What’s Happening to Supermarket Plastic?

Plastic pollution is accumulating in the environment, causing huge problems for our planet and wildlife. By the beginning of the 21st century, plastic waste had spread everywhere, from the tops of mountains to the bottom of the ocean, as people didn’t seem fussy where they dumped their rubbish.

One of the biggest offenders is single-use plastic, such as fast food wrappers, plastic cups, straws and packaging from foods bought in the supermarket. Sandwich wrappers, salad boxes, other food containers such as shrink-wrap plastic, cutlery and plastic carrier bags have become persistent polluters.

Plastic Bottles

© showcake / Adobe Stock


Environmental crisis

The result has been a massive environmental crisis of huge proportions, with 12 million tonnes of plastic waste being dumped in the world’s oceans every year. Plastic is being mistaken for food by marine animals, but once ingested, it can kill them.

There’s a chance that when fish ingest plastic, they may later end up on our dinner table, spreading the pollution through the food chain. Birds, fish and other marine life are also becoming entangled in plastic and are dying as a result, as it can take hundreds of years to biodegrade.

Scientists estimate the sea is infested with a mind-boggling 5.25 trillion individual pieces of plastic waste. A massive 269,000 tons is floating around near the surface, while the deep sea is polluted by four billion plastic microfibres per square kilometre.

Plastic waste is infesting the surface of 40% of the world’s oceans, killing seabirds, turtles, seals and all kinds of other marine mammals. Some 100,000 marine creatures and one million sea birds die every year from being entangled in plastic – and these are the ones that are found. There may be many more undiscovered.

This wide-scale pollution is creating an international disaster, with companies being urged to try to make changes to prevent the use of plastic packaging.


Pre-plastic era

According to Greenpeace, UK supermarkets have added to the problem. They say the ten major retail outlets use more than 810,000 tonnes of single-use plastic annually, while the top seven are producing 59 billion pieces of plastic packaging between them each year. The message from the environmental group is that supermarkets need to reduce plastic packaging now.

In years gone by, before plastic came along, most food was wrapped in paper. Fresh foods, such as carrots, peas, potatoes and other vegetables, were grown locally and sold loose at the greengrocer’s, so there were no pre-packaged varieties from further afield.

When customers needed loose ingredients, such as rice and pasta, these were weighed out and packed into a brown paper bag. There were no plastic milk and water bottles. Milk was usually delivered by the milkman in glass bottles to your home. The empty bottles were collected the following day and reused.

In a similar way, fizzy pop and fresh orange juice were sold in glass bottles by the milkman, or from small grocery stores and newsagents. When you returned the bottles, you received a few pennies back. Fresh meat could also be delivered to your doorstep and came wrapped in paper.

In the sweet shop, there were large jars of sweets, which were weighed out and sold in paper bags. The main fast food that people ate in the 1950s and ’60s was fish and chips from the local chippy. These were usually wrapped in greaseproof paper, surrounded by old newspaper, so there were no plastic bags to carry your food home.


Supermarkets targeted

People survived for years without plastic food packaging and environmental campaigners are urging supermarkets to return to the days before everything came pre-wrapped. Paper is biodegradable, unlike plastic. It is also widely recycled.

Campaigners are urging supermarkets to phase out plastic bags altogether and go for greener alternatives, made from paper, or “bags for life” made of fabric.

Greenpeace has launched a campaign to collect shoppers’ unwanted plastic. Volunteers are standing outside supermarkets across the UK in high-visibility clothing with signs inviting consumers to check for unnecessary plastic in their shopping bags. They are asked if they will remove any plastic wrapping from items such as fruit and vegetables and give it to the Greenpeace representatives for recycling.

They are also being asked to sign a petition calling for an end to unnecessary plastic food wrappers. Volunteers connect with the shoppers and have a chat with them about greener shopping practices.


Shoppers’ views

A common response from shoppers was that they thought much of the plastic packaging was unnecessary and they were keen to help influence the supermarkets into providing more eco-friendly produce. The comments that the shoppers made included, “We don’t need this plastic,” and, “This is not necessary,” as they removed the plastic from their shopping.

Supermarkets appear to be taking shoppers’ concerns on board and are gradually making changes to their packaging by ensuring most of the plastic used is widely recyclable.

The consumer magazine, Which, carried out a survey in 2018 to investigate how much plastic packaging from supermarkets could be recycled. They ordered 27 best-selling “own brand” items from 10 supermarket chains in the UK and found that between 71% and 81% of the plastic packaging could be recycled without any problems. Morrison’s was the best supermarket in terms of recycling.


Room for improvement

No supermarket had a 100% plastic recycling rate, however. Between 12% and 22% of the packaging couldn’t be recycled at all. Considering the huge volume of food purchases made at supermarkets, this leaves a significant amount of waste to go to landfill – or to end up in the ocean if it is carelessly discarded.

Which magazine concluded that although supermarkets were gradually changing in response to the global plastic pollution crisis, there was still much more to be done.

What are your views on the use of plastic packaging for items bought at the supermarket? As a consumer, would you change your purchasing habits if it helped the environment? What are your experiences of shopping at the supermarket in terms of eco-friendly practices?

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