Are Irish supermarkets doing enough to reduce their plastic packaging?
It is estimated retailers here produce 80,000 tonnes of plastic waste every year
Much of the fruit on sale is labelled as being healthy and wholesome. However, most of it comes entombed in plastic, difficult-to-recycle shrouds. Photograph: iStock
The modern Irish supermarket is a wonder, with perfectly-ripe avocados, bright-red strawberries, firm cucumbers and juicy blueberries, no matter the day.
Such delights are available from dawn’s early hours until the dead of night every day bar Christmas Day – and even that is falling by the wayside for some.
Some of it is organic. And much of it is labelled as being healthy and wholesome. However, most of it comes entombed in plastic, difficult-to-recycle shrouds.
Globally, more than 110 million tonnes of plastic is produced each year, and only half of it is ever recycled. The rest ends up in landfill, in flames or in our seas.
It takes five seconds to produce a single-use plastic bottle and five minutes to consume whatever it contains but more than 500 years for it to break down.
Ireland is one of the largest per capita users of plastics in the European Union. Much of it starts out in supermarkets. Individual pieces of fruit are sold in plastic, even the ones trumpeting their environmental credentials.
Earlier this month, we asked Irish supermarkets to say exactly how much plastic they produced, but they seemed reluctant to give a clear answer. But we can hazard a guess.
In the United Kingdom, supermarkets there created more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year – which would put their Irish counterparts’ volumes at about 80,000 tonnes.
Some of it is inevitable: food is travelling long distances; there is a danger of contamination and spoiling during transport from the far-flung corners of the Earth.
Equally, it is necessary to separate the organic and non-organic varieties. Plus, it helps retailers to label and tag products in the way that customers need, and demand.
But much of it is unnecessary and avoidable.
We asked all the main supermarkets operating in the Republic the same questions.
How much plastic waste is generated? What can be done to reduce that?
Why do so many fruits and vegetables come in – arguably unnecessary – plastic wrapping?
Do consumers express concern about the amount used?
Would it be possible and/or desirable to remove all packaging from fresh food?
Do consumers ever ask if they can leave the plastic packaging in-store? What happens if they do?
The answers that came back varied in length and detail, but, most strikingly, few of the questions were addressed.
Lidl said it strives constantly “to improve quality, efficiency and sustainability along our entire supply chain”, and that it is committed to reducing its environmental footprint
Lidl said it is working with suppliers to cut packaging, and it is the first retailer in Ireland to eradicate microbeads from all cosmetic and household products.
Soon, it will begin trialling selling 11 more types of loose fruit and vegetables, which will mean that a quarter of its vegetables and fruit will be sold minus wrappings.
Within its own operations, it has stopped sending any waste to landfill: paper and cardboard is recycled, so, too, is plastic. Organic waste is turned into renewable energy.
Aldi has committed to cutting product packaging in half by 2025, while it recently pledged that 100 per cent of its own-label packaging will be recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2022.
Marks & Spencer said: “Packaging plays a significant role in protecting our products and keeping them fresh. It will always have a role but it’s important that we don’t over-package.
“We know we have a lot more to do and we are working hard to cut out unnecessary packaging and help our customers to reuse and recycle more. Ultimately, our aim is to be a zero-waste business, making all our packaging widely recycled by 2022 whilst ensuring we maintain our commitment to reducing food waste.”
By 2022, all M&S product packaging that could end up with customers “will be not only ‘recyclable’, but ‘widely recycled’. To achieve this, we will actively collaborate with others to bring about changes in local government recycling policy”.
The retailer said that by 2025, it will “assess the feasibility of making all M&S plastic packaging from one polymer group, which will help maximise the use of recycled content”.
SuperValu said it was “continuously looking for ways to eliminate or reduce packaging especially plastics”, adding that it is spending a lot to reach its goals.
However, SuperValu added that it had to be “mindful of the important role” packaging plays in containing, preserving and protecting food from production until it is consumed.
Tesco said it has committed to making all packaging fully recyclable or compostable by 2025 and ensuring that all paper used will be 100 per cent sustainable by 2025. It plans to halve packaging weight by 2025 compared with 2007 levels.
“We segregate packaging waste at the back of our 150 stores, in our distribution centres and our head office, ensuring that all materials that can be recycled are recycled,” a spokeswoman said.
It, too, is working with designers “to stimulate design innovation such as greater use of compostable and biodegradable materials,” she said, citing the example of its wet wipes which have seen a 20 per cent material reduction and removal of 57 tonnes of plastic.
All the retailers pointed to their membership of Repak and the millions of euro they contribute to subsidise the collection and recovery of waste across Ireland.
Dunnes Stores did not respond.