Unpacked: how supermarkets can cut plastic packaging in half by 2025

Despite scientific evidence and mounting public pressure, UK supermarkets are putting more plastic on their shelves than ever. This report outlines how supermarkets can achieve a minimum 50% reduction in single-use plastic packaging, purely via reduction and reuse.



You can read the introduction to this report below, or download the pdf to see the full version with footnotes.

Choking sea creatures, littering beaches, and increasingly finding their way into our bodies, we all know the dangers of single-use plastics.

Yet, despite scientific evidence and mounting public pressure, UK supermarkets are putting more plastic on their shelves than ever: over 880,000 tonnes in 2017, up to over 900,000 tonnes in 2018. This is something their customers simply do not want; more than two million of them have already signed Greenpeace’s petition calling for supermarkets to ditch throwaway plastic.

Which is where this report comes in

To put an end to plastic pollution, we need to eliminate single-use plastics. This is why Greenpeace is calling on retailers and the Government to set firm targets to at least halve usage of single-use plastics in supermarkets by 2025.

But reducing plastic in one area can cause problems elsewhere. For example, shifting to pulp and paper packaging could further impact our disappearing forests. Similarly, swapping plastics for so-called bioplastics (which can be made from crops rather than oil) risks taking up more land to make packaging rather than feed the world’s growing population.

Where and how can we reduce plastic packaging?

To find this out, Greenpeace commissioned sustainability advisors 3Keel in 2019 to work with the UK supermarket sector exploring how effective reduce and reuse models could be at cutting down the amount of single-use plastics used by supermarkets every year.

Sections of the industry shared confidential information with Greenpeace, enabling 3Keel to create unique datasets indicating which categories of grocery products sold by UK supermarkets use the most single-use plastics.

By using this as a baseline estimate for the entire UK, and overlaying it with opportunities for reuse systems, we have been able to outline how supermarkets can achieve a minimum 50% reduction in single-use plastic packaging, purely via reduction and reuse. In fact, we propose that half of this reduction (25%) should come from a shift to reusable packaging systems.

Our data reveals the 13 categories with the highest potential for cuts, and shows that for some products, such as vegetables, fruit and salads, the elimination of packaging would be required in favour of loose produce.

While for other categories – such as water, carbonates (or fizzy drinks), milk, other kinds of still, juice, dilutable and energy drinks, household cleaning, detergents, softeners, bath and shower products, and rice – the shift would need to be largely towards reuse-based systems.

We also explore how the growth of home delivery due to Covid-19 presents a huge opportunity for businesses to switch over to reusable packaging. Although the outbreak of Covid-19 initially increased the plastic waste problem, it has also, by fast-tracking home delivery, shown us that reusable packaging can become mainstream – making now the perfect time for supermarkets to change their packaging models forever.

Will supermarkets make the change?

These findings pose a challenge to the UK supermarket sector. If retailers work together they can play a major role in not just tackling the plastic pollution problem, but also in creating the more circular sustainable economy we need to build for the future of our planet.

How is this report and its findings different to previous studies?

Since 2018, Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) have conducted annual surveys of the top ten UK supermarkets’ use of single- use plastic packaging, including items like plastic bags, straws and stirrers, and ranking them on their ‘plastic footprint. The surveys are based on supermarkets filling in a questionnaire to self-report data about the total weight and number of items of plastic packaging they sell, along with meetings to clarify results.

This report takes a different approach, however. It is based on very detailed product sales data shared in confidence by one UK supermarket, and was cross-referenced with other industry-wide data. This allowed us to map plastic packaging in terms of its weight, number of items and components for the first time. It also allowed us to clearly identify which product categories are using the most plastic packaging, and therefore pinpoint where to focus in order to drive dramatic reductions in plastic pollution.

Read the full report