Britain’s leading supermarkets create more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year, according to an investigation by the Guardian which reveals how top chains keep details of their plastic footprint secret.
As concern over the scale of unnecessary plastic waste grows, the Guardian asked Britain’s eight leading supermarkets to explain how much plastic packaging they sell to consumers and whether they would commit to a plastic-free aisle in their stores.
The chains have to declare the amount of plastic they put on the market annually under an EU directive. But the information is kept secret, and Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Waitrose, Asda and Lidl all refused the Guardian’s request, with most saying the information was “commercially sensitive”.
None committed to setting up plastic-free aisles – something the prime minister called for last week. Only two supermarkets, Aldi and the Co-op, were open about the amount of plastic packaging they put on to the market.
Using their data, and other publicly available market share information, environmental consultants Eunomia estimated that the top supermarkets are creating a plastic waste problem of more than 800,000 tonnes each year – well over half of all annual UK household plastic waste of 1.5m tonnes.
The 800,000 tonnes of waste from food and beverage products would fill enough large 10-yard skips to extend from London to Sydney, or cover the whole of Greater London to a depth of 2.5cm. The revelations will add to mounting public concern about the damage that plastic does to the natural world.
Dominic Hogg, chairman of Eunomia, said the figures could be higher. “The data reported for plastic packaging put on the market as a whole is an underestimate in our view,” said Hogg.
Supermarkets in the UK keep their plastic footprint secret with a confidentiality agreement signed with the agencies involved in the British recycling compliance scheme. It means the amount of plastic packaging created by each supermarket and the money they pay towards its recycling is kept out of the public domain.
One leading supermarket manager is calling for the whole system to be made more transparent and targeted to make the irresponsible producers pay more.
Iain Ferguson, head of sustainability at the Co-op, said Britain should adopt the French system of “bonus-malus”, where supermarkets are taxed more for using material which is not easily recyclable and less for sustainable and recyclable packaging.
“We need this to be much more transparent,” said Ferguson. “There should be a fiscal system that rewards good recyclability and penalises poor recyclability. We should be able to replicate it in some way in the UK.”
Ferguson added: “I don’t know why other supermarkets are not revealing their figures.”
Co-op, the UK’s sixth biggest grocer, has cut its plastic packaging by 44% in the last 10 years; from 78,492 tonnes in 2006 to 43,495 tonnes in 2016.
Ferguson said the supermarket had introduced key changes which others have followed. These include removing plastic lining from its tissue boxes, removing polystyrene bases for its pizzas and changing the punnets for tomatoes from plastic to cardboard.
Aldi’s plastic packaging has increased from 37,261 tonnes in 2013 to 64,000 tonnes in 2016. The store recycled 3,400 tonnes of plastic in 2016 – which amounts to just over 5% of the packaging waste it created.
A spokeswoman for Aldi said the increase in its plastic footprint coincided with a rapid expansion in the UK from 516 to 700 stores.
Iceland this week said it would eliminate plastic packaging on all its own-brand products within five years.
Former Asda chief executive Andy Clarke said recently supermarkets should not use any plastics for packaging. “It is vital that the UK packaging industry and supermarkets work together to turn off the tap,” he said.
Supermarkets in the UK pay less towards collecting and recycling their plastic waste than in any other European country – leaving taxpayers to pick up 90% of the bill – in a system which is shrouded in secrecy.
On average supermarkets and retailers pay £18 per tonne towards recycling, whereas in other European countries, businesses pay up to £133 per tonne for recycling, according to the figures provided to the Environmental Audit Committee. In Germany producers pay 100%.
The system, known as the producer responsibility scheme, was heavily criticised by MPs this month.
Louise Edge, senior oceans campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said saving oceans from plastic contamination required transparency and cooperation from businesses.
“Reform of producer responsibility laws are key to that … Under the current system, just 10% of the cost of packaging waste disposal is paid by business, with taxpayers left to pick up the rest of the bill.”
Supermarkets declare the amount of plastic packaging they use to Valpak, one of 28 commercial compliance companies, from which the amount they need to contribute towards recycling is calculated.
Adrian Hawkes, policy director of Valpak, which is used by most major supermarkets, confirmed the data was covered by a privacy agreement.
The Environment Agency – which acts as government regulator of the system – also adheres to the confidentiality agreement. A spokeswoman said the agency could not disclose figures of how much plastic packaging individual supermarkets were responsible for as a result.
The only information publicly available is aggregated data for all packaging materials on the National Packaging Waste Database (NPWD).
Hogg said: “The status quo is one of producer irresponsibility – packaging that’s unnecessarily wasteful, some that has no hope of being recycled, and too much being littered on land and sea.”
“If we had a system where producers were charged fees that were modulated to reflect their environmental impact – and where the fees covered the full costs of managing packaging we would influence the design of packaging and could specify high quality recycling infrastructure.”
The six supermarkets which refused to provide figures on how much plastic packaging they put onto the market annually referred the Guardian to the British Retail Consortium (BRC).
The BRC said general packaging information was available on the NPWD.
The spokesperson said: “Retailers are continually innovating in relation to packaging and recyclability. Several BRC members have ambitious internal targets around recyclable packaging, and retailers, investing with their suppliers, are pioneering a number of initiatives that could make a significant difference to the recyclability of packaging and use of recycled material, if workable and adopted at scale.”