Pressure Mounts on UK Supermarkets to Create Plastic-Free Aisles

CC BY 2.0. Jaro Larnos

If shoppers can choose gluten-free, fat-free, sugar-free, kosher, and halal food items, why not plastic-free, too?

Plastic pollution is the most serious environmental threat of our time. With 320 millions tons of plastic produced each year, and nearly half of that for single-use disposable items, most of which is non-recyclable, our waterways and oceans have become dumping grounds for a highly toxic and persistent material.

One organization called A Plastic Planet hopes to bring about much-needed change with a brilliant campaign idea that it will launch in coming weeks. Called A Plastic Free Aisle, it calls on supermarkets in the United Kingdom (and, hopefully, around the entire world) to create an aisle that is entirely plastic-free.

There are increasing numbers of people who are concerned about plastics and who consciously choose to avoid plastic as much as possible; but it can be extremely difficult to find stores that are willing to accommodate such preferences. This hardly seems fair, when you think of the considerations given to other people’s beliefs and shopping preferences.

In a short video by Sky News, shared on A Plastic Planet’s Facebook page, a zero-waste shopper named Pip describes her frustration with the current supermarket system that does not allow for package-free options:

“We have a lot of choice about what kinds of foods we buy, whether it’s gluten-free, fat-free, sugar-free, but we have much less choice about how we buy, what it comes in. It’s virtually impossible to buy all of your food without some kind of plastic packaging.”

Pip travels 60 miles from Bedford to north London to shop at Earth Natural Foods, an alternative grocery and health food store that allows her to purchase waste-free. I, too, can attest to the fact that zero-waste shopping requires far more errands around town and into the surrounding area to fulfill my family’s grocery needs (although this will soon become much easier with Bulk Barn’s new policy allowing reusable containers).

A Plastic-Free Aisle will lobby British supermarkets to stock an aisle with only biodegradable packaging. The plan is described by environmentalists as “clear, simple, and doable.” Packaging alternatives do exist; it’s just a matter of prioritizing their use.

Sian Sutherland, a trustee at the Plastic Oceans Foundation, told Sky News:

“We want to buy food that is not wrapped or contaminated with plastic. We are asking supermarkets to be part of the process. The situation with plastics is very, very urgent and we have to do something now.”

Supermarkets including Tesco, Waitrose, and Sainsbury’s have said they will respond to the proposals once they have discussed with campaigners.

The British Plastics Federation, not surprisingly, disagrees with the campaign, citing arguments that sound stale and outdated. Packaging News reports:

“Plastics are produced using less energy than other materials, are lightweight so reduce transport costs and CO2 emissions, and extend the life of food dramatically. Avoiding plastic packaging will cause far more harm to the environment due to the extra resources required for alternative packaging and the rise in food waste associated with fresh produce.”

What the federation does not acknowledge, however, is the fact that the current supermarket model – based on long distance transportation and protective packaging to ensure a good journey – is utterly unsustainable for many other reasons. The less distance food has to travel, the less plastic is needed to wrap it safely. If you buy from local sources, then freshness, quality, and price will all improve.

It will be fascinating to see how the Plastic-Free Aisle campaign heats up over the next few weeks. Currently you can view the website, add your email to the petition, and like it on Facebook. Let’s see if we can bring it across the ocean to North America, too!