Four years on: How have supermarkets responded to the 5p plastic bag charge?
The UK Government published its annual figures on single-use plastic bag sales last week, revealing that distribution by large retailers has fallen 90% since the 5p charge was introduced. But exactly what role have supermarkets played in that transition?
The nation’s largest retailers received some positive media coverage last week, with the latest figures from the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) showing they collectively distributed 90% fewer single-use plastic bags in 2018-2019 than 2015-2016.
This trend is being attributed to the introduction of a mandatory 5p surcharge for the bags, which was applied in October 2015.
Since this legislation was introduced, the number of supermarket-brand plastic bags purchased per person annually has fallen from 140 (in 2015) to 19 (in 2018) and, finally, nine (in 2019). Moreover, the sale of 5p bags has raised £22m for charities in the last financial year alone, with a cumulative total of £169m having been generated for good causes in this way over a four-year period.
But what most tabloid coverage of Defra’s statistics fails to mention is that retailers still distributed more than 1.1 billion 5p plastic bags during 2018-2019, at a time when many other nations, states and cities across the world are implementing outright bans on them.
With this in mind, this article explores to what extent each of the UK’s top 10 bag-distributing supermarkets has contributed to the 90% reduction in bag distribution, and how this fits in with their wider plastics reduction strategies.
Bags: Of the 221 retailers to have reported 2018-2019 bag distribution data, online grocer Ocado recorded the most bags – 156.3 million. In comparison, Ocado distributed 128.4 million 5p bags the year prior.
This is probably due to the retailer’s average order total per week having increased by 11.4% on a year-by-year basis.
Ocado notably runs a bag buy-back scheme, whereby customers are encouraged to sell up to 99 bags – either Ocado-branded or otherwise – back to the retailer per transaction. The bags are then sent for recycling, with excess funds being used to fund education and communications campaigns around littering and recycling.
More broadly: Ocado is a founding member of WRAP’s UK Plastics Pact and, as such, has committed to making all of its plastics packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. The Pact also commits signatories to including at least 30% recycled content across all plastics packaging and ensuring that recycling and composting rates for its packaging portfolio reaches a 70% minimum.
Since joining the Pact, Ocado has successfully eliminated PVC and polystyrene, which are both considered hard-to-recycle, from the business. It has also launched a “low-plastic” aisle for its site, where shoppers can buy items which either come unpackaged or are housed in alternative materials.
Bags: Tesco told Defra that it distributed 121.7 million plastic bags during 2018-2019 – the second-highest amount of any UK retailer. Nonetheless, this figure represents a sharp reduction from its 2017-2018 figure, 637.2 million.
More broadly: Tesco is also a signatory of the UK Plastics Pact. In the 12 months after signing, the firm began working with rival supermarkets to uncover a solution for hard-to-recycle black plastic that places recycled content into food-grade packaging and publicly announced its plans to back an innovation which converts soft plastics back into oil.
Britain’s biggest supermarket has also been campaigning for the UK Government to reinforce the nation’s recycling infrastructure to create a closed-loop system for plastics for almost a year, and has shown public support for a national deposit return scheme by offering reverse vending machines.
Bags: Asda distributed 106.9 million plastic bags during the last financial year, compared with 192.9 million in 2017-2018.
More broadly: Asda recently completed a string of initiatives which will decrease the plastics output of own-brand products it sells in the UK by 6,500 tonnes annually. These projects include swapping plastic bags for cardboard bands on bedding, taking plastic slips off greetings cards and switching to cardboard pizza bases, as well as installing drinking water fountains to discourage the purchase of single-use water bottles.
Away from plastics reduction, Asda is working to make sure that all remaining plastics in its packaging portfolio are recyclable by 2025. To that end, it has replaced all black plastic in fresh produce trays with clear alternatives, and begun piloting a take-back scheme for baby food pouches as part of a partnership with TerraCycle and Ella’s Kitchen.
Bags: The Co-op distributed 95.5 million plastic bags in 2018-2019, down from 120.6 million in 2017-2018.
The next 12 months will see the firm replace small plastic bags at more than 1,000 of its UK stores with home-compostable alternatives. Consumers will still be charged 5p for these bags.
More broadly: Co-op is one of the few businesses in its sector to have not signed the UK Plastics Pact – a decision which the company's environment manager Iain Ferguson puts down to a belief that the business could go further and faster.
Co-op’s commitment is, instead, to make all of its own-brand packaging “easy to recycle” by 2023, as laid out in its ‘the future of food: a recipe for sustainability’ strategy. The pledge notably includes goals of removing all hard-to-recycle black plastic from own-brand lines by 2020 and ensuring plastic bottles, pots, trays and punnets consist of 50% recycled content by 2021.
Since the launch of the strategy, the Co-op has worked to make three-quarters of the packaging items it produces “widely recyclable”, with these items accounting for 95% of the chain’s total plastic waste output by weight. The retailer has also increased the amount of post-consumer recycled (PCR) content in its own-brand water bottles to 50%.
Bags: Morrisons sold 65.1 million plastic bags during 2018-2019. In the prior financial year, it distributed 191.5 million.
The supermarket recently trialled US-style paper grocery bags at its stores in Camden and Wood Green in London; Skipton, Hunslet and Yeadon in Yorkshire; Erskine in Scotland; Abergavenny in Wales and Gibraltar. It is yet to confirm whether it will roll out this model.
Morrisons first launched a sizeable loose fruit and vegetable offering, called ‘Buy Bagless’ in 2018. It has since rolled the model out to 60 of its stores.
More broadly: Morrisons is a UK Plastics Pact member but has also set a more ambitious target of ensuring that 100% of the plastic in its own-brand packaging is recyclable by 2020. As of its latest sustainability report, retailer is currently 82% of the way towards this aim.
On reduction, the supermarket has eliminated plastic straws and plastic-stemmed cotton buds from its offering. It has also has taken plastic bags off of its range of fresh flowers, replacing them with paper alternatives, and is allowing customers to bring reusable containers to its in-store meat, fish and deli counters.
Bags: Iceland distributed 100.2 million plastic bags in 2017-2018 and 61 million in 2018-2019.
Last month, the frozen food specialist began trialling the removal of all plastic bags from one of its stores, replacing them altogether. Paper carrier bags (10p), jute bags (£1), Disney branded cotton bags (£1), and small paper bags for meat products (free) will all be on offer at its Hackney branch for the six-month pilot, in a bid to assess consumer attitudes, as Iceland ponders a wider roll-out.
Elsewhere, Iceland recently unveiled a plastic-bag-free fruit and vegetable scheme at its food warehouse in Liverpool, where 35 produce lines are being sold loose as part of a 12-week pilot.
More broadly: Iceland has committed to removing all single-use plastic packaging from its own-brand products by 2023 – an unprecedented pledge within the supermarket sector. Since making this commitment in January 2018, Iceland has reduced or removed plastic packaging across 81 lines and removed more than 1,500 tonnes of plastic in its packaging.
Iceland has also publicly shown support for a nationwide deposit return scheme for plastic bottles and trialled reverse vending machines in its stores. Between May 2018 and January 2019, the retailer collected more than 300,000 plastic bottles using reverse-vending machines at four UK stores and its head office.
Marks & Spencer
Bags: 55.5 million plastic bags were distributed by Marks & Spencer (M&S) during 2018-2019, in comparison to 92.3 million the year prior.
Last November, M&S launched a range of reusable carrier bags made with 75% post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic, sourced from Asia and Latin America.
The retailer also offers an in-store take-back scheme for plastic bags and other hard-to-recycle items at its Tolworth, Cribbs Causeway, Westfield Stratford, Waterside, Loughton, Bluewater, Fosse Park and Peterborough locations. Soft plastics collected in this way are recycled into playground equipment, fence posts and outdoor furniture by Dow.
More broadly: M&S’s overarching plastics commitments are to become a ‘zero-waste’ business by 2025 and ensure that all plastic packaging that could end up with customers is “widely recycled” by 2022.
As part of these aims, the retailer is planning to develop one recyclable plastic polymer for use across all of its plastic packaging and phase-out all “avoidable” single-use items.
It has also removed a variety of single-use plastic items from stores, including cutlery, cotton buds, straws and the sleeves previously used to house delicate knitwear. Most recently, M&S has started offering a 25p discount to customers who bring reusable containers to its in-store Market Place counters – the same discount it offers to those who bring reusable coffee cups to its cafes.
Bags: Sainsbury’s recorded a comparatively small year-on-year drop in the number of bags it distributed, from 53.9 million bags in 2017-2018 to 53.5 million bags in 2018-2019.
More broadly: The supermarket’s headline packaging goal is to reduce volumes of own-brand packaging by 50% by 2020 compared with 2005 levels. Sainsbury’s is now around two-thirds of the way to this goal.
On reuse as recyclability, Sainsbury’s is signed up to WRAP’s UK Plastics Pact – a move which has seen it commit to removing all black plastics from own-brand lines by March 2020. Shortly after joining the Pact, the company collaborated with rivals Tesco and Marks & Spencer (M&S), as well as recycling and packaging production firm Viridor, to introduce a solution for hard-to-recycle black plastic that places recycled content into food-grade packaging.
On phase-outs, Sainsbury’s became the first British retailer to announce that it would completely remove plastic from its cotton buds in 2017. However, since then, other news on phase-outs has been rare.
Waitrose & Partners
Bags: After distributing 62.7 million plastic bags during 2017-2018, Waitrose & Partners distributed 50.3 million in 2-18-2019.
The past 12 months have notably seen the company remove all 5p bags from its stores. Customers are now given a choice between bringing their own bags or purchasing 10p bags for life, or fabric alternatives.
More broadly: Waitrose & Partners’ broad plastics commitment is to ensure that all its own-brand packaging is either recyclable, reusable or home compostable by 2025. Interim steps to achieving this aim include removing black plastic from all own-brand lines by the end of 2019 and removing glitter by 2020.
Elsewhere, Waitrose & Partners works with Hubbub to run a £1m grant scheme aimed at helping innovators develop and scale up emerging solutions to the plastic pollution problem.
It is also increasingly shifting towards refill models, having recently extended and expanded a trial of its ‘Unpacked’ concept, whereby products such as wine, washing-up liquid, produce and grains are sold loose.
Bags: Aldi UK distributed 38.1 million plastic bags in 2018-2019 – roughly the same amount as the year prior. It no longer sells 5p bags and, instead, offers 9p bags for life made from back-of-store plastic waste.
More broadly: Aldi UK has pledged to ensure all packaging on its own-label lines is reusable, recyclable or compostable before 2022.
Since setting this ambition, Aldi UK has replaced more than 2,500 tonnes of hard-to-recycle plastics with recyclable alternatives. Switches made so far include replacing polystyrene pizza bases with cardboard alternatives and replacing black plastic trays on select produce lines with clear alternatives.