Recycling plastic does not go far enough to tackle the scale of the pollution crisis and instead the focus should be on using less in the first place.
That was the joint message from Greenpeace and the Environment Investigations Agency (EIA) at a recent launch event for a major new survey into plastic use by the major supermarkets.
Speaking at the event, Greenpeace ocean plastics campaigner, Elena Polisano, said: “The grocery retail sector is the largest user of single plastic in the UK. We did this survey to reveal the extent of our plastic problem. These are huge players and they have huge influence.”
Plastic pollution is set to quadruple unchecked by 2050, while only around seven per cent of total plastic has ever been recycled, according to Greenpeace.
The survey was sent to the UK’s 11 biggest supermarkets and saw Iceland come out top as the only one with a concrete commitment to eliminate single-use packaging in own brand products, followed by Morrisons for pushing forward on loose and refillable options. The survey ranked supermarkets on six different factors, including the amount of plastic packaging they place on the market each year, whether they have phase-out targets in place, and plans to implement refillable packaging ranges.
“Part of our reason for doing this survey is we want retailers to go beyond recycling and reduce the amount of plastic they put on the market,” said senior ocean campaigner at the EIA, Sarah Baulch. “Supermarkets are not acting fast enough. Over half of supermarkets have no plastic reduction targets. We simply don’t see that this has met the scale of the ocean plastic problem.”
The panel, which also included Catherine Conway from zero waste store and retail concept Unpackaged Innovation, also discussed whether plastic packaging is ever acceptable.
Conway said that the “rise of food waste has mirrored the rise of packaging”. “I’m not saying it doesn’t extend shelf-life,” she said. “Maybe the bigger question is why are you eating a shrink-wrapped cucumber in December when it has to be imported? If it was local it wouldn’t have to be shrink-wrapped.”
Polisano said that Greenpeace has campaigned for an effective deposit return scheme for plastic bottles, which would see shoppers return bottles to a reverse vending machine to receive their deposit back, a concept that has already been trialled in the UK.
Plastic packaging might be acceptable, according to Baulch, when prompted by chair and environment editor of The Times, Ben Webster, if “we can demonstrate a closed loop system that works.”
But she added: “We can’t recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis. Only 30 per cent is collected and two thirds of that is exported. We need to remember where plastic comes from, oil extraction, and that escalates the climate impact.”