Are the supermarkets caught up pursuing a circular economy, or have they missed the change?
By Apurva Munjal, Junior Consultant at Ecoveritas
Despite being resource-efficient, plastic packaging has a global record of leaking into the environment. Yet, most fruits and vegetables are still packaged in this manner in supermarkets. It has become extremely challenging for customers to avoid plastic because takeaway containers, bags, bottles, and packaging for whole meals are plastic. The need to act rapidly to decrease the adverse effects that plastic packaging has on our environment is widely understood.
But are supermarkets going far enough in trying to stop the tide?
Happy News! With 2.5 million metric tonnes of plastic packaging waste generated in the UK in 2021, supermarkets are concentrating on packaging strategies to modify how plastics are used. Policy solutions are being researched, adopted, and implemented to reduce plastic waste and establish a circular economy for materials. Many UK retailers have endorsed WRAP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Plastics Pact to promote the growth of a circular economy for plastics. Via the Basket Metric and the Retailers’ Commitment for Nature, the WWF is collaborating with supermarket chains like Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Co-op, and Lidl to highlight the effects of all packing materials on the global supply chain.
What is the WWF Basket Metric?
Several outcomes and measures are outlined in the WWF Basket to help achieve the target of reducing the environmental impacts of UK baskets by 2030. The cooperation between WWF and the UK supermarkets is based on three core areas. They include promoting sustainable diets among consumers, restoring nature’s role in food production, and reducing food and packaging waste. Each outcome includes retailer progress measures for tracking performance and progress regarding the activities performed and the impacts made. Most progress metrics have a specific objective performance level and timeline and are expressed in absolute terms. In contrast, some progress measures are expressed as percentage changes; compared to a baseline. The food system’s impact is felt across various environmental challenges and objectives. A large-scale transformation in each of these core sectors is needed to reduce the effects of the typical UK shopper’s basket by half. To examine the packaging issue more widely, WWF’s Basket Metric recognises the need to minimise material usage for all types of packaging while ensuring that the materials used are reusable and recyclable. Switching single-use plastic to another material won’t always lessen the environmental impact. Thus, the commitment should be to use less packaging or only to use it when essential. This will emphasise the need to move to reusable, refillable packaging systems. This larger viewpoint also guarantees that advancing one material won’t have detrimental consequences on other facets of the packaging system.
The 2030 UK Basket Outcome and the Retailer Progress Measure for Packaging
The goal of the Basket Outcome is for all packaging to be recyclable by 2030, at which point retailer performance will be gauged and accounted for by the amount of recyclable packaging they use. These figures are provided voluntarily by the retailers who draw their evaluations on the On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) classification scheme. To reduce the amount of material used by 40%, retailers must submit reports regarding their own-label and branded packaging by weight and units. They can collaborate with outside organisations to gather, analyse, and report data on their behalf. We at Ecoveritas recognise the importance of this data. We are equipped with various tools and knowledge to assist brands, retailers, and supply chains in effectively collecting, analysing and reporting data on their behalf. Retailers will disclose data on recycled content, including both branded and own-label packaging, with the end goal being to have all materials sustainably sourced and employ recycled content as much as possible in packaging. Retailers will publish the percentage of their packaging (by material) approved by independent certification schemes for information on responsibly produced materials. To eliminate single-use packaging, retailers should carefully assess the effects of switching from plastics to other materials and consider practices higher up the waste hierarchy, like reduction and reuse. The metrics aren’t exhaustive of all the challenges and implications the collaboration will solve. Still, they represent some of the most important ones significant to the impact area being addressed. The measurements are intended to direct efforts and aid in creating interventions that significantly reduce their negative environmental effects. While retailers may use different strategies and tactics to meet these goals, those who agree to the overarching objective must take concrete action and give information to monitor results.
The Way Forward
So far, retailers and other firms in the food industry in the UK have overwhelmingly endorsed ambitious industry initiatives, including WRAP’s Courtauld 2030 and Food Waste Reduction Roadmap, the UK Plastic Pact, Champions 12.3, the Consumer Products Forum, and the most recent WWF-Basket Metric to reduce food and packaging waste.
Yet the supermarkets must re-evaluate their strategies and commitments and pose these questions. Does utilising plastic packaging lead to less overall food waste? Is packing a necessity everywhere?
As customers, we all adapted when plastic bag levies were introduced by using reusable bags. When they have more options, consumers are more adaptable. Although we have little control over how much we buy as customers, almost all condiments, fruits, and vegetables come in plastic packaging. But customers would get more for their money if supermarkets encouraged them to use refillable solutions for other products and supplied some items loose. According to WRAP’s most recent investigation into the relationship between plastic packaging and food waste, selling uncut, fresh veggies loose has a significant potential to reduce food waste and plastic packaging. Because of bulk packing, people often buy more than they need, making food waste worse. If stores stop using single-use plastic, customers can buy what they need, and less plastic will become waste. The study concentrated on five common household wastes of fresh produce: apples, bananas, broccoli, cucumbers, and potatoes.
It shows that by allowing consumers to buy the right amount for their households and doing away with “Best Before” dates on packaging, selling these five goods loose may cut household food waste by 100,000 tonnes yearly. Thus, questioning the need for plastics and decreasing their production in the first place is necessary for the solution to a world awash in plastic waste. Additionally, many companies have voluntarily committed to increasing the proportion of recycled material in their packaging, such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy commitment. Nonetheless, businesses frequently employ voluntary industry activities as a postponement tactic to evade enforced restrictions. Several actions will allow the supermarkets to reach the Basket’s outcomes, especially if they are supported by reinforced government policy. Thus this effort must be continued. Moving forward, retailers may be able to take further steps to make sure packaging is prepared for changing recycling practices and consumer awareness. Packaging value chains should invest in UK recycling infrastructure to support recycling efforts and ensure that packaging is recyclable and recycled.
This objective will be accomplished in part through the Extended Producer Responsibility programme (EPR), establishing a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), and the coordination of household recycling collections for the widest range of materials. Furthermore, there is much room for guiding best practices through voluntary initiatives. Retailers can take further action by creating their packaging portfolios and creating best-in-class recyclable packaging. There is unquestionably a demand for innovation in own-label pack design, and this demand will only increase as retailers work to create packaging that is consistent with their environmental commitment. Nearly every link in the food supply chain potentially has a negative impact on the environment. Thus, it is crucial to stress that supermarkets must collaborate with other players in the packaging value chain, including businesses, NGOs, consumers, national and local governments, and the waste management sector.
To meet the growing demand for environmentally friendly product packaging without sacrificing functionality, the whole supply chain of the packaging industry must work together to find creative and innovative solutions. Ecoveritas believes this shift is conceivable, but we must consider the entire packaging supply chain in this transition and not just a standard grocery basket. Accurate data is the cornerstone of sustainable packaging, and we are here to support businesses that want to be a part of this transition. We can successfully assist you in understanding your packaging data and minimising the environmental impact of your packaging owing to our in-depth knowledge and experience of the global packaging industry. Our Packaging Compass offers bespoke services that can assist you in determining the sustainability of your present packaging and delivers data-driven KPIs to improve the performance of your packaging.