Plastic Free July

It's Plastic Free July, we asked Lizzie Rivera to explore what brands and retailers can do to be part of the solution and not the problem.

Plastic Free July


So, the New Zealand government is banning single-use plastics. Yet, despite all the headlines, and in the face of all the grand plastic-free promises, the UK is still generating more plastic waste per person than any other country except the USA.

That’s the staggering conclusion of Trashed: How the UK is still dumping plastic waste on the rest of the world report, released this year. It reveals that in 2018, the UK generated an estimated 5.2 million tonnes of plastic waste – enough plastic to fill Wembley Stadium six times over. Less than 10% of this is recycled; the rest is incinerated (46%), exported (19%) and goes to landfill (17%).

So, it’s perhaps unsurprising that despite introducing the 5p plastic bag charge in October 2015, analysis by Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) found that the top 10 UK supermarkets actually increased their plastic footprints by 1.2% between 2017 and 2019, from 886,000 tonnes to nearly 897,000 tonnes.

Single-use plastics are the biggest issue – around 50% of plastics produced are single-use – and our addiction to convenience is flowing into our rivers (which lead straight to the sea), reveals the Earth Watch’s Plastic Rivers report. which calculated that 71% of litter found in UK rivers was plastic.

The biggest culprits are plastic bottles, food wrappers, cigarette butts, food takeaway containers and – you guessed it – cotton buds.

But, of course, these aren’t really the biggest culprits.

Officially, it's the biggest well-known FMCG companies who are producing these items – and us, who buy for convenience, unthinkingly.

So, what’s going wrong between good intention and good action?

And, what can each of us do about it?

If you’re not part of the solution you're part of the problem

Plastic-free options

“If you’re not part of the solution you're part of the problem,” Matt Godfroy blunty puts it.

He is the founder of Pikt an organic and certified plastic-free vegetable box scheme that delivers straight to your door.

Pikt was launched just before Covid hit and they saw a staggering 17,500% increase in sales at the height of the spike – and proudly didn’t turn any customers away. They are now supplying up to 700 boxes a week to homes, schools and businesses.

Godfroy, who also supplies retailers, switched to organic 20 years ago. He says:

On the industrial farms you would see the waxes and the treatment sprays used to prolong crops, whereas an organic farm was harmonious with nature. It’s that freeing feeling of taking your shoes off and walking on grass.”

He was similarly ahead of the game with plastics and maintains that it’s the retailer's responsibility to reduce their use of plastics. This is not a burden consumers should have to shoulder, which is one of the reasons he launched Pikt.

So, while supermarkets and retailers get their act together, shopping from companies that walk-the-walk as well as talk-the-talk, is one option customers have.

Plastic alternatives

Another option is to find our local retailers, such as zero-waste shops, who are genuinely providing solutions. They are around, but we do have to look a bit harder for them – and remember to take pots and milk bottles, as well as our shopping bags, with us.

Bristol residents are spoiled though.

“Organic, local and ethical guides our buying,” explains Matthew Philpott from the Bristol-based Better Food small supermarket group, which has a focus on refill items.

Approximately 70% of items are organic and almost 50% come from within 30 miles of their stores.

Better Food’s refill walls are filled with rice and oats as well as raw dark chocolate buttons and dried mango. The naked bread is freshly-baked, the eggs are loose and even the berries in the freezer are sold packaging-free.

They sell washing-up liquid from recycled oil drums from an innovative and stylish company called Fill so there is no plastic waste.

Philpott says: “Our customers, as an extension of shopping organically, embrace shopping more sustainably, are open to do things in a different way and to push boundaries.”

Although Covid has made people more conscious of sharing things, Better Food hasn’t seen a marked difference in people’s shopping habits or need to wrap everything in plastic. In fact, they even worked with environmental charity focused on plastic pollution City to Sea, and devised a tray system that enabled them to continue to offer takeaway coffees in a customer’s reusable cup.

Other retailers could invest in these solutions, too.

Plastic compromises

But, Philpott admits, they do have to compromise.

Sometimes this is for practical reasons. For example, they trialled a refill milk option, supplied by a churn and tap that sat in their fridges, but the spoilage was a lot more than they hoped for. So, now they supply refill milk in polybags, from which customers can fill up 1 pint glass milk jars. This represents a 98% reduction in plastic compared with buying plastic milk cartons.

Although their grocery section operates largely like a traditional greengrocer, they struggle with salad leaves, because they do not have the shelf life if you sell them loose. So, Better Food are currently trialling a pick ‘n’ mix salad system where customers can choose from big bags of salad, rather than individually wrapped ones. This, again, reduces the total amount of plastic.

Other compromises come in terms of choosing the most sustainable fish supplier and accepting this has to be delivered in plastic for food safety reasons.

Helen Browning Organic has to make a similar compromise when selling their organic ham and bacon to stores.

As far as we know, there’s not a more environmentally-friendly and meat grade protective material currently available,” says Claire Bailey who is responsible for operations. She explains plastic packaging protects the meat from oxygen and water, and can add up to 10 days shelf life for some of their products.

As such, they are working with manufacturers to switch to using just one-type of plastic (mono-plastic) that can be widely recycled, rather than mixed plastics that cannot.

But, this involves another compromise. Mono-plastics are more rigid and they have received complaints from customers about the plastic trays being sharped-edged and cutting fingers. There's not yet a win-win solution, but they are trialling new ideas and going on the journey with suppliers.

Ethically and sustainably, moving away from plastics is at the core of what we want to achieve and suppliers are conscious of this,” Bailey insists.

There’s a whole wealth of packing development happening. Consumer demand and retailers are pushing their suppliers to change wherever possible.”

Plastic waste vs food waste

While it’s good to know that voting with our wallets can have an impact, in situations like this we each have to weigh up where we want to place our votes. And, in some cases, the issue of plastic waste has to be balanced with food waste.

This is an issue with some veg, too. If you’re shopping for fresh produce in a supermarket it can often feel like you’re having to choose between plastic-wrapped organic or plastic-free conventional.

And the answers are not as black-and-white as they may first seem. One retailer told me customers were demanding they sell their organic cucumbers plastic-free, but these had to be supplied plastic-wrapped.

The result of this consumer pressure? They ended up taking the plastic off their cucumbers before putting them on the shelves “plastic-free” to appease their customers. This led to double the amount of waste, and therefore double the amount of plastic.

Not exactly a win-win outcome.

Plastic-free July

So, what does a win look like?

“The UK needs to drastically cut the amount of plastic produced in the first place. Reducing single-use plastic by 50% would not only allow the UK to end waste exports, but would also mean less plastic going into incineration and landfill. The government must mandate a 50% reduction in single-use plastic by 2025 – and supermarkets and major brands must deliver it,” concludes the Trashed report.

Specialising in contract packing, warehousing and distribution, Complete Co-packing sits in the middle of the supply chain. Operations manager Jeff Parry says the threat of an impending ‘plastic tax’ is encouraging the innovation they’re already seeing.

The infrastructure needs to change but our behaviour needs to change too,” he says, pointing out that there is now a cardboard crisis due to demand.

Each of us can play our part.

Our small changes really do make a difference, together we can show big brands, business and government that we need to see action on plastics and reuse is the solution,” says City to Sea’s head of campaigns, Jo Morley.

They suggest 12 changes we can all make. Essentially, this is the mindset we all need:

First up, forget compostable or biodegradable plastics. The technology just isn’t there to make this a reality yet. In the meantime it encourages us to continue with single-use items and continuing to harm the environment and marine life – but feel better about it, which is a troubling trajectory.

Begin with Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Refill and only then when you’ve exhausted those options opt for Recycling.

Finally, where – and only where – reusables aren’t an option, choose materials that can be recycled, like card, paper, aluminium and glass.

Oh... and make it known to retailers and brands that you expect them to change – and fast. That has the potential to make the biggest difference of all.

Lizzie Rivera

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