How to rid the food aisles of plastic – it’ll take more than milk bottles and the 5p bag charge

28th October 2019 | Recycling

What a difference two years makes. Back in October 2017, the BBC’s Blue Planet II aired. The final episode, detailing the disastrous impact of plastic waste on the oceans, was a wake-up call that resonated round the world. Groups such as Greenpeace and Wrap, which campaigns for less waste, found overnight that their mantra – to stop overusing plastic – had gone from minor to mainstream. Plastic straws were quickly banished from smart bars (as well as Wetherspoons and McDonald’s), and reusable water bottle sales soared.

Milkmen with glass bottles are back, with orders at the Milk&More delivery company surging. Even my local high street in Bristol has a shiny new Scoop Wholefoods shop, resolutely plastic-free and selling chocolate granola and wild Camargue rice in reusable cotton bags. It is a world away from the grungy shops of my youth.


Supermarkets are rushing to catch up according to Helen Bird, a plastics specialist for Wrap, which is behind the Plastics Pact that aims to make all plastic in the UK compostable, reusable or recyclable by 2025. Dozens of big industry players have signed up, including all the major supermarkets, McDonald’s, Kraft Heinz, Boots and Pret. But while supermarkets such as Waitrose have seen some success with their scoop-shop style dispensers, it is still no small task, warns Bird, “We have all seen examples of ridiculous packaging, but in the majority of cases it is there for a good reason.”

Soft fruit, for example, may be packed directly into those plastic punnets in the field so they don’t get bruised, and can reach us without turning to mush. Mushrooms, on the other hand, would keep far better in a paper bag than the usual cling film-wrapped tray.

“So it’s about re-evaluating the whole of their supply chains to completely rethink the way they deliver products to people and the way that we buy food in particular. [The system has] evolved around plastic, which has given us this amazing convenience, so that we can buy whatever we want whenever we want pretty much 365 days a year.”

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