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Plastic in the supermarkets

A humble cabbage costing 50p neatly protected in a thick plastic wrapping? Cheese wrapped once in film, then weighed and placed in a plastic bag to be labelled?

There has been much talk lately about the amount of plastic packaging used by supermarkets, but, as even the quickest dash through the aisles makes plain, this has yet to be followed by widespread action.

Plastic packaging ends up as domestic rubbish, meaning more expense for resource-poor local Councils, who have to collect it when it ends up as domestic rubbish. There are claims that packaging adds 20% to what the consumer pays for fruit and vegetables. Beyond everyday experience, there are frequent reports of the damage plastic is doing not only to the earth’s oceans and other ecosystems, but also to human health.

The Prime Minister’s pledge to remove plastic waste in 25 years seem an almost laughably long-term response to this incontrovertible and immediate problem. On the other hand, her suggestion that supermarkets have a plastic-free aisle seems popular and realistic – a supermarket in the Netherlands now has 700 products available in its plastic-free aisle.

Campaigners say this is a “testbed for innovative new compostable bio-materials as well as traditional materials such as glass, metal and card”. To me, this begs some questions: are there good enough recycling systems to make sure that the use of materials other than plastic is actually sustainable? Do enough city-dwellers have compost bins to receive compostable packaging? How are the results of the tests in this “testbed” going to be rolled out to more mainstream supermarkets? And most importantly, will there be legislation to ensure that this and other ideas such as a tax on take-away containers have wide impact?

There are already examples of shops that go much further and seek to avoid packaging

altogether. Best known is Original Unverpackt, a packaging-free shop in Berlin aiming to operate at a scale which genuinely competes with supermarkets. Goods are in large containers from which you fill your own bottles, boxes, bags, jars… with as much or as little as you want. Original Unverpackt go beyond their own shop as they keep their supply chain almost plastic-free, and have started a franchising operation.

There are a few shops managed on the same principles in the UK – two are open in London and one in Totnes, in Devon, and there are plans for one in Birmingham. Bulk Market , in London, has plans to address some of the more detailed questions, for example, a commercial grade composter.

Of course, these shops are all a long way from High Peak and anyway look a bit ‘niche’, catering for individuals who are already share their views and are disposed to take action. In contrast, there are 4 medium-sized supermarkets just in Buxton, and at least one of them is guilty of using plastic as described at the beginning of the article. The packaging-free shops are admirable as far as they go, but I’m not convinced the supermarkets in this country are watching their success and thinking “help, plummeting profits, time to ditch the plastic”.

Things are a lot different in Italy, where a very visible waste crisis that saw rubbish piling up in the streets of cities such as Naples has generated a lot more interest in reducing waste. Auchun, one of Italy's largest supermarket chains, has added bulk products in dispensers to many of its stores. They offer cereals, dried fruit, pasta and rice to detergents--a total of 800 products, including frozen foods, such as fish and vegetables. Customers purchase only the amount of product they need. Because these sales contain no packaging, it's estimated that Auchan alone keeps about 4,000,000 packages out of landfills every year--about 170 tons worth.

The problem of waste here might not be so visible, but it's just as real. So we come to the need for more research as well as clear policy backed up by legislation. There is a lot of research being done into alternative forms of packaging – although of course these too will have environmental impact through the use of resources.

As for policy, the Green Party’s Natural Resources and Waste Management objectives and policies address the problem of plastic at its source, among that of other waste. The objectives cover many of the issues raised by plastic packaging while bringing together the solutions currently being tried by individuals and enterprises:

Objective NR312 would introduce new priorities for waste management, including:

  • ….. the efficient reuse, recycling and composting or digestion of waste is maximised;

  • to work towards a target of zero waste. The zero waste concept encompasses producer responsibility, eco-design, waste reduction, reuse and recycling, all within a single framework with the aim of eliminating altogether waste sent to landfill or incinerators.

This objective is backed up by more technical policies through NR424 A Waste Avoidance and Recycling Act, which will include these measures:

  • ii) ban unnecessary disposable products and packaging, where their non-use would lead to a net reduction in environmental impact;

  • iii) introduce specifications for the design of packaging to minimise waste and maximise recyclables;

  • iv) impose a variable Recovery Charge on all packaging and short-life disposable products (such as newspapers), including on imported goods, with the revenue distributed to District Councils on a per-capita basis to finance waste recovery schemes

  • vi) allow for the introduction of mandatory returnable deposits on drinks containers.

To help enforce this NR425 states that a Standards Commission will be established whose duties include:

  • ii) to determine rates for Recovery Charges on packaging and short-life disposable products (see NR424 iv);

  • iii) to assess the maximum waste recovery levels achievable by District Councils (see NR412);

  • vi) to set statutory targets for minimum recycled contents for suitable products, such as newspapers, glass and metal containers and all paper and plastic packaging which does not come directly into contact with food;

  • viii) to assess the comparative advantages of different packaging systems and, in particular, to determine whether the reuse or recycling of drinks containers should be preferred;

  • ix) to determine refundable deposit levels necessary on returnable items.

It may be a while before existing initiatives, and the type of comprehensive policies advocated by the Green Party, have the desired impact on plastic waste – and in particular on the practices of major supermarkets. Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, there is plenty of advice out there to help individuals reduce their accumulation of packaging: to find out more, just google “zero waste.”

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