Plastic packaging: Exactly how green are our supermarkets?

Direct action: Some shoppers unpack products and leave plastic and cardboard behind

UK supermarket group Iceland has stolen a march on rivals by announcing that by 2023 it aims to have eliminated all plastic packaging from its own-brand products.

Last weekend, it triumphantly declared its green credentials in a new “Plastic tock tick tock” advertising campaign.

"There is great awareness now of how much damage we are doing to the world with our use of plastic," said Iceland Ireland managing director Ron Metcalfe. The company has 19 stores here.

With growing customer unease, other supermarkets have also committed to reducing plastic packaging. But finding out the scale of the problem in the first instance is difficult.


Irish-based supermarket groups contacted by The Irish Times declined to say how much plastic they generate as a consequence of their operations. In the UK, six supermarkets said such information was "commercially sensitive".

The Guardian has revealed big UK supermarkets create more than 800,000 tons of plastic packaging waste – well over half of household plastic waste produced – every year.

Direct action

One indication of how exercised some consumers have become is the growing phenomenon of shoppers taking direct action by unpacking their products after paying and leaving plastic and cardboard behind. Irish supermarkets would not confirm the extent of this trend – though an Irish industry representative accepted it is happening.

In spite of awareness of the environmental scourge of plastics, global projections suggest there will be a 40 per cent rise in fossil-fuel plastic production in the next decade.

In Ireland, Marks & Spencer and Lidl are the retailers which outlined moves to reduce plastics that are closest to those of Iceland in scale and time.

“We’re committed to ensuring all our packaging is widely recyclable for our customers by 2022, meaning all plastic packaging will be able to be recycled at kerbside,” an M&S Ireland spokeswoman said.

By 2025, the company will assess the feasibility of making all M&S plastic packaging from one polymer group, to maximise recycling. “Our ambition is to become a zero-waste business by 2025,” the spokeswoman added. It is working with others “to develop scalable solutions to the leakage of plastics into oceans”.

Packaging ensured protection of goods from contamination and spoilage during transport, and communication of product information to customers

M&S said it had reduced the types of plastic in food packaging from 11 to three, making packaging easier to recycle. It was reducing packaging too and cut out 75 tons of packaging annually by redesigning packaging for its 140 snacking products.

Other supermarkets

SuperValu said it is making a substantial investment in packaging reduction. It was “continuously looking for ways to eliminate or reduce packaging, especially plastics, to prevent waste and to maximise recycling”.

It said that in making these changes, it had to be mindful of the important role packaging plays in containing, preserving and protecting food throughout its journey from production until it is consumed.

Lidl Ireland head of corporate social responsibility Deirdre Ryan said it is "committed to reducing its environmental footprint, including that arising from packaging".

Ms Ryan said there were “significant global and subsequently business challenges in both reducing food loss and the impact of packaging materials; at times one issue adversely affects the other”.

Packaging ensured protection of goods from contamination and spoilage during transport, and communication of product information to customers. “It is, therefore, indispensable to many food items. For example, cucumber packaging extends the life of the product for approximately 15 days,” she said.

“Lidl is acutely aware of the need for plastic reductions and are currently working on improvements... collaborating with our suppliers and industry partners to reduce use of plastic packaging where possible and increase the recyclability of those materials.”

The retailer is introducing more loose lines in fruit and vegetables following trials on food waste impact. “We hope our customers will support these loose vegetable options by making more sustainable choices.”

Tesco Ireland confirmed packaging "is a growing concern for our customers". It had committed to making packaging fully recyclable or compostable by 2025 and to ensure all paper and cardboard used will be 100 per cent sustainable, and to halve packaging weight (compared to 2007).

‘Stimulate design innovation’

"We are also a member of the Government's Retail Action Group and we are working with our suppliers to stimulate design innovation such as greater use of compostable and biodegradable materials," a spokesman said.

One example of progress included significant changes to their wet wipes packaging. A 20 per cent material reduction ensured removal of 57 tons of plastic.

An Aldi Ireland spokeswoman said it is fully committed to reducing packaging waste in its grocery supply chain and fully complies with all government legislation regarding product packaging and recycling.

"Aldi is proud to be a member of Repak, and we aspire towards zero-waste business practices and are guided by the principle to reduce, reuse, and recycle. We work with all our suppliers to improve packaging design so as to maximise recycled content as appropriate, and improve recyclability."

Dunnes Stores did not respond to queries about plastic packaging.

Customers giving back packaging

While it was difficult to come up with an accurate figure on how much plastic is generated by supermarkets, Thomas Burke, director of Retail Ireland – whose members operate more than 3,000 store locations across the country – stressed plastic packaging was "a top-of-mind issue" for supermarkets.

The retailers did not want to add packaging because of cost and recycling demands. Their responses were in tune with the EU’s plastics strategy and the intention to phase out single-use plastics.

Anecdotally, he was aware of customers giving back packaging at the point of purchase in individual stores but it was 'not a widespread occurrence'

In spite of environmental problems caused by plastics, there was evidence they were “increasingly prevalent due to modern lifestyles”, he said, which was manifested in more dining out and eating “on the go”. Durable plastic packaging provided solutions in that respect. Supermarkets nonetheless were seeking alternatives, but were reliant on suppliers. “They want to work with them, and are doing so,” Mr Burke added.

He confirmed supermarkets were getting very specific questions on plastics from customers. Anecdotally, he was aware of customers giving back packaging at the point of purchase in individual stores but it was “not a widespread occurrence”.

A factor in this was the mistaken perception that plastics were not recyclable. He said he was not aware of any requirement that supermarkets take back such packaging under the EU packaging directive. Currently, he added, the best way to recycle plastic packaging was through the green bin and Repak’s producer recycling scheme.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times