Plastic “bags for life” should be banned or raised in price, campaigners say, as new figures reveal a surge in the bags is fuelling a rise in the plastic packaging footprint of leading supermarkets.
Despite high profile promises by the country’s best known supermarkets to tackle the amount of plastic waste they create, their plastic footprint continues to rise, according to research from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Greenpeace.
In 2018, supermarkets put an estimated 903,000 tonnes of plastic packaging onto the market, an increase of 17,000 tonnes on the 2017 footprint.
The surge is fuelled in part by a huge rise in the sale of “bags for life” by 26% to 1.5bn, or 54 bags per household.
The report is calling for a ban on bags for life, or a rise in price to at least 70p to cut the plastic mountain which is fuelling pollution.
Juliet Phillips, an ocean campaigner at EIA, said: “It’s shocking to see that despite unprecedented awareness of the pollution crisis, the amount of single-use plastic used by the UK’s biggest supermarkets has actually increased in the past year.
“Grocery retailers need to tighten up targets to drive real reductions in single-use packaging and items. We need to address our throwaway culture at root through systems change, not materials change – substituting one single-use material for another is not the solution.”
The rise in the sale of bags for life suggests some consumers are simply switching from single-use plastic bags – many of which have been removed from stores – to the thicker bags, which contain far more plastic by weight and are therefore of particular concern. Iceland’s sales of such bags rose tenfold in the past 12 months, and Tesco increased its sales from 430 million to 713 million.
“The impact of this simple substitution is a major concern, given the significantly higher plastic content of bags for life,” the report said.
Sales of “food to go” for lunches – worth an estimated £25bn to the supermarkets – are also fuelling the continued rise in plastic packaging.
“This is an area ripe for major transformation, as currently almost all products are sold in one-way packaging,” the report said. “So far there has been limited attention; M&S is the first UK supermarket to offer a reusable option in trial stores for on-the-go food options.”
Branded goods make up 367,000 tonnes of the packaging supermarkets put onto the market. The survey revealed that these big brands were a driving factor behind the rise in plastic packaging, showing supermarkets had failed to force their suppliers to take action. Only Tesco had given suppliers an ultimatum to cut excessive plastic or face products being delisted, and the campaigners urged others to follow suit.
The report praised innovations like Waitrose’s experiment with refillables in its Oxford store, where more than 160 items of loose fruit and vegetables and 48 other products are available for customers to refill, including pasta and grains, coffee, frozen fruit, beer, wine and cleaning products.
“Feedback to date has been overwhelmingly positive. Analysis from the 11-week trial has provided ‘confidence that the concept can be a success elsewhere’ and the company is now rolling out the concept to three additional stores,” the report said.
But Fiona Nicholls, an ocean plastics campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said supermarkets were failing on plastics and failing their customers.
“We hear piecemeal supermarket announcements on plastic every other week, but in reality they are putting more plastic on the shelves than ever,” she said.
“Supermarkets need to buck up and think bigger. They must change their stores to offer loose food dispensers, reusable packaging, and move away from throwaway packaging altogether.”