From a very young age, we all have an inherent understanding of the differences between supermarkets: we know which are cheaper, which sell higher quality products, etc. Unfortunately, though, one characteristic of our supermarkets is less well-publicized: their relative attitudes to plastic waste. In this blog, we’ll outline the plastic-related performance of the major UK supermarket chains - and, with luck, we’ll help you to make more informed decisions as a consumer.
According to a 2021 Greenpeace report, Waitrose is the supermarket whose average performance was best across all plastic reduction indicators in 2020. The criteria laid out in the paper suggest that Waitrose have made a significant commitment to reducing plastic usage: one which Greenpeace has awarded a score of 78 of a possible 100 (the highest of any supermarket). Similarly, the amount of plastic they have reduced since 2019 is granted a score of 60 out of a possible 100; the second highest of any of their competitors.
These statistical successes are no surprise when we consider the various reforms Waitrose has instituted in recent years. In 2019, for example, they removed 5p single-use plastic bags from all of their stores. They’ve also swapped the plastic which is generally used to wrap fruit and veg with a compostable alternative made of corn starch. Perhaps most excitingly, Waitrose are currently trialling a recycling service - active in 37 of their stores - which allows customers to recycle so-called ‘flexible’ plastics such as sweet wrappers, food pouches, and plastic film.
Aldi, like Sainsbury’s, has committed to cutting 50% of plastic packaging from both brand and own-brand goods by 2025; a market-leadingly ambitious target. Their performance over the last year hasn’t been quite so good: Greenpeace scores their plastic reduction at 42 out of 100, lagging 18 points behind Waitrose. Aldi did, however, succeed in making an overall reduction in sale of plastic bags in 2019; something which the majority (6 out of 10) of the major supermarkets failed to do.
What’s also important to note is the degree to which Aldi have improved in their attitude to plastic waste. In Greenpeace’s 2020 report, they came dead bottom of the plastic policy rankings: by 2021, they had shot up the table into second. This impressive recovery is unsurprising in light of a number of significant achievements: notably the removal of all black plastic from their fruit, veg and frozen food by the end of 2019, alongside the scrapping of plastic over the lids of a range of high-selling products. It’s also important to note that Aldi sells a higher proportion of own-brand goods than most other supermarket retailers, meaning reforms to their own packaging processes are likely to go further!
Asda has been far from perfect in its attitude to plastic. Since 2017 - accounting only for own-brand products - Asda have increased their use of plastic packaging by 4.8%. The number of single-use coffee cups sold (or given away) in Asda stores increased from 7,000,000 in 2018 to over 10,000,000 in 2019. Their overall sales of plastic bags increased from 2018-19.
Asda has also taken some positive steps, though. Most indicative of this fact is the observation that over half of the total plastic weight reduction in the 2019 supermarket industry was as a direct result of measures introduced by Asda. More specifically, their 2020 opening of a sustainability store in Leeds represents an important first step toward reducing waste. This project may serve to illustrate the advantages - both environmental and economic - of more sustainable corporate practice, and in particular of a supermarket-led refill system. Carrying a range of major brands, Asda estimates that this single store will eliminate one million pieces of plastic per year. Across all stores, their commitment to remove plastic cutlery from on-the-go food products also represents a significant concession.
Morrisons have fallen from 2nd place in Greenpeace’s 2019 plastic waste report to 9th place in their 2020 equivalent. In the wake of a major increase in their use of plastic bags and bottles, Greenpeace have awarded them a measly score of 9 out of 100 for their in-store plastic reduction. This is the lowest score awarded to any of the top 10 supermarkets - the lowest by a long shot.
These failures are particularly concerning in light of the scale of Morrisons’ operations in the UK: it boasts a 9.8% market share, compared to Waitrose’s 4.3%. The impact of their failures are, therefore, likely to significantly outweigh that of Waitrose’s successes. Morrisons do, however, have some redeeming features: their previous successes mean that their overall plastic use since 2017 is still down by 9.4%. If the failures of 2020 continue, however, this is unlikely to be the case forever.
Tesco has made some significant plastic-related pledges in recent years. In November 2019, for example, the supermarket chain announced that it would remove one billion pieces of plastic from products in its UK stores by the end of 2020: a target it has subsequently hit. The Tesco website contains various references to its 4Rs strategy - ‘Remove, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ - which it touts as a means of removing non-recyclable packaging from its sites.
In Greenpeace’s 2021 report, however, Tesco’s were deemed worthy of a lowly 11 out of 100 for their plastic reduction rating (the second lowest of any supermarket). This is somewhat deceptive, however, since they do manage to rank 6th out of 10 supermarkets in their overall attitude to plastic, possibly due to their much higher score on reusables (70 out of 100). Tesco have also succeeded in attaining a 4.8% reduction in own-brand plastic usage since 2017.
It should be noted, however, that even those supermarkets which are on the right track are still not doing enough to reduce plastic waste. In 2019, UK supermarkets produced 896,853 tonnes of plastic packaging: that’s only a 2% reduction from the amount they produced the year before. One might say ‘progress is progress’, but that take is over-simple; plastic pollution is a time sensitive issue, and the time for incremental improvements has passed. That said, supermarkets do generally seem to be becoming more amenable to the complaints of anti-plastic campaigners - so keep up the pressure!
Much of the data in this report comes from a collaborative report published by Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency. The full paper can be found at the following address: https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Checking-Out-on-Plastics-III-FINAL.pdf.