As we look toward life post-lockdown, there’s a huge opportunity to rethink so much about how we live. In the current climate and ecological crisis, our shopping habits are totally unsustainable, but government inaction means consumers and environmental groups are having to lead the way.
We need to become a ‘refill nation' using supermarkets not as vendors of highly packaged goods, but refill stations that can be more about good food and community resources. Lockdown has shown us that we can change habits rapidly if necessary, and this could be harnessed in a positive way to support a wholesale shift in how we shop.
In a recent poll, Bristol-based environmental group City To Sea found 92 per cent of UK adults are concerned about plastic pollution, and 74 per cent agree they would like to see more refill/reuse options available. So, if the demand is there, why isn’t it happening?
My feeling is purely that it benefits supermarkets to shift vast numbers of items quickly from the shop floor and through the tills, with no responsibility for how resource-heavy the packaging use is or what happens to it afterwards. The brands themselves favour packaging as it is a vital tool for them to stand out from the crowd.
Pre-packed units on shelves sell faster than waiting for your cheese to be cut and wrapped but what is the real cost? Less jobs, more single use packaging. Unlike a thriving local market, ‘scan and go’ culture also cuts the human contact out of your weekly shop.
The recent BBC programme What are we feeding our kids? focused on ultra processed foods that make up huge swathes of the supermarket shelves, and was highly critical of this deeply unhealthy “food landscape”. We may gain a few extra minutes through how we shop but lose access to better food, generating 900,000 tonnes of plastic packaging every year in the process.
Supermarkets have the space, transport networks, infrastructure and buying power that could be a real force for good – but the current system just isn’t serving us anymore.
Some companies are making inroads; coffee and oat milk supplier Minor Figures has been installing oat milk refill vending machines which they say since September 2020 has helped save over 15,000 cartons. The Co-op and Waitrose have both trialled stores with zero waste refill areas, Sainsbury’s has pledged to cut plastic packaging by 50 per cent by 2025 and other major supermarket chains have said similar.
That still leaves a huge amount of plastic in our shops – even while many consumers are shifting back to eating healthier less processed food, and enjoying being part of the upsurge in home cooking from scratch during lockdown.
Independent stores are way ahead, starting with the UK’s first zero waste shop on Totnes high street, Earth.Food.Love, they are springing up countrywide.
The country’s largest zero waste supermarket The Clean Kilo in Birmingham states that they saved nearly 130,000 pieces of plastic from potentially entering the environment in just one year. Imagine if this was replicated across all retailers!
Alongside the retailers providing the opportunity to shop via refills, we also need to work on our own mindset. Surely the minor inconvenience of taking containers with us to shops is a worthy price to pay for our part in turning off the plastic tap?
It’s time to make our voices heard and call on the government to phase out non-essential single-use plastics now, alongside creating a joined up, nationwide recycling system that is truly fit for purpose rather than just outsourcing our pollution.
Let’s choose to use our consumer spending power to shop in a way that supports ethical, low plastic business growth and healthier food systems; comment and share your best refill retailers here.