Supermarkets could make big cuts to the amount of plastic waste they produce by zeroing in on just a few ‘problem products’ responsible for a big chunk of their plastic footprint, according to a new report sponsored by Greenpeace. Widespread adoption of reusable, refillable packaging to play a major role.
A new report from Greenpeace models how the UK supermarkets could make significant reductions to the amount of plastic they produce by focusing their attention on the packaging for 54 grocery categories. The analysis also shows that changing the packaging for just 13 categories of popular groceries, like fizzy drinks, fruit and vegetables, and household detergents, supermarkets could reduce plastic by approximately 35%, remove 45 billion pieces of supermarket plastic, and more than 300,000 tonnes of plastic.
“We need a bolder approach from companies: one that focuses squarely on reduction and reuse and enables recycling systems to focus on tackling what is left over. That’s why Greenpeace is calling on companies to set targets to reduce overall single-use plastic packaging by at least 50%, and for 25% of this target to be met by reusable packaging systems.”
That report, Unpacked: How supermarkets can cut plastic packaging in half by 2025, shares brand new data modeling for the amount of plastic packaging our supermarkets are producing each year, based on 2019 supermarket figures. It features new calculations for the estimated weight, sales units and the number of components (pieces) of plastic in our grocery shopping, and the numbers are representative of the entire UK supermarket sector, which has never been done before. Previous research has not detailed the number of plastic components, such as the individual lids, labels, and films, and previous studies have not examined the plastic in terms of product categories, like bottled water, fizzy drinks, household detergents, and vegetables.
Greenpeace’s report not only provides the most up-to-date calculations of how much plastic packaging our supermarkets are using, but also explains a model for how all UK supermarkets could cut their plastic footprints by 50% by 2025. Importantly, the report provides a unique sector-wide view for the first time. By identifying the “hotspot” product categories which the new data sets suggest put the most single-use plastic onto the market, the report points out the product categories that have the highest potential for plastic reduction.
“Most of us are aware that we have far too much single-use plastic in our lives, and from the response to our War on Plastic shows on BBC1, I believe most of us want much less and are prepared to do something about it,” stated Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, celebrity chef, food writer and presenter of War on Plastic. “But we need much more help from the big retailers to achieve this. Our supermarkets sold us 114 billion pieces of throwaway plastic packaging last year. That’s so much, it’s almost impossible to visualize. But I can tell you, it wouldn’t all fit in Wembley stadium.”
“For the first time, data specialists have mapped out where the greatest potential lies for drastically reducing the volume of plastic packaging going through our supermarket tills,” added Nina Schrank, plastics campaigner at Greenpeace UK. “It kick-starts one of the most important environmental questions of our time: How and where can we reduce throwaway packaging? And fast. The challenge to change our plastic habits, move to widespread reuse and refill systems, and turn the tide on plastic pollution, is vast. It will not be easy but it will be possible, and we think UK supermarkets can do it.”
The Greenpeace report recommends that supermarkets reduce plastic packaging across 54 product categories, but also reveals that enormous cuts can be made to their plastic footprints by focusing on 13 categories with the highest potential for reduction. Greenpeace has selected these 13 categories in particular because they generally score highly in all 3 metrics – weight, sales units, and the number of components. If reductions are made across these 13 categories alone, UK supermarkets could reduce their plastic output by approximately 35% or just over a third (approximately 70% of the way to the target of 50% by 2025). Greenpeace proposes that retailers prioritize these categories first, in order to make far-reaching reductions in single-use plastic as quickly as possible.
The 13 recommended categories are bottled water, fizzy drinks, milk, still drinks and fruit juices, household cleaning products, detergents and softeners, sports and energy drinks, rice, vegetables and salads, fruit, fruit juice, dilutable drinks (cordials and squash drinks), and bath and shower products. Changing the packaging for these 13 product categories could remove 45 billion pieces of supermarket plastic, and more than 300,000 tonnes of plastic.
Benefits of Reusable Packaging
The benefits of switching to reusables, according to the report, are astounding. While noting that there are challenges to a systemic shift that treats packaging as an asset rather than as a disposable item, there are also some real benefits for both industry and the general public:
- EMF estimates that globally replacing as little as 20% of single-use packaging with reusable alternatives offers a business opportunity worth at least $10 billion.
- Moving from single-use to reuse not only helps eliminate plastic waste and pollution but can also offer significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
- A large scale shift away from single-use and towards reuse and packaging-free options would drastically cut the costs of waste disposal, which under tighter producer responsibility legislation are set to be borne by producers.
- From a business perspective, reuse can also increase brand loyalty and customer retention through deposit and reward schemes for reusable packaging.
- By treating packaging as an asset to be reused rather than a disposable item, innovation can be unlocked in terms of packaging design and functionality.
- Beyond cost savings, reusable (B2C) primary packaging allows consumers to get more from fewer resources, which could halve material use and waste. Reusable (B2B) transit packaging has additional supply chain benefits such as reduced touchpoints, product damage and waste disposal for retailers.
- A circular economy could create over half a million jobs in the UK, particularly in the North East and West Midlands where unemployment is highest. Reuse and repair activities already support nearly four times more jobs than waste management.