Public opinion of plastic is changing. Call it the Blue Planet 2 effect; the impact of plastic on the environment, unnecessary infiltration of packaging, and accumulation in land and marine ecosystems has become a concern for the mainstay of society, rather than just a few. Retailers whose consumer base has long been faintly sandalwood fragrant, have been reporting an abundance of new customers who have not been involved in environmental issues before. Images of turtles with straws through their noses, dolphins eating plastic bags, and publicity surrounding single-use plastics is breaking concern about plastic waste out of the environmental bubble and into general societal issues.
The rate at which plastic has been allowed to enter the environment has been dramatically rising over the last 50 years. Retailers hold much of the responsibility for the plastic overload, by often being the producers and intermediary between products and the public. Without retailers selling plastic in products and packaging, the publics ability to obtain, and therefore dispose of, plastic materials, is removed. From the unnecessary incarceration of produce like bananas, oranges and cauliflowers that have evolved with their own packaging; to the plastic windows that expose beige sticks of spaghetti and lacklustre sandwich fillings, supermarkets overzealous plastic crusade accounts for 35% of the environmental cost of the material.
“There is absolutely no logic in wrapping something as fleeting as food in something as indestructible as plastic”, said Sian Sutherland, co-founder of Plastic Planet, a group determined to reduce plastic usage around the world. Each year more than 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally, and only 10% are recycled; most end up in waterways or sit in landfills for hundreds of years. And yet, the aisles of supermarkets proudly display nearly every item imaginable straitjacketed into plastic. As Sutherland puts it, urgent action, rather than warm words, like the many vague promises made by supermarkets concerning plastic reduction, is imperative. With supermarkets lacking in enthusiasm, the public is taking on the role of change maker. Protests by mums, grandparents, and other concerned citizens in supermarkets, have been staged in opposition to the plastic plague. One of the most media-covered was in Tesco’s Keynsham branch, where demonstrators, far from the sandal-wearing, spoon-whittling, multicoloured cotton wearing demographic, removed their purchases from packaging and left three trollies full of plastic packaging for the retailer to responsibly dispose of.
The stunt wasn’t aimed at Tesco or the store’s manager, who was in reserved support of the action, but the attitude of all supermarkets and their affiliated brands. The publicity the Keynsham Plastic Re-Action group garnered was to highlight the responsibility to the planet, animals, and people these companies have, and to necessitate steps that need to be taken by packaging sectors. The group called on Tesco, and other supermarkets, to disclose the amount of plastic they use in packaging, pay more towards its safe disposal, and begin as a matter of urgency to phase it out.
Public demonstrations towards supermarkets have often resulted in change. The TV campaign War on Waste lead by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall focused on reducing the 7.3 billion tonnes of food that goes to waste in the UK every year. After Hugh’s campaign outside a Morrisons supermarket, selling parsnips that had been rejected by the company for not being straight enough, Morrisons was inspired to introduce a new range of ‘Wonky Veg’. Despite being packaged in plastic, the collection will reduce the 20-40% of ‘ugly’ produce that is rejected by supermarkets before it even reaches stores. Negative press towards supermarkets last-minute push of sweet treats at the till point came in response to growing obesity rates. The publicity culminated at Nestle’s expense, in new healthy snack ranges to greet you at the checkout. Expanding diversity in lifestyle choices has lead to diversity on the shelves, masses of new products designed in response by companies trend forecasters. The rise of gluten-free diets lead to new free-from sections on the shelves, and alternatives created by gluten-aficionados like Warburton’s and Hovis. The influx of the vegan lifestyle, headed by Instagram influencers, has pressured stores to provide and increase meat and dairy free options in meal deals, ready meals and as alternative ingredients. And yet among these shelves stocked with multiple choice for a variety of lifestyles, there are no plastic-free options beyond a lacking variety of loose fruit and veg. Supermarkets and brands must now cater for the burgeoning demographic of plastic-rejecting citizens.
Actions taken against supermarkets indicate a real switch in the role of customers and the brands they buy. By acting on their beliefs of how brands should behave, they become active creators of change rather than the retailer definition of the passive ‘consumer’. But the idea that customers ‘vote with their feet’ washes out major contributing factors with which the retail industry maintains its stronghold on our shopping lists. Availability, price, and accessibility of low-waste alternatives severely hinders the ability to have a low impact lifestyle. Of the plastic-free options in supermarkets, the price difference is often so significant due to the transport costs that the choice is ruled out for many households; if you’ve ever looked at the price difference between plastic and glass packaged olive oil, you’ll see what I mean.
But packaging, mainly plastic, is what allowed for the cheap and convenient products that pushed supermarkets to the forefront of food retail. Higher cleanliness standards enabled by the airtight seal of plastics enables contaminant products to be shelved together. This lead the way for self-serve shopping, where you push a trolley around shelves of products, rather than behind the counter service that was common before the 1970s. The seal also prevents food from being exposed to oxygen, which makes fresh food last weeks longer than unpackaged. And cheaper transport costs from the lightweight nature of plastic have lowered shelf prices to make for less expensive receipt totals than buying glass and metal packaged counterparts. The cheapness of products supermarkets supply is often incongruous with the real cost of these products when fair labour and airmails are taken into account. Produce that proudly display the red tractor to signify that it’s been grown in the UK, are often flown to far-flung places with cheaper labour costs to be washed and packaged. Only for them to be flown back and slapped with the sticker. All of these factors culminated in supermarkets dramatically lower price point of the grocers, butchers and independents of high streets gone by, taking with them the opportunity for choice and packaged free items.
However, new shop runners threaten their ambush of the market. Zero waste stores are appearing on supermarkets terrain, luring in shoppers with mason jars, loose grains, and bulk wine by the barrel. These low waste shops are popping up around continents, offering the lifestyle solutions that supermarkets are not meeting. While independent stores are limited in availability, larger stores threaten the convenience with which supermarkets hold the market captive. No longer will plastic-aware consumers be penalised the convenience and price that monopolistic supermarkets provide. Food store behemoth Whole Foods, which sells bulk items that can fill your own containers with, have concreted their place in the US market. Now they’ve crossed the Atlantic and opened seven stores across London, providing zero waste options to its citizens, encouraged by its wholesome and somewhat revered brand recognition thanks to its American success. Dutch supermarket Ekoplaza recently introduced plastic free aisles to their stores, to be rolled out across their 74 nationwide stores, replacing over 700 grocery items with glass, metal, cardboard, or compostable containers. In the UK, Iceland has announced they will be the first national supermarket to adopt a plastic-free mark, allowing customers to know what products come with eco-friendly packaging. The Trust Mark will be adopted on own-label products this month as part of its commitment to eliminate single-use plastic packaging of all its own-brand products by 2023. Low waste shops growth across the global North recalls the slow uptake of electric cars when they were first introduced; hard to engage when it’s not accessible, but once the infrastructure develops, markets will change.
The infiltration of low waste stores by known brands threatens to change the market like Lidl and Aldi. Offering products with no taste or efficiency difference at the sacrifice of branding, theirs was a model that trend watchers and consumerist philosophers would have laughed at; the appeal of a recognised brand or logo means we will more often than not buy well above average product cost. But Aldi and Lidls Honey-Os and Trix bars proved that idea wrong. What this says about branding as a whole bodes well for the not home-known zero waste brands, and their logo-less stores.
Zero waste stores offer a viable model for plastic alternative shopping, though many believe that sanitation and longevity are sacrificed in the name of environmental justice. But currently, 50% of all the food we buy is thrown away. Allowing customers to buy from bulk only the amount they want and need can reduce the UK’s 4.4 million tonnes a year of unused food that rots in the back of our cupboards and fridges. In response to the statistic, most major supermarkets removed buy-one-get-one-free offers on fresh produce, a move that has so far failed to produce the waste reduction they were hoping.
Excessive packaging provides an aesthetic of luxury and protection, at the sacrifice of the environment. Items individually wrapped, then wrapped in servings, placed on a black plastic tray, then packaged in a container, to be put into a 5p bag, is a grossly overzealous packaging approach. With UK landfills predicted to run out of space within the next decade, the issue is not just ecological, but economic. Bioplastics and alternative materials maintain the longevity, convenience and aesthetic of individually wrapped produce, making it just as affordable as plastic, and removing the need to bring containers, which many zero-waste stores require. Commercially available and compostable bioplastics made from natural cellulose in algae, corn and wheat provide supermarkets with a viable alternative to catch the curve of an increasingly aware market base. The choice for supermarkets to allow excessive packaging in their stores is rapidly running out, as Theresa May’s environmental plan threatens. In a plan that was lacking in details, the one specification was the need for supermarkets to introduce plastic free aisles to offer customers more choice, though a timeframe for such an initiative is yet to be seen.
Supermarkets are attempting to adapt their image with well-meaning PR stunts to call out to their disenfranchised customer base. In a grandiose social media campaign, Waitrose announced that disposable takeaway cups would be removed from their cafes by autumn 2018 while continuing to sell cucumbers shrink-wrapped in clingfilm. This demonstrates the disconnect many people have on the applications of plastic; removing one but maintaining another is incongruous to their opposition of single-use plastic. Many supermarkets have promised that 100% of their plastic packaging will be recyclable by 2025, but this misinterprets the anti-plastic sentiment spectacularly. The ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ trope seems to have been reimagined to just ‘recycle’ by corporations. Easier than innovating solutions to plastics pervasion in society, they just change the type of plastic used and allow it another couple reincarnations before landfill. This is not a sustainable solution, and the sooner brands are forced to recognise this, through protest and education, the better.
With alternatives expanding and protests preparing, retailers must adapt or wither under the wrath of an increasingly aware and mobilised consumer base. People, empowered by each other and the sultry tones of David Attenborough, are changing from consumers into active decision makers of their options and choices. Plastics pervasion in society and the environment it exists in is set to change, bulk and zero waste stores are set to change the retail landscape like trend forecasters said Lidl and Aldi couldn’t. Retailers must be prepared to lessen their dependency on this 21st-century scourge, or customers enabled by choice to vote with their feet and wallets, will convert to the alternatives.