Supermarkets: Making a Green Life Simpler?

Down & Out in Bristol with Plastic is all about how we as individuals can find ways of using less plastics in day to day life. One of the ways we’ve advocated is to shop at the grocers, places with food bins, and places where refillable alternatives to the usual single use option are offered. But, of course, sometimes the convenience of supermarkets fits in with a busy lifestyles. As it stands, most people shop in the supermarkets. Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Co-operative, Lidl, Aldi all provide us with access to groceries in the same place, at times of day other shops may not be available. As much as we are responsible for the choices we make, those who present us the choices have some responsibility for the consequences of those choices. With this in mind, we thought we’d take a look at what the supermarkets are doing to make sure the plastic they sell has a minimal impact on us and the environment and what we can do to encourage and support them.

                Aldi supermarket

Plastic has many positive uses in medicine and technology which, when produced and disposed of properly, outweigh the negatives that come with choosing this material. It seems to be packaging that’s the main problem for both the environment and our heath; chemicals leaching into food and rubbish clogging up the fish and landscapes. So it makes sense for plastic packaging (including plastic bags) to be at the centre of what we aim to reduce in terms of plastic.  The UK introduced packaging regulations in 2003 which guided retailers in their packaging methods, stating clearly that packaging methods.

These regulations intend to ensure the volume and weight of packaging is ‘the minimum amount to maintain necessary levels of safety, hygiene and acceptance for the packed product and for the consumer’; ‘packaging shall be designed, produced and commercialised in such a way as to permit its … recovery, including recycling, and to minimise its impact on the environment when packaging waste or residues from packaging waste management operations are disposed of.’

WRAP, the government organisation set up to manage waste in the UK has set itself the target of reducing ‘traditional grocery ingredient, product and packaging waste in the grocery supply chain by 3% by 2015’

Supermarkets can make a significant contribution to reducing plastic pollution by labelling which packaging materials are recyclable and making sure consumers are provided with adequate information on each item.

In Todmorden campaigners returned clean plastic waste to Lidl, Tescos and other stores in an effort to encourage the supermarkets to accept recyclable waste from the public.


2006 – Target of zero waste to landfill and 10% reduction of packaging 2010

2007 – Introduces policy of asking if a single use bag is needed

2011 – removed the outer box and adapted the tube to stand up, resulting in fantastic results which included a 50% waste reduction from the original product,

Asda in Bedminster and in Whitchurch both provide facilities for recycling plastic bags and other plastic waste.

Works with 2Degrees to create a more sustainable supply chain


2006 – Introduces biodegradable bags which, under the right conditions, break down in 20-36 months

2011 – Replaces biodegradable bags with conventional bags made up of 15% recycled materials after independent study shows biodegradable bags cannot be recycled, are often not in the right conditions to biodegrade, and when they are the ‘dust’ they become, is ingested by wildlife to the detriment of the animal.

Works with 2Degrees to create a more sustainable supply chain

In Phuket, Tesco Lotus employs a no plastic bag policy!



2001 – Launch of fully home compostable packaging with biodegradable trays

2013 – smaller carrier bags introduced reducing 68,000 kg carbon

2014 – 90% of SO Organic products are packaged in either home compostable, recycled or recyclable materials which are non-genetically modified

  • Carrier bags are made from 50% recycled materials and are 100% recyclable
  • Nectar points offered for reusing bags
  • Bins are provided to recycle old bags including bread bags
  • Delivery drivers will take back any old bags to recycle
  • Crates made from 100% recycled materials which are in turn, recycled
  • Committed to reducing own brand packaging to half by 2020
  • Part of the Coultrand Commitment


2011 – Morrisons furthers its partnership with CHEP to reduce waste in its supply chain. Reusable plastic carriers used for transporting and displaying produce are returned and cleaned ready to be used again. CHEP provide staff training to Morrisons to ensure new measures are effective.

2013 – sets target of sending 0% of waste direct from manufacture to landfill sites

2014 – 0% target achieved, bar one manufacturing site

  • Reduces number of carrier bags distributed year-on-year: currently the average number of carrier bag per customer per shop stands at 2
  • Separates into high value and high volume plastics to ensure their end use is the most productive
  • Has on site Waste Champions, who are dedicated to creating a more efficiently managed waste that reduces its environmental impact.


2010 – Basket on wheels made from 100% recycled materials is introduced

2010 – Converts Olive Oil from glass packaging to plastic claiming the latter is more environmentally friendly based on the weight (an interesting claim to investigate!)

2011 – Reduces packaging needed for double concentrate squash

2014 – Introduces optional biodegradable bags at 6p suggesting they are used as liners for food bin caddys

  • Change from plastic lids to pre-printed film on soft fruits – 221 tonnes plastic
  • Change from paper labels to pre-printed film on pre-packaged tomatoes – 181 tonnes paper
  • Reduction in the thickness of potato plastic bags – 34 tonnes plastic
  • Diverts 90% of it’s waste from landfill.
  • Encourages use of and only provides reusable plastic bag rather than single use carrier bag: no free carrier bags are provided in most stores


  • Reformulating washing detergents and fabric conditioners to concentrated versions that require less packaging for the same number of washes
  • Removing unnecessary packaging such as inner wrappers from biscuits
  • Selling kitchen towel in four-roll packs which removes the need for cardboard trays to stack them on shelves
  • More efficient packaging of bulk goods such as crisps and snacks to cut the number of pallets needed to deliver the same volume.
  • Provides an option of bags made from 100% recyclable materials
  • Charges for all carrier bags

Aldi and Lidl were particularly difficult to find sustainability reports and information on. Considering their rise in market share for groceries it’s all the more important to encourage these supermarkets to properly consider how they manage their plastic waste and consumption.

Waitrose (John Lewis)
  • Innovative Chipping and Sodbury Store using recycled plastic in trolley covers, benches and kerbsides. Is working to use plastic recycled from their stores in their buildings, sofa and carpet reuse scheme
  • 95% of waste diverted from land fill – including waste to energy schemes.
  • Reduced food packaing by 40% since 2005
  • Signatory of the Courtauld Commitment (promoting and attempting to create a circular waste economy)
  • On Pack Recyclability Labelling for most own brand products
  • Charges 5p for plastic bags
  • Diverts 100% of waste away from landfill
  • Increased use of recycled materials in clothing
  • Shwopping – encourages leaving unwanted clothes in locations around the UK for M&S to send to Eastern Europe, Senegal, charity shops in the UK, reuse in mattresses and clothes
  • Signatory of the Coultrand Commitment


All these initiatives are great but there is still a substantial amount of work to be done before these supermarkets can be considered environmentally friendly (and plastic free). Often, redirection from landfill means converting plastic to energy – a process which release chemicals toxic to the environment (and humans). Reducing packaging over the last five years is great – but when plastic packaging markets continue grow, how much of a step forward is this really?
If you can’t make it to the local grocers before it shuts or the food bins are just too pricey then ask the manager in Lidl where waste typically sent to landfill is diverted to, suggest in Aldi they sell loose fruit and vegetables, get into conversation with staff at Tesco about carrier bags, encourage sign posting, access and promotion for the onsite recycling bins in, tell supermarkets when you think there’s too much packaging on a product!
Tweet us pictures of items you think could do without that plastic!

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