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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.

Innovations: Earlier this year, Asda launched its Plastic Ideas Hub, which offers a £10,000 award for every “scaleable, workable” innovation that helps Asda to tackle its plastic challenges.

Phase-outs: Asda is in the process of phasing out plastic straws in its cafes and has pledged to replace them with biodegradable paper alternatives by the end of the year in a bid to stop 2.4 million plastic straws going to landfill each year. The firm will also remove plastic cutlery and disposable coffee cups from its cafes by the end of 2019.

Recycled content: Asda, which is owned by US company Walmart, has not yet made any pledged surrounding PCR plastic use.

Policy support: Asda was among a string of big-name retailers to call for more recycling collection points, tax reliefs for recycled content and a universal list of acceptable materials as part of a desired regulation reform earlier this year. However, the company has previously warned against a nationwide deposit return scheme, expressing the view that it is not an overall solution to tackling plastic waste.

Signatory of the UK Plastic Pact? Yes

Signatory of the Courtauld Agreement 2025? Yes


Bags: Morrisons reported a 4% year-on-year decrease in the amount of bags it sold, selling 8.4 million fewer in 2017 than in 2016. In a drive to go one step further than the 5p charge, the chain has now removed single-use plastic bags from stores entirely to further incentivise customers to bring their own. The vast majority of the money raised from the carrier bag charge in Morrisons stores goes to the Morrisons Foundation, which aims to make a positive difference to those in need in the UK.

Packaging: Morrisons has pledged to ensure 100% of the plastic in its own-brand packaging is recyclable by 2020 and the retailer is currently 82% of the way towards this aim.

Innovations: While it has not launched any plastic innovations of late, Morrisons is currently trialling a month-long behaviour change campaign which sees shoppers given 100 loyalty card points when they bring reusable containers to its in-store meat counters, fishmongers and deli sections, with a view to making the offer a permanent fixture if the trial is successful.

Phase-outs: The chain has stopped offering single-use plastic bags in its fruit and veg aisles in a bid to cut its plastic output by 150 million bags each year. It has also stopped selling plastic straws and plastic-stemmed cotton buds.

Recycled content: As with the other supermarkets investigated so far in this article, Morrisons has not released a PCR content target.

Policy support: Morrisons has shown support for a UK-wide deposit return scheme by trialling an in-store version for plastic bottles, in a bid to minimise its plastic output and encourage customers to recycle. The supermarket group has installed reverse-vending machines at two of its Yorkshire stores for a six-month trial, with a view to a wider rollout.

Signatory of WRAP’s UK Plastic Pact? Yes

Signatory of the Courtauld Agreement 2025? Yes  


Bags: M&S reported a 0.2% year-on-year drop in bag sales for 2017, selling 218 million fewer than it did in 2016. The retailer is widely regarded as a leader on tackling plastic bags, having introduced the 5p charge in 2008 – well before it became mandatory – and subsequently hosted a string of beach cleans. The money M&S raises from carrier bag levies is split; with half going to local charities and community causes chosen by stores, and the other half going to a selection of national charities that it has worked with for many years – including WWF, Breast Cancer Now and Unicef.

Packaging: M&S has committed to making its plastic packaging “widely recyclable” by 2022, and its updated Plan A 2025 strategy includes a headline aim of becoming a zero-waste business.

Innovations: M&S is planning to develop one recyclable plastic polymer for use across its entire range of products. The chain has also slashed the amount of packaging used for its popular snacks such as crisps and popcorn by reducing the pocket of air at the top of the bag – a simple but highly effective innovation.

Phase-outs: The retailer has recently stopped putting plastic sleeves on its range of cashmere jumpers, stopped using tea bags containing plastics and phased out non-recyclable coffee pods in its cafes. This summer, M&S replaced the plastic cutlery in its food outlets with biodegradable wooden alternatives in a bid to reduce its plastic output by 75 million items annually. It is also a long-standing advocate for plastic-free cotton buds. 

Recycled content: M&S’s latest plastics strategy does not include targets for recycled content.

Policy support:  The brand is among a string of companies currently calling for policy reform to boost plastic recycling rates. Its recommendations include a call for the government to consider measures such as virgin material taxes and tax relief on recycled plastics to create markets for secondary materials.

Signatory of WRAP’s UK Plastic Pact? Yes

Signatory of the Courtauld Agreement 2025? Yes

The Co-op

Bags: The Co-op sold 5.3 million fewer bags in 2017 than 2016, representing a 4% drop. The chain is putting the proceeds of the carrier bag levy, and the profits from its reusable bag range, back into the communities where the funds are raised, by letting staff and customers choose their preferred cause.

Packaging: The Co-op has put in place a long-term ambition for 100% of its product packaging to be recyclable, with an immediate target of 80% by 2020 already in place. Speaking with edie recently, the group’s environment manager Iain Ferguson said the chain was looking to narrow the range of polymers it uses.

Innovations: The retailer has recently phased out hard-to-recycle black plastics from its range of cooked meat trays and chicken breast trays in a bid to create a more widely recycled version.

Phase-outs: Earlier this year, The Co-op became the first retailer to roll out a fully biodegradable range of tea bags across its own brand products, phasing out those which contain plastic. The chain removed microbeads from its own-brand products in 2001, and replaced its plastic-stemmed cotton buds with paper-based alternatives in 2006. 

Recycled content: While it does not have a specific recycled content target, The Co-op’s CSR aims on plastic also accounts for using more PCR material “wherever possible”. It has recently switched all of its own-brand water bottles to ones containing 50% recycled PET.

Policy support: The Co-op was one of the first UK supermarkets to publicly back a deposit return system, alongside frozen food retailer Iceland. The firm’s retail chief executive Jo Whitfield has said The Co-op is in favour of creating a system which "increases the overall recycling of packaging and significantly reduces litter and, importantly, helps tackle marine pollution”.

Signatory of WRAP’s UK Plastic Pact? No

Signatory of the Courtauld Agreement 2025? Yes


Bags: Waitrose’s bag sales plateaued year-on-year between 2016 and 2017. The supermarket sold just 0.1% (57,000) fewer. Last month, it launched a reusable bag made from recycled plastic bottles, which are priced at £4. In England, Waitrose passes bag charge levies onto the new dementia centre of excellence at University College London. In Wales and Scotland, the money raised is donated to three local good causes across both countries.

Packaging: Waitrose has committed to making all its own-label packaging widely recyclable, reusable or home compostable by 2025. It has also pledged not to sell any own-label food in black plastic beyond 2019.

Innovations: Earlier this year, Waitrose rolled out tomato punnets made entirely of PCR cardboard and tomato vine fibres. It also rolled out plastic-free packaging for a range of its cooked meats in February, following the launch of plastic-free sandwich packaging last summer.

Phase-outs: Waitrose this year announced that it will stop selling packs of plastic straws at all supermarkets by September 2018. Before the phase-out is completed in stores, Waitrose will convert all plastic straws in cafes to paper variants. It has also banned plastic-stemmed cotton buds, and is in the process of removing disposable coffee cups from its cafes. In 2016, Waitrose became the first retailer to stop selling any product that contained microbeads – which were subsequently banned in the UK this summer.

Recycled content: Waitrose sells a range of kitchen towels and toilet paper made using PCR pulp but is yet to announce a specific PCR content target for plastics.

Policy support: Like Asda and M&S, Waitrose is actively lobbying the Government to reform its recycling policies and improve infrastructure to boost plastic collection rates. With regards to a deposit return scheme, Greenpeace recently claimed that Waitrose was “either non-committal or expressed reservations” about the scheme.

Signatory of WRAP’s UK Plastic Pact? Yes

Signatory of the Courtauld Agreement 2025? Yes


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