Big stick for single carrots wrapped in plastic

PG Tips changed its tea bags to biodegradable

At the start of this month, I asked the major supermarket chains via Twitter what innovations they were putting in place for Plastic Free July.

Many of the major supermarkets have commitments to reducing plastic under their sustainability policies, as outlined on their websites.

But none of them responded, despite their pledges on sustainability. So, I concluded, they didn’t even take advantage of the annual Plastic Free July campaign to show how their commitments on plastics might be working. No innovations to announce: no plastic free aisles; no removal of plastic on eggs, for example.

Meanwhile, a Dutch supermarket chain was shown up by a consumer for wrapping individual carrots in plastic to “protect them”.

Yes, you read that right: individual carrots. It’s bad enough that the supermarkets don’t seem to have grasped that you don’t need plastic wrapped around individual cucumbers, when that’s what the protective skin is for.

Supermarkets – and other companies – do have many policies thinking about the planet, however.

For example, Sainsbury’s pledges to halving the amount of plastic it uses by 2025. Tesco has various commitments on sustainability, from working with farmers to protect water resources and trialled removing plastic from fruit and veg in two of its stores, in April 2019 and make all plastic fully recyclable by 2025.

Aldi’s pledges include making own brand product packaging reusable, recyclable or compostible by 2022. They also plan to eradicate “problematic” packaging such as black plastic by the end of this year. This is “problematic” because it cannot be identified by machines at plastic recycling plants, unlike other colours, clear or white. While the more times such packaging is recycled, the darker it gets, it is sometimes freshly created by those who want it as “vanity packaging” – so called because it helps to emphasise the product within.

Marks & Spencer wrote in its Plastics Plan in the early part of 2020 that it wanted to use less plastic, and where it remained in packaging, ensuring it gets recycled or reused. It’s hard not to be cynical though, when they started the article by saying that only nine per cent of plastic in the economy is recycled. At least, though, they had reduced their plastic by 2000 tonnes in the previous two years and wanted to make all packaging of “widely recycled” plastic by 2022.

It could be that the media departments of food chains such as these don’t want to start any innovations during the dedicated month when large attention might be on a campaign. It could be that it is also too much of a risk, given how much MORE plastic is being delivered, in the form of bags, during Covid-19 home deliveries. Nonetheless, it would have been nice to know if they had any imminent plans to reduce plastic in their packaging.

PG Tips, meanwhile, were happy to engage, on a related matter. Their tea bag box trumpeted an elimination of plastic in their bags, meaning they were now biodegradable (so good to compost!). But their box was still covered in cellophane, which cannot be recycled. They replied quickly, saying that the cellophane was not on boxes of certain sizes and would be removed from all their teabag boxes shortly.

Since then, they have followed up on that promise – and they even used the hashtag #plasticfreejuly.

They are reacting to customer demand on the climate emergency, which comes from three angles. Firstly, governments can legislate, secondly industry/companies can change their polices and thirdly customers can vote with their pounds.