War on Plastic with Hugh and Anita: Supermarkets brace for further backlash on packaging

During the first episode of the BBC's much-anticipated War on Plastic last night (10 June), presenters Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani shed fresh light on the UK's plastics waste problem - placing the so-called "Big Seven" supermarkets under increased scrutiny over their approach to packaging.

War on Plastic with Hugh and Anita: Supermarkets brace for further backlash on packaging

During a trip to Malaysia

In contrast to the format used by shows such as Blue Planet 2 and Drowning in Plastic the series began with the two presenters heading to what they described as an “average British street” in Redcar to assess just how much single-use plastic the general public have in their homes, where this plastic originates and what it is used for.

Between the 22 homes, residents had amassed 15,774 single-use plastic items. Crucially, almost one-half, or 7,145 of these items, were from the kitchen – mainly in the form of single-use plastic packaging for food and drinks.

Fearnley-Whittingstall estimated that if these findings were scaled up to cover all of Britain, the public are likely to have 19.5 billion pieces of single-use plastic packaging in their homes – almost 8.2 billion pieces of which are likely to be in kitchens.

Co-presenter Rani then went on to highlight research suggesting that as much as one-third of the UK’s total plastics waste footprint, equivalent to 810,000 tonnes annually, is believed to originate in supermarkets.

To that end, the duo challenges the residents on the street to switch their food and drinks habits to remove whatever single-use plastics they could, while keeping within their budgets and maintaining their lifestyles. Given that most of the UK’s largest supermarkets, including Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Marks & Spencer (M&S), Morrisons and Iceland have recently launched or expanded their loose product offering, you’d think this would be a reasonable request.

But this proved to be easier said than done, with residents participating in the challenge finding that loose or plastic-free alternatives for their groceries were either not available, or significantly more expensive than their pre-packaged counterparts.

For some of the residents, including those with young children, the price difference proved to be a complete barrier. When Rani compared the price of the groceries included in the Office for National Statistics’ average ‘shopping basket’, used to measure inflation, she found the difference to be 19% between loose and pre-packaged goods at Sainsbury’s.

Responding to this finding, a Sainsbury’s spokesperson told edie: “We’re focused on offering our customers choice, quality and value. We will offer fruit and veg without packaging where we can, as long as it doesn’t compromise the quality and shelf life of the product.” 

The price disparity was even starker at Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket, where it stood at 42%.

Corporate response

To that end, Rani asked representatives from the two supermarkets to meet her to discuss the issue of democratising low-plastic or plastic-free shopping. Tesco’s group quality director Sarah Bradbury agreed but, as Rani prepared to meet her, she said she would “no doubt be confronted by the Tesco PR machine”.

During the meeting, Rani placed two sets of three bell peppers from Tesco on the table. One set, the pre-packaged option, was priced at 91. The loose set cost £1.65.

Justifying this, Bradbury said: “What we have got loose, at the moment, is slightly bigger varieties of product. However, we are looking at this, because we absolutely recognise that we need to encourage customers to buy without packaging – and, at the moment, the price difference doesn’t help.”

She went on to emphasise the fact that Tesco is currently trialling plastic-free fruit and vegetable offerings at select stores and insisted that the company would take out more packaging if it believes doing so is “the right thing”, factoring in issues such as food waste.

Rani pressed Bradbury further, asking whether Tesco could bring down the price of their loose produce in line with – or to lower than – the cost of pre-packaged lines as soon as possible.

Bradbury responded that Tesco will be offering loose items at a “competitive price” in the near future, adding that its “absolute focus is to move towards [a recycling] loop” rather than going plastic-free.

Recycling ‘loop’?

As is the case with most of the UK’s largest supermarkets and consumer goods firms, Tesco is currently working towards the UK Plastics Pact commitment of making all its plastic packaging 100% recyclable, reusable or biodegradable by 2025.

But policymakers, members of the public and green campaigners alike are now widely beginning to argue that recyclability alone – the facet of the UK plastics Pact which most signatories are prioritising – will not solve the plastics waste problem. This is largely due to the fact that just 9% of all plastics produced to date have been successfully recycled. Moreover, most plastics can only be recycled a certain number of times before they degrade to the point that they become unusable in commercial applications.

These concerns are being compounded by issues with the global recycling industry, Fearnley-Whittingstall explained. Since China confirmed last January that it would stop accepting 24 types of plastic waste, the UK has been sending the 665,330 tonnes of plastics it exports for recycling to 12 other nations, with most ending up in Malaysia. To that end, Fearnley-Whittingstall decided to take a trip to Malaysia himself to see, first-hand, the fate of these exports.

Under the UK’s Producer Responsibility Obligations (PRO) scheme, businesses with an annual turnover of £2m and 50 tonnes of packaging must show they have met Government recycling targets by acquiring Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs), which act as evidence that waste packaging material has been recycled into a new product. Money raised through PRNs purchased in the UK is ring-fenced for reinvestment into waste management facilities and kerbside collections – but UK businesses can source PRNs from recycling facilities in any country, with around 48% of PRNs now being sourced from overseas.

PRNs are meant to guarantee that exported waste is recycled, but Fearnley-Whittingstall found a different picture altogether in Malaysia. Guides showing him around one of the nation’s recycling districts explained that the closure of unauthorised plastics recycling plants had resulted in a growing gap between the amount of plastics imported, and the amount the nation has the capacity to process. Moreover, the guides explained, many authorised plants illegally decide to dump, stockpile or even burn plastic waste, resulting in pollution of the land, air and waterways.

Walking through mountains of this dumped and stockpiled waste, Fearnley-Whittingstall noticed a proliferation of packaging from brands sold in the UK – Sainsbury’s, Asda, Aldi, M&S, Utterly Butterly, Flora and Celebrations. Plastics badged with the logos of UK-based local authorities were also discovered.

As he walked through this landscape, Fearnley-Whittingstall said: “It’s like some dystopian nightmare. It looks like another planet; a plastic planet.

“When we put [these items] in our recycling back in the UK, we think we’re doing the right thing. I don’t feel so good now; I feel embarrassed, I feel ashamed, I feel angry, I feel I’ve been lied to and I really want to know who’s responsible for this horrendous mess. Is it our local councils, is it our Government, is it our supermarkets, is it the manufacturers of these goods? They’re all in it together.”

Mounting pressure

Consumer pressure for supermarkets to go beyond recyclability and remove plastic packaging altogether has already grown exponentially in the wake of Blue Planet 2.

Packaging industry body Pro Carton’s recent survey of 7,000 consumers, for example, found that 92% would prefer to buy a plastic-free unit of their favourite product than one housed in plastic, with more than one-third (36%) having already begun boycotting certain brands over packaging sustainability concerns. This rises to more than one-half (56%) among millennials, who will make up three-quarters of Britain’s workforce by 2030.

Similarly, a joint survey by waste management firm Veolia and not-for-profit RECOUP found that consumer demand for recycled packaging has begun to outpace corporate action, with the demand being led by younger generations.

And with episode two of the BBC’s latest three-part series set to see Fearnley-Whittingstall take the plastics he found in Malaysia and show them to business representatives and Environment Secretary Michael Gove, the consumer pressure on supermarkets is only set to grow.

edie has contacted Tesco for any further response to the issues raised in episode one of War on Plastic. 

How are UK supermarkets tackling plastic pollution? 

edie readers keen to find out what actions the UK’s largest seven supermarkets are taking to tackle plastic packaging are encouraged to read our round-up detailing their past and planned actions in this space, as well as their attitudes towards green policies regarding plastics removal, recycling or reduction. You can read that piece in full here.

edie additionally runs a dedicated Plastics Hub – a content-driven campaign that will support sustainability and resource efficiency professionals on our collective mission to eliminate single-use plastics. Access the hub here and make your own plastics pledge here

Sarah George

Comments (2)

  1. Patrick Sudlow says:

    We have been here before! Back in the late 1990s, people had become worried about waste packaging, especially plastics. WRAP (Waste and Resource Action Programme) was set-up to promote sustainable waste management. Also in 2005, the Courtould Commitment, a voluntary commitment to reduce was signed by the major UK supermarkets. Nearly tens years later, we are still talking about the problem, despite the propaganda, that the UK was doing something about it! The UK is still very much, the ‘Dirty Man of Europe’. http://www.wrap.org.uk/

  2. Steven Jesseph says:

    Congratulations on outstanding reporting! Please come over to the USA (the colonies) and have a go at the same thing here. We need it desperately!!!

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