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Environment Week 2018: What are supermarkets doing to beat plastic pollution?

June, 7, 2018

On day four of our Environment Week we’re looking at what supermarkets are doing to reduce the amount of plastic on their shelves.

Whilst there are some simple steps individuals can take to reduce the amount of plastic waste they create – such as carrying reusable coffee cups and eschewing bottled water – with two thirds of Britons visiting a supermarket at least once a day pressure is mounting on retailers to offer more sustainable options to consumers.

Peppers individually wrapped in plastic

Although the UK may be lagging behind some countries, such as the Netherlands which recently saw Europe’s first plastic-free supermarket aisle open in Amsterdam, British retailers and food and drink manufacturers are starting to wake up to the need for real change.

In an encouraging sign, more than 40 companies, including all the major supermarkets plus the likes of Birds Eye, Coca Cola, Danone, Innocent, Pepsico, Pret and Unilever recently signed up to the ‘UK Plastics Pact’. As such, all have pledged to meet four targets by 2025. This includes ensuring 100% of plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable and that at least 30% of plastic packaging is made from recycled content.

Whilst 2025 seems a long way off, supermarkets are already starting to make some big changes to the way that they are using plastic.

Below we look at what the UK chains are doing to improve their environmental sustainability, and provide a greater choice of reduced plastic options and plastic-free alternatives to consumers.



  • In April 2018, Aldi published 10 pledges relating to plastic and packaging, which includes a target for all own brand products to use sustainable packaging by 2022, and scrapping all single use bags by the end of this year.
  • In the meantime, Aldi say they’ve seen a relative 11% reduction in packaging produced between 2012-15, and stated that they want to source all pulp-based packaging from certified forests by 2020.
  • They have not sent any waste directly to landfill since 2014, and recycle 100% of their cardboard and plastic.
  • Unlike many supermarket and own brand products, Aldi’s Specially Selected range of teabags are free from plastic. The German-headquartered chain has said it is currently looking at more sustainable options for their other ranges of tea.



  • Asda has reduced the weight of its packaging by 27% since 2007, partly by introducing “skin” packaging on some of its meat products and switching their own brand vinegar bottles from plastic to glass. They also saved 82 tonnes of plastic by making their two-litre own brand water bottles lighter.
  • They have stated that in the next 12 months they will reduce their own brand packaging by a further 10%.
  • In February 2018, the supermarket giant announced they would be scrapping 5p carrier bags from their stores by the end of the year and removing takeaway coffee cups and plastic cutlery from their cafes and offices.








Marks & Spencer





  • By 2020, Sainsbury’s hope to have reduced the amount of packaging used by half, compared to that produced in 2005.
  • The supermarket recycles all their carrier bags, and has reduced the amount of materials used in own brand packaging by a third since 2006. Between 2015-16, they redesigned two-pint milk bottles, saving 580 tonnes of plastic a year.
  • Last year they were one of the first supermarkets to replace plastic cotton buds, a major source of ocean plastic pollution, with paper-based alternatives.
  • In April 2018, Sainsbury’s started trialling airtight food cartons which they claim use 85% less plastic compared to alternative packaging.



  • Tesco has pledged that by 2025 all of their packaging will be recyclable or compostable, and set a target to half its packaging waste compared to that produced in 2007.
  • According to Tesco more than 78% of their packaging is recyclable, though this will depend on the type of material accepted by local authorities.
  • Britain’s biggest grocers have also removed all polystyrene from fish packaging, swapping it with a more environmentally friendly type of plastic. For meat products they’ve replaced two-layer plastic trays with a single layer, a move they claim has helped them to save 92 tonnes of plastic.



  • Waitrose plan to make all of their own label packaging widely recyclable, reusable or home compostable by 2025. By 2019, they plan to have phased out own label black packaging, on items like meat products, which is difficult to recycle compared to other types of plastic.
  • In 2016, Waitrose became the first UK supermarket to stop selling products containing plastic microbeads and, at the same time, swapped plastic-stemmed ear buds for biodegradable alternatives, a move they claim has saved 21 tonnes of plastic each year.
  • Waitrose has reduced the thickness of bags of prepared salad and halved the amount of packaging in their smoked salmon.
  • They also charge 30p or 40p for their food to be delivered or collected in plastic bags. Despite plastic bag charging, Waitrose says they still supplied 63 million bags in England in the 12 months to April 2017.
  • Last summer, Waitrose launched a new-style sandwich wrapper, making it easier for the plastic film to be separated from the cardboard outer.
  • And earlier this week they revealed a new type of non-plastic punnet made from recycled cardboard and tomato leaves.
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