Clean Sweep: The great supermarket sustainability drive

To mark National Recycling Week, we take a look at the sustainability drives and plastic-reducing initiatives that have swept the nation’s biggest supermarkets in recent months, and find out if there is more these business giants can do to reduce their impact on the planet. 

For years now, the dangers of plastic to the environment and an impetus to reduce our use of it has been present. The non-biodegradable substance can hang around the environment for hundreds of years after its use, becoming a danger to animals and ecosystems across the world. According to the BBC, 400 million tonnes of plastic is produced a year and 40% of that is single-use, often used in the creation of plastic bags and plastic packaging that was once a familiar sight in supermarkets. 

While everyone has their part to play in the eco-war effort, it is therefore supermarkets that are particularly under the spotlight for their historic contribution to plastic materials. The past decade has already seen sweeping changes introduced in order to reduce their use of plastic, however, as consumers become increasingly eco-conscious in their buying choices. In 2015, for example, major supermarkets introduced a plastic bag charge because of the damage the single-use plastic was doing to the environment, whilst others have pledged to swap to paper packaging.

According to recent research from the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM), the vast majority of British consumers still think companies use too much packaging despite increasing efforts to reduce materials used to deliver products, however.

Its research of 2,000 adults across the UK found that 85% of consumers still believe companies use too much packaging, for example, and in 2019, eight in 10 adults said they would like to see more done by large companies to promote sustainable packaging. So it seems that eco-aware shoppers are increasingly earmarking efforts made by the supermarket giants to reduce, reuse and recycle, so we take a look at just some of the recent measures set to usher in a new era of sustainable supermarket shopping. 


At the forefront of this new era is household name Tesco, who has in recent years made bold pledges to reduce its use of plastic across the business. Just last December, the supermarket announced it had already removed one billion pieces of plastic from its UK business, a move that formed part of its target to “remove it where it can, reduce where it can’t, reuse more and recycle what’s left”. Earlier in the year, Tesco also became the first UK retailer to remove plastic wrapped multipacks from its stores and sell loose cans at the same price, a change that has saved 67 million pieces of plastic annually. 

Its efforts do not stop there, however, and just last week, the group unveiled plans to launch the UK’s biggest network of recycling points for soft plastic. Whilst the business has already begun to roll out soft plastic recycling points to 171 stores, the move is set to spread across the nation, as the group expects to collect and recycle 1,000 tonnes of plastic a year. Paula Chin, WWF Sustainable Materials Specialist, has called the move by Tesco “encouraging”, noting that plastic pollution is “one of the most visible symptoms of the environmental crisis and is devastating our natural world”.


Following suit, last week Asda pledged to remove 101 million pieces of single use plastic from its stores each year by switching from plastic to reusable fruit and veg bags.

The move follows a nine-store trial which reportedly garnered positive feedback. The group has now decided to remove all single-use plastic fruit and veg bags, with an alternative made from 100% recycled water bottles. 

Plans to reduce its plastic use have been in place for some time, however, as the group previously set out the next stage of its overall plastic reduction plans in 2019, with a new target to reduce the total amount of plastic used in its own-brand packaging by 15% by February 2021. It also trialled a number of new refillable and reusable packaging solutions during 2020 as part of its ‘test and learn’ approach to innovation.


Not one to be left behind, Ocado has this month announced that a refresh of its own-range products will see 27 tonnes less plastic packaging used. The group has now pledged to remove 640,000 plastic nets and “at least” 9 million non-essential packaging components.

This is par for the course, as Ocado is a founding member of the UK Plastics Pact, a group of businesses working together to create and sustain a circular economy for plastics. In line with this commitment, PVC, polystyrene and black plastics have been eliminated from Ocado’s own-range packaging, and looking ahead, the group aims to have all items be 100% recyclable and made from at least 30% recycled materials by 2025.  


Going one step further, Sainsbury’s has announced the introduction of a new recycling system across selected stores which allows customers to recycle Polypropylene (PP) film found in household plastic products. It comes after a report from last year, published by Valpak and commissioned by WRAP, found that 266,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste in 2019 came from Polypropylene (PP) plastics. Of that, 80,000 tonnes came from PP film.

The latest move forms part of its commitment to increase recycling in its own operations, as well as “making recycling easier” for customers. Only last year, the retailer also pledged to halve its use of plastic packaging by 2025 and become net zero in its operations by 2040.

Marks and Spencer

In the meantime, Marks and Spencer’s ‘Fill Your Own’ initiative has seen forward momentum since it was launched in its Hedge End site in December 2019, and later Manchetser last March. The trial scheme enabled customers to fill their own containers with pasta, rice, cereal and confectionery in a bid to slash the plastic used across its shops. 

In its latest half-year results last November, the group also confirmed it has committed to redesigning packaging to remove unnecessary plastic such as carton lids, light weighting to use less plastic, whilst packaging easier to recycle with new bakery bags and sandwich packs that are recyclable. It comes as research conducted by M&S Food itself revealed that over 75% of consumers are consciously trying to reduce their use of plastic packaging, with the supermarket giant clearly paying close attention to the findings. 


Whilst grand plastic-reducing initiatives have seemingly followed one after another in recent weeks, Lidl was one of the first to announce such widespread measures last September. Its “bold and ambitious” reduction targets will see the group target a 40% reduction in its own-label plastic packaging by 2025. 

The budget retailer is now well on the way to meet its 20% plastic reduction target two years ahead of schedule, having reduced own-label plastic use by 18% since 2017. Going forward, it is aiming to double the number of refillable and reusable packaging solutions available in stores by the end of the year, and by 2025, 100% of its own label and branded packaging will be recyclable, reusable, refillable or renewable. To-date, 30% of Lidl’s own label products contain recycled content.

But are they doing enough?

Commenting on the recent and renewed effort, Dave Howard, head of marketing at Retail Insight, a retail analytics group said: “Many retailers have fuelled sustainability initiatives in the last year and it’s clear that the pandemic has driven the notion that retailers – and many other businesses – need to be more ethically minded.” 

However, according to Retail Insight’s own research, total waste bills at UK supermarkets in 2021 “will be over £2.4bn, with 43% of this being liable for donation or the bin”, as Howard warns that supermarkets can “still do more” in their drive to be zero-waste bastions of business.   

SodaStream, a group that touts sustainable refills of plastic, told Retail Sector: “Lockdown has triggered consumers to think about their impact on the local environment, and as a result, supermarkets are talking about sustainability more than ever before. Yet any pledge made around looking after the environment must be a real commitment, not a token claim.” 

The group outlined its mission to work in partnership with retailers, such as Sainsbury’s and Asda, to help consumers become more sustainable and “make new behaviours become second nature”. 

They said: “Ultimately, whilst big gestures in individual stores are a good indicator of where we’re heading in terms of improving sustainability, and do help to raise awareness of these issues, supermarkets need to think long term about their sustainability goals and ensure they are implementing permanent solutions across all stores nationwide, not just in temporary pop-ups or singular locations.”

Gemma Butler, CIM’s director of marketing concludes: “It’s interesting to see how attitudes towards recyclable packing materials have changed in the last year. For many, there is definitely the recognition of a need for companies to make a change, but this continues to be offset against the convenience factor that consumers have become so used to. 

“It is clear that there are huge opportunities for brands that can offer innovative ways to help customers reduce, reuse and recycle their plastic and excess packaging consumption. As ever, the responsibility should lie not entirely with the consumer, companies need to continue to take the lead in developing sustainable solutions and work closely with their marketing teams in communicating these initiatives both informing and educating consumers and driving more responsible behaviours across all parts of the stakeholder chain.”

Back to top button