Plastic packaging – are you ahead of the supermarkets?

It’s probably not hard for independent health stores to lead the way in reducing plastic packaging and waste, but thanks to a Which? campaign the supermarkets may be forced to up their game and make recycling easier for all.

Almost half of packaging used by major UK supermarket chains cannot be easily recycled, an investigation by the consumer champion found. In your own audit as an independent, ethical retailer, how does your store compare with these findings following the Which? investigation?

Which? analysed the packaging of a typical household shop of 46 of the most popular items from Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Iceland, Lidl, M&S, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose. Researchers broke down each item’s packaging into its component parts and assessed whether each piece could be easily recycled.

The average percentage of packaging – including cardboard, glass and plastics – that could be easily put in household recycling bins was just 52%.

Equally concerning was that 42% of the total supermarket packaging was labelled either incorrectly or not at all, making it difficult for well-intentioned consumers to dispose of correctly and increasing the chances of it ending up in landfill.

Which? is calling on the government to make recycling labelling simple, clear and mandatory and ensure the necessary infrastructure is in place to make it easy for everyone to recycle, regardless of where they live.

Around half (48% on average) of the packaging in most supermarkets including Asda (50%), Lidl (50%), Ocado (49%), Iceland (48%), Aldi (47%), Sainsbury’s (45%) and M&S (47%) was not recyclable.

The best supermarkets for recyclable packaging were Tesco and Waitrose – only 40% of their packaging could not be easily recycled.

As supermarkets often point out, they face a delicate balancing act. Organic waste, including leftover food, has a bigger carbon footprint than plastic and, according to food retailers, plastic plays an important role in preventing food waste.

But Which?’s investigators were surprised at how little consistency there was across the sector in terms of the materials used in packaging, with some products included in the study packaged very differently depending on which supermarket they had been purchased from.

There were also big differences in the quality of recycling labelling. The worst offender for poor labelling was Iceland, which only had two in five (38%) pieces of packaging correctly labelled. In the research, Which? found evidence of this with Iceland’s easy peeler oranges, which were not labelled at all. These used a type of plastic netting that cannot be recycled.

Of the other supermarkets, M&S (43%), Ocado (44%), Waitrose (47%) all had less than half of their products correctly labelled. The supermarkets that performed better when it came to labelling were Tesco (57%), Morrisons (60%), Lidl (64%), Co-op (67%), Aldi (69%), Sainsbury’s (71%) and Asda (78%).

Says Natalie Hitchins, Head of Home Products and Services at Which?: “Our research shows there is a lot more supermarkets and manufacturers can do to banish single-use plastics and make sure any packaging they do use is minimal, recyclable and correctly labelled, so that shoppers know exactly how they can recycle it.

“To reduce the waste that goes to landfill, the government must make labelling mandatory, simple and clear as well as invest in better infrastructure to ensure that recycling is easy for everyone, regardless of where they live.”

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