Supermarkets should be doing more about plastic pollution – Martyn McLaughlin

The big supermarket chains like to advertise their green credentials, but they could be doing a whole lot more about plastic waste, writes Martyn McLaughlin.
Tesco has won plaudits for its trial of selling loose  rather than plastic-wrapped  fruit and veg in two stores, but it could be much more (Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty)Tesco has won plaudits for its trial of selling loose  rather than plastic-wrapped  fruit and veg in two stores, but it could be much more (Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty)
Tesco has won plaudits for its trial of selling loose  rather than plastic-wrapped  fruit and veg in two stores, but it could be much more (Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty)

The decision by Britain’s biggest supermarket chain to take its first tentative steps towards selling loose fruit and vegetables is a positive development, though it would be prudent to reserve judgement on its green credentials just yet.

As of this week, Tesco is to start selling dozens of items without plastic wrapping. In all, some 45 varieties of fruit and veg, including applies, onions, mushrooms, and peppers, will be available loose as part of the firm’s efforts to cut down on packaging waste.

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There are several caveats to consider here. Tesco is no trailblazer. It is following in the footsteps of other major retailers, such as Morrisons and Marks & Spencer, which have already introduced scores of lines of loose items.

Neither is Tesco’s cull on plastic quite as sweeping as many would like. The changes only apply to two of its larger Extra stores in England, and form part of a month-long pilot scheme.

This brings to mind two questions: why has it taken so long for such a trial to get underway and, perhaps more importantly, why is a company which sits at the heart of our food chain being so cautious?

Sarah Bradbury, the supermarket’s director of quality, has said it will be keeping a close eye on the results, including its “impact on food waste”.

The implication is that Tesco will only commit to rolling out loose fruit and veg nationwide if it is satisfied the food itself does not go unsold and impact on its bottom line. Helpfully, the company’s misgivings over such a scenario have already been explicitly spelled out elsewhere.

Matt Simister, the chain’s CEO for central Europe, and former commercial director for fresh foods and commodities, was among those supermarket executives to give evidence to a House of Lords sub-committee which scrutinised the issue of food waste prevention a few years ago.

The “reality of retail”, he told peers, is that “customers will always pick the best of what is on the display and will always leave the others for somebody else to pick. When you are continuously replenishing those fixtures with product, particularly these products, the ones that go to waste are the ones that do not look the best”.

Such problems are not exclusive to Tesco, of course. Two years ago, Asda launched a trial of its own – the removal of loose fruit and veg from its fresh aisles.

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The company justified the move by explaining that customers preferred pre-packaged plastic bags of produce, but food waste also played a part in its decision.

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Thankfully, a public backlash ensured there was a partial U-turn, and Asda has since adopted a more considered strategy of removing the packaging from fresh produce such as swedes, which unlike cucumbers, for example, is largely unaffected by the loss of the plastic in terms of its shelf life.

The latter is an important point. The use of vacuum packing and resealable packs has an undoubted impact on the life of many products. Yet so too, it allows the supermarkets – with some justification – to blame consumer behaviour for their reluctance to fully embrace a plastic-free future.

Even that, though, is not as simple an explanation as it might appear.

Why are shoppers’ habits so engrained? Is it because, as Mr Simister claimed, washed and prepackaged goods are simply more appealing to the eye? That may be the case for some people, but there is another crucial factor at play.

An analysis carried out last year by the Money Saving Expert consumer website scrutinised the price of several items of fresh produce that could be bought packaged or loose, and only those that were very similar in size, or could be purchased by weight.

In over half the examples it checked across six major supermarkets, consumers were being asked to pay more in order to help the environment: at Tesco, for example, a plastic pack of three peppers retailed at £1.05. The cost of buying the peppers loose came in at £1.71.

Until such anomalies are addressed, there can be no level playing field to determine the success, or otherwise, of Tesco’s trial and others like it.

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The company has enjoyed a positive public relations boost since announcing its loose fruit and veg pilot on Monday, but the jury is out on whether it is evidence of a substantive strategic shift, or merely a publicity gimmick.

In the past year, the firm has removed 2,000 tonnes of hard-to-recycle material from its own brand packaging.

This is commendable, but it still uses 134,323 tonnes of plastic packaging materials on those lines, and a further 118,264 tonnes on branded lines.

That includes plastics which are not easily recycled and pose the greatest threat to the environment, such as 3,820 tonnes of polyvinyl chloride and polystyrene. It and scores of other supermarkets and businesses have signed up to the UK Plastics Pact, which includes an aspiration to reuse, recycle, or compost all plastic packaging by 2025.

Again, this is admirable, but the pledge is a voluntary one, there is no enforcement mechanism in place, and it fails to commit to removing all single-use packaging.

Tesco’s latest initiative is to be welcomed, and ‘every little helps’, but in the rush to praise the firm, maybe we should be asking if it and its competitors could be doing a whole lot more.