How supermarkets can halve plastic packaging

Supermarkets are under pressure to reduce plastic, but last year they produced more of it than ever. It doesn’t have to be that way though. Greenpeace has released a plan showing how supermarkets can half their plastic packaging by 2025. Here’s what they need to do.


Despite public pressure, UK supermarkets produced more plastic packaging than ever in 2019. This means more plastic poisoning our environment, filling our rivers and choking our oceans. It also means more plastic leaking into the food chain. In fact, humans may already eat up to a credit card’s worth of plastic each week!

Supermarkets haven’t been doing enough to reduce plastic, and recycling alone can’t solve the problem. Only 9% of all of the plastic ever produced globally has actually been recycled. Cutting back on the plastic produced in the first place is the real solution.

To help supermarkets play their part, Greenpeace has produced a report that shows how to cut plastic packaging by at least 50%. You can read the report in full here.

Here are some of the ideas that’d make a real difference. Next time someone tells you it’s not possible to reduce plastic, send them this article to show what can be done.

Reusable packaging

A variety of groceries and household products in reusable containers

Right now, society treats packaging as something disposable – something that can be used once then tossed away. This mindset has led to the plastic pollution crisis, and moving back to refillable, reusable packaging is the best way to turn things around.

Doing this will take a massive system change. The good news is research shows that reusable packaging can actually make money.

Aldi and Sainsbury’s recently pledged to halve their plastic footprints by 2025, but Morrisons is the only UK supermarket so far to set specific targets for reusable packaging. There’s a lot more work to do!

An exciting development in this area is Tesco’s new partnership with Loop, a pioneering project that offers a variety of branded and unbranded products in reusable packaging. Customers pay a deposit after ordering online, and the products arrive on their doorsteps in a tote bag. Empties go back in the tote bag for collection when the next delivery arrives. Loop then washes, dries and refills the containers for reselling.

Tesco will eventually bring the scheme to its stores, and this could save thousands of tons of plastic. It’s something that customers have been crying out for, and shows there’s an appetite for reusable packaging schemes on a large scale. The other supermarket chains should follow suit.

Refill in-store

Plastic bottles are everywhere. You see them in rivers, on beaches and littered on the streets. Fizzy drinks alone produced 90,000 tons of single-use plastic in 2019. It doesn’t have to be this way. There is now a new generation of dispensing machines and customers refilling reusable bottles in-store would help stop tons of plastic waste. Take milk for example. Customers could buy glass bottles and refill them directly in-store, then wash them at home.The Milk Station Company has already rolled out 80 milk stations across the UK that are linked to local dairies.

When it comes to bottled water, in store refills can also help cut plastic, but there’s also something else to consider. Why not just stop selling it? The UK has some of the cleanest drinking water in the world. In April 2020 Ocado stopped selling bottled water to free up space in their delivery vans during the coronavirus pandemic. This goes to show where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Greenpeace found that bottled water, fizzy drinks and milk bottles are overwhelmingly responsible for the most plastic by weight in UK supermarkets. It’s an area  that holds so much potential for cutting plastic. If supermarkets take the necessary action, customers will no longer have to walk through aisles and aisles of single-use plastic bottles with their head in their hands thinking “there must be a better way”. There is a better way, and the solutions are ready to go.

A row of dried food dispensers in a supermarket

Refilling in-store doesn’t only work for drinks. There are already lots of grocery shops in the UK that have refill dispensing machines for lots of different products, ranging from rice, pasta and nuts, to washing up liquid and shampoo. Shoppers can take their own containers or bags, fill them up at dispensers and then pay by weight. In 2019 Waitrose tried this kind of scheme in four of their UK stores. It was a roaring success and 90% of customers in their Oxford store wanted it to continue. Refill stations are a tried and tested way to reduce plastic packaging, but supermarkets are yet to implement this on a large scale. What are they waiting for?

Remember all those times you just needed to buy a small amount of something from the shop but had to buy a whole pack instead? Algramo is a great innovation in Chile that sells products “by the gram”. They’ve partnered with Unilever and Nestle to have contact-free dispensing machines in store.

Just add water

There’s nothing clean about cleaning products when it comes to plastic. They produced 30,000 tons of plastic waste in 2019. Most cleaning products contain lots of water. Removing the water and using concentrated liquids, tablets and reusable pouches means less packaging and lower transportation costs. Double win!

Splosh is a company that offers concentrated products for washing machines and dishwashers. The products are first delivered in a reusable bottle. After this customers can buy pouches filled with concentrated liquids that can be poured into the bottle, and diluted with water. The sachets can then be reprocessed into other products. That means no more having to throw all those different cleaning sprays you’ve got hiding under the sink into the recycling bin – praying they end up in the right place.

Only sell loose fruit and vegetables

Two apples, one wrapped in plastic and polystyrene, and one loose.

The data Greenpeace collected showed that a fifth of all plastic sold in UK supermarkets is packaging for fruit and vegetables. Supermarkets could save 30,000 tons of plastic by selling loose fruit and vegetables.

Plastic wrapped fruit and veg are some of the most frustrating examples of unnecessary plastic. No, that coconut doesn’t need to be wrapped in plastic! Traditional greengrocers have managed just fine without plastic packaging. It’s completely reasonable to sell fruit and vegetables loose and let shoppers fill their own bags. At the end of 2019, Morrisons started offering plastic-free fruit and vegetables in 60 stores after a successful 10-month trial, where all loose items were stocked side by side. More of this please, it’s not rocket science!

Something closer to rocket science and a great way to tackle food waste is Apeel. It’s an exciting innovation that helps reduce plastic packaging. The company has created a formula made from plant waste which can be sprayed onto fruit and vegetables. The spray creates a layer which helps stop water loss and oxidation, keeping produce fresh for longer.

Ditch pointless plastic

A woman holds up a plastic pouch of individually-wrapped cheese sticks. She does not look pleased.

I’m sure we’ve all despaired at some of the needless packaging found in supermarkets. It often feels like you’re opening a Russian doll – an individually plastic wrapped biscuit, nestled in a plastic tray, all of which is then infuriatingly wrapped in an outer layer of plastic. One easy way for supermarkets to reduce plastic would be to take a look at all the products they sell and get rid of unnecessary plastic.

For example, they could remove the wrapping from multi-packs and apply the discount for the equivalent number of single packs. Removing secondary plastic lids on products like yogurt is another simple step that would help reduce plastic. This strategy is simple but effective.

Give customers what they want

A recent poll showed that 90% of UK customers support the idea of having products free from plastic packaging. And more than 2 million people have signed Greenpeace’s petition calling on supermarkets to ditch throwaway packaging. The Greenpeace report shows that single-use plastic packaging is a choice, not a necessity. So what will supermarkets do now? They can either be part of the solution or continue to be part of the problem.

Add your name to help show supermarkets that shoppers are tired of having to throw away so much plastic.

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