Sustainable shopping: How are UK supermarkets tackling plastic pollution?

Whether it's products containing microbeads, items sold in unnecessary single-use packaging, or consumers opting for plastic bags at the checkout, Britain's supermarkets are at the epicentre of the plastics problem. Here, edie examines the new actions retailers are taking to reduce avoidable plastic waste.

A dramatic drop in the number of bags sold by the UK's biggest supermarkets has been attributed to a sharp fall in marine litter

The nation’s seven largest supermarket groups received some positive media attention this week when Defra published new statistics revealing that the number of plastic bags sold by the chains in England had fallen by a huge 86% since the introduction of a 5p surcharge in 2015. 

The new figures revealed that plastic bag purchases at Asda, M&S, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, The Co-op, Tesco and Waitrose have fallen dramatically.

Since the 5p charge was introduced in England in 2015, the number of plastic bags used per person annually has fallen from 140 to 19 – a decrease of nearly 300 million bags in the past year alone. The Defra figures also note that the 5p plastic bag sales contributed almost £58.5m toward charities over the past 12 months – a decrease of £8m compared with 2016.  

Environment Secretary Michael Gove said these latest results “demonstrate the collective impact we can make to help the environment by making simple changes to our daily routines”.

But of course, carrier bags are just one small part of the plastics problem faced by retailers. In fact, the UK’s leading supermarkets reportedly create almost one million tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year. With this in mind, edie is examining what other commitments each of the ‘big seven’ have made to turn the tide on plastics.


Bags: According to the new Defra figures, the majority of England’s year-on-year decrease in bag sales was down to Tesco, which sold 333 million bags in 2017 compared to 637 million the previous year. This dramatic decline is due to the group last year discontinuing 5p single-use bags and instead only offering sturdier bags for life. Proceeds from the charge are invested back into local communities through Tesco’s Bags of Help local grant scheme.

Packaging: Tesco has committed to removing all packaging which is ‘hard to recycle’ from the chain’s own-brand products by the end of 2019. The group last year published its Little Helps plan, which includes a packaging target of halving packaging by weight against a 2007 baseline by 2025. Other targets include making all packaging compostable or recyclable and ensuring all paper and card is sustainably sourced.

Innovations: Last month, Tesco made national headlines when it teamed up with Sainsbury’s and M&S to introduce a solution for hard-to-recycle black plastic that places recycled content into food-grade packaging.

Phase-outs: Beyond phasing out single-use carrier bags, Tesco has also committed to banning plastic-stemmed cotton buds from its ranges, and banned microbeads from its products more than a year before the nationwide ban came into force. 

Recycled content: Tesco currently has no commitment in place to include post-consumer recycled (PCR) content in its packaging.

Signatory of the UK Plastic Pact? Yes

Signatory of the Courtauld Agreement 2025? Yes

Policy support: Following Theresa May's bold declaration that all avoidable plastic waste will be eliminated in the next 25 years, Tesco has shown support for a "cost-effective" nationwide deposit return scheme (DRS) on packaging. The company has additionally called on the Government to support the chain's own aims by reforming the UK's recycling infrastructure.Sainsbury’s

Bags: While most of the ‘big seven’ reported a year-on-year drop in carrier bag sales in 2017, Sainsbury’s actually recorded a 2.2 million rise. Sainsbury’s has said that the net proceeds from the carrier bag levy are added to its stores' community budgets to support local causes and charity partners, although specific causes and charities are not mentioned. 

Packaging: The brand’s headline packaging goal is to reduce volumes of own-brand packaging by 50% by 2020 compared with 2005 levels. Sainsbury’s is almost two-thirds of the way to this goal.

Innovations: Sainsbury’s maintains that it continually backs packaging innovations which help to reduce food waste, as well as plastic waste. For example, the chain last year relaunched its Taste the Difference sausages within a new “snap-pack” packaging – this works by splitting the products into two sets of sausages with a peelable seal, extending the shelf life of the sausages which are rarely cooked in bulk. 

Phase-outs: Sainsbury’s last year became the first British retailer to announce that it would completely remove plastic from its cotton buds. The firm sells more than 300 million own-brand cotton buds each year and expects its revised products to remove more than 50 tonnes of plastic from production. 

Recycled content: Sainsbury’s has not yet set a target for using recycled content in its packaging or products.

Policy support: Chief executive Mike Coupe has argued that Britain's plastic waste crisis has been exacerbated by a "failure of public policy" and is calling for a more unified approach to recycling. With regards to a deposit return scheme, Greenpeace recently claimed that Sainsbury’s was “either non-committal or expressed reservations” about the scheme.

Signatory of the UK Plastic Pact? Yes

Signatory of the Courtauld Agreement 2025? Yes


Bags: Along with Sainsbury’s, Asda also reported a rise in bag sales last year – selling a notable 27.2 million more than it did in 2016. In a bid to bring this figure down for 2018, Asda – like Tesco – has pledged to replace thin bags with ‘bags for life’ by the end of the year. In 2017, Asda sent £321,935 from the sale of carrier bags to charities Fareshare, the Fight Hunger Campaign and Social Investment Cymru.

Packaging: Asda has committed to slash the amount of plastic in its own-brand packaging, by weight, by 10% in the next 12 months. It also has a 2025 target in place to ensure all own-brand packaging is widely recyclable.