Supermarkets Aren’t Doing Enough to Reduce Plastic Packaging

An image showing plastic packaging in supermarkets

Walk down any supermarket aisle in the country and you’ll be confronted with thousands of items individually wrapped in disposable plastic. A new independent audit has found that Aussie supermarkets are not doing nearly enough to cut down on this continuing environmental nightmare.

Australia’s four latest supermarkets — Coles, Woolworths, Aldi, and Metcash (IGA/Foodland) — have public targets to curb the amount of plastic used in their stores. All four of them have however been graded ‘F’ for failure over their progress on these plans by the Australian Marine Conservation Society and the Boomerang Alliance.

The report is the first attempt to independently verify exactly what grocery retailers are doing to cut down on plastic waste, a major source of plastic in our oceans and the broader environment, endangering wildlife and entering the food chain.

“Our audit shows most are not doing enough to help Australia meet the National Packaging Targets,” Boomerang Alliance Director Jeff Angel said.

“Instead we continue to see wasteful plastics, such as unnecessary packaging of produce, plastic multipacks with several layers of packaging, and tiny plastic toy promotions that inevitably end up polluting the environment”.

Australia has a national target set for 2025 by which point 100% of packaging should be reusable, recyclable, or compostable. With just over a year to go before reaching that point, it’s clear from the report that more needs to be done.

“Australia has a target to recover 70% of plastic packaging by 2025, but recovery rates have stagnated at just 18%, with rising use of soft plastics a major problem,” AMCS Plastics Campaign Manager Shane Cucow said.”

He pointed to the highly-publicised collapse of the REDcycle programme used by major retailers Coles and Woolworths to recycle soft plastics last year. The programme was discovered to have been ineffective and reliant on storing soft plastics in warehouses as they were unable to be disposed of properly.

“Even before the collapse of the REDcycle, Australia was capable of processing less than 5% of soft plastics annually,” Cucow said.

Each of the four major retailers has been ranked in the report, with ALDI coming out on top with a score of just 20%. Coles followed, at 15%, with Woolworths behind on 10%. Metcash is the worst performer, scoring just 3%.

An image showing plastic packaging in supermarkets.
Image: Getty Images

Each supermarket chain was ranked in its plastic reduction efforts, its recycling and reusability capabilities, as well as transparency, policies, and planning. What the report found was that there is a serious lack of transparency throughout the sector, with most supermarkets “hesitant” to publically release data on their packaging footprint.

“Unwillingness to publicly release packaging data amongst most supermarkets indicates that the use of plastics may not be reducing in real terms,” the report reads.

“All four supermarkets were unable to demonstrate evidence of significant progress in resource recovery and increasing the use of recycled plastic content.”

When data was released, the report found that it was often cherry-picked. Supermarkets appear only to be applying plastic reduction targets to their own-brand products, avoiding responsibility for the vast majority of the plastic on their shelves.

The German supermarket chain Aldi was found to be the only company enforcing policies on the use of plastic in supplier packaging.

Even where supermarkets have made efforts to reduce their plastic use, it’s often done unsustainably, Cucow said. Supermarkets appear to be pivoting to soft plastics and ‘light-weighting’, whereby less plastic is used by volume but continues to be used overall, rather than finding alternatives. Soft plastics are also harder to recycle.

Although supermarkets appear to be doing very little, it’s clear that consumers want better options. The report indicates that Australians have shown an “incredible willingness to embrace reusable bags, cups and bottles,” but that supermarkets need to be meeting them halfway in order to go further.

“Reuse and refill systems are a huge missed opportunity,” Angel said.

“We would like them to offer services such as drink refill stations for milk and juice, BYO container options for the deli and dry goods, and genuine plastic-free reuse options for laundry and cleaning products.”

He also noted that loose, fresh produce was frequently sold at higher prices than plastic-wrapped alternatives, encouraging its use.

An image showing plastic packaging floating in the ocean. Much of it comes from supermarkets.
Image: Getty Images

The supermarkets have however hit back at the report. Woolworths has claimed it is “disappointing” because it is built on “incomplete data.”

“As a result is not a reliable reflection of packaging sustainability at Woolworths”.

“We’ve removed more than 1.4 million kilograms of virgin plastic from our range since 2018, and across all the packaging we can control there is an average recycled content of 49 per cent.”

“We know there is still more to do, and we will continue to publish our packaging data to hold ourselves accountable for our progress, while encouraging our suppliers to do the same.”

Coles also reported that 83.3% of their own-brand packaging is recyclable and that they are continuing to remove more plastic from their lineup.

“This year we replaced soft plastic bags with reusable paper bags made from 100 per cent recycled content that can be recycled kerbside at the end of life. This decision removed 230 million plastic bags from circulation in one year,” they said.

Ultimately, the responsibility for reducing plastic lies with the government. Associate professor Tillman Boehme, a University of Wollongong expert in circular economies and plastic waste, told the ABC that Aldi’s success in this area is likely owing to following European standards.

“We see in Europe a lot more consumer awareness, and consumers starting to demand recycling options,” he said.

“In Germany, retailers have to take back all the packaging.

“Even if it’s packaged I have a right to leave all my packaging at the supermarket, and that’s driven by policy.”

Nearly 70% of plastic found in ocean cleanups and other actions like Clean Up Australia Day comes from soft plastics, food packaging, and beverage litter, the AMCS says. Supermarkets are a $130.2 billion industry and are responsible for the majority of household packaging.

“Unless the government is willing to step in and regulate, many companies will continue using unrecyclable and unsustainable packaging, undercutting their competitors,” Cucow said.

“We need clear laws on packaging use. We urge the Australian Government to set binding national targets for plastic reduction, to ensure all retailers are doing their fair share to reduce their impacts on the environment.”

Related: Recycled Roads: How Australia Is Turning Soft Plastics Into Asphalt Streets

Related: Meet the Aussie Artist Turning Recycled Plastic Into Covetable Homewares

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