September 20, 2017

Powerful UK supermarkets can lead the way to a healthier future, says campaigner Sian Sutherland

Sian Sutherland

From self-service checkouts to zero-carbon stores, Britain’s supermarket chains have shown an extraordinary capacity to embrace positive change. Supermarkets are at the avant-garde of retail innovation, unafraid of adapting to meet the evolving priorities of the Great British shopper.

Most large food retailers have responded positively to increasing consumer demand for products that don’t cost the Earth. In response to growing evidence that UK shoppers are becoming increasingly concerned about green issues, most supermarkets have stepped up to the mark. The list of retailers’ green initiatives is endless, ranging from M&S’ Plan A programme to the Waitrose Way.

Many of Britain’s supermarkets have signed up to the Courthauld Commitment, an agreement between grocery retailers and manufacturers to work towards a zero-waste economy. The programme has made some real gains, including a 10% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions relating to packaging between 2010 and 2012.

But despite supermarkets’ best intentions, we are still yet to really get to grips with the pollution crisis that threatens the health of our children and the future of our planet. Until we recognise that the culprit is throwaway plastic, the pollution problem is set to continue.

The UK currently produces 3.6m tonnes of plastic each year, 1.5m tonnes of which is packaging from food and drink products. Despite sustained government and industry action, supermarkets still give out 8bn plastic bags each year.  Single use packaging, mostly used for food, has an average useful life of only 11 minutes and then exists forever.  Since when did it become acceptable to wrap something as perishable as food in a material as indestructible as plastic?

Chronic levels of plastic pollution have had dire consequences for wildlife and human health. Debris from plastic packaging kills almost a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals each year. We now dump in excess of 8 million tonnes of plastic in oceans annually, with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation forecasting that there will be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

A paper published earlier this year revealed that British seafood eaters ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year. Yet despite a wealth of damning evidence, the impact of plastic on human health is often overlooked. A UN report in 2016 warned that people who consume plastic-contaminated fish may be exposed to chemicals that can cause poisoning, infertility, and genetic disruption. After much focus on micro-plastics, we now need to also consider the effects of nano-plastics. We simply do not know enough to risk carrying on in this blind fashion.  Fossil-fuel plastic may well be the tobacco-smoking or the asbestos of the 21st Century.

Recycling is often lauded as the solution to the pollution problem, yet every piece of plastic ever made unless it has been burned still exists. Despite a concerted attempt by Whitehall and local authorities to drive up rates of recycling in the UK, Britons still throw away considerably more plastic than they recycle.

I co-founded the creative activist campaign A Plastic Planet earlier this year in a bid to work with supermarkets to secure a brighter future for current and future generations. We have a simple mission – to create a Plastic Free Aisle in supermarkets. We think an aisle featuring only foods free from throwaway plastic packaging would be both good for business and the environment. A Plastic Free Aisle would give consumers the choice to reject goods laden with plastic packaging in favour of more sustainable alternatives, also championing some of the smaller more innovative brands that are already doing the right thing.

A 2015 Sustainable Brands survey revealed that more than four out of five shoppers consider environmental impact when deciding which products to purchase. With consumers becoming increasingly aware of green issues, it’s clear that introducing a Plastic Free Aisle would give supermarkets a fresh way of attracting the UK’s growing army of environment-savvy consumers.

This is about fundamental consumer choice. We can buy gluten-free, dairy-free, fat-free; so why not plastic-free?

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of A Plastic Planet – the campaign for a Plastic Free Aisle in supermarkets. To find out more, please visit aplasticplanet.com.