The news of impact of our pollution on the environment and planet is everywhere, and news of the plastic pollution ever more so (eg see here). It’s hard to go on business as usual and not do anything about it. Supporting projects like Oceans Clean Up and applying plastic reduction strategies in day to day life is a good start, but we need to do more.
If you take a step back and go to the sources of plastic pollution, the retailers and manufacturers is where large scale plastic reduction strategies should be implemented in the first place. To be honest, it should be these guys footing the bill for the plastic clean up and recycling projects, like the one I mentioned, which will then hopefully and finally lead to them seriously reconsidering their supply chains and addressing the environment mess that they are playing such a big role in creating.
Not seeing any meaningful action from the retailers or manufacturers, I decided to write an action plan for Sainsbury’s, a UK supermarket where I happen to shop, to show them 3 simple things they could implement right away to tackle the plastic pollution.
With main supermarkets losing market shares in the UK, you would have thought someone in the supermarket world would say ‘wait a minute, perhaps instead of further slashing prices and waging the price war, we could actually add value, make impact and approach how we do business in a totally new way leading to higher market share?’
But of course it’s scary and requires vision and leadership. I hear about new grocery shop model in the US where packaging is minimal, many things are sold unpacked, packed in recyclable paper or refillable. While I keep dreaming about this concept coming to the UK, there are low-hanging-fruit actions supermarkets could take already if they wanted to truly reposition themselves as impact making organisations and not large profit driven machines which remain blind to the issue of plastic pollution.
Here is my 3 actions list.
A couple of things that imho could be changed easily. All tomatoes – not just the cheap variety as is at the moment – should be sold loose and paper bags provided for packaging. No plastic and no plastic trays. Loose tomatoes should be cheaper than those packed into plastic due to savings on packaging.
Cucumbers should not be individually packed in plastic and should be sold unpacked. Or at least there should be an option to buy them unpacked. Unpacked cucumbers should be cheaper due to savings on packaging.
Apply this logic to all vegetables.
We are obsessed with packaging drinks into tetrapak (good marketing, Tetrapak!). But last time I checked, tetrapak was not widely recyclable despite what they tell you, and as far as I know, my borough disposes of it as general rubbish.
Plastic bottles are no better.
Here is my action plan with re to drinks – use more glass bottles, even if more expensive. Provide customers an option of packaging alternative to plastic or tetrapak when it comes to most popular drinks (eg milk, fresh juices). Run a glass bottle recycling scheme (as in Dutch supermarkets). Offer an option of buying most popular drinks as refillables. Special drink dispensers will be required for that and stock of glass bottles in various volumes, they do it in Dutch supermarkets with juices and smoothies, and it’s not prohibitively expensive.
On a side note, Tetrapak, you need to do more in terms of recycling – we either need Tetrapak packaging to be widely recyclable, or replaced with glass and other easily recyclable materials.
3) Frozen goods
In my local village market, you can buy frozen goods by weight. Plastic bags are used to put it in but at least packaging is minimised. Here is my action plan for supermarkets- sell frozen goods by weight and offer recyclable or reusable bags for packaging.
The main principles in 3 action points above are: 1) give customers an alternative to plastic packaging, an option to choose a no impact packaging, 2) do not overprice products packed in plastic alternatives or charge for them more unreasonably, in fact it’s a good idea to subsidise these products as part of supermarket’s do-good investment programme, 3) run the audit of the products/ supply chain and reduce plastic and other non recyclable packaging everywhere as much as possible.
Of course, the question remains whether large supermarkets can act on this themselves or whether they need to be forced by the government – some ideas may include taxing retailers and manufacturers on use of plastic and non recyclable packaging, or obliging retailers and manufacturers by law to own the packaging lifecycle and proactively participate in tackling the resulting pollution.
Legal powers aside, I think it’s more likely that a smaller player will emerge or one of the premium UK supermarkets (eg Waitrose) will take on the challenge. I’ve already shifted some of my groceries spend to the local farm markets, because packaging pollution does bother me, and I’d be happy to switch another big chunk away from the large non caring supermarket chains towards a shop that takes sustainability seriously. Sainsbury’s, could that be you?