has also pledged to ditch unnecessary plastic packaging by 2025, including plastic wraps for fresh vegetables and fruit.
Spirits manufacturer Bacardi has launched its “Good Spirited” campaign to reduce the company’s environmental impact in its complete operations, from sourcing to packaging.
What’s the future for plastic packaging?
Environmental groups have been pressurising supermarkets and food and drinks manufacturers to reduce the use of plastic for years. For many people, the bid to ban single-use plastics and make sure packaging is 100% recyclable has come too late.
However, the recent moves have spurred a backlash from some companies that manufacture packaging, including Amcor, which produces packaging for several industries including the food, drinks, pharmaceutical, medical device and personal care sectors.
A company spokesperson said plastic packaging was light and excelled in terms of its environmental footprint when compared with metal cans or glass jars, concluding that rather than advocating a plastic ban, the industry aim should be to increase recovery and recycling.
International plastic packaging company RPC Promens said plastic created a low-carbon and lightweight packaging solution, which benefited food preservation and protection.
A company spokesperson claimed replacing plastic packaging with alternatives could have a negative effect on the environment, in terms of the amount of energy it would take to produce different materials and the cost of transporting subsequently heavier items.
What do you think about the way food is packaged at our supermarkets?