Can you really do a plastic-free food shop?

Is your kitchen bin or recycling overflowing with plastic bags, containers and produce wrapping? Plastic has become so commonplace that it’s easy to overlook how much of it you use and forget it doesn’t just disappear when it leaves your home.

More than 320 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally in 2015, over 40 percent of which was single-use. Recycling helps to tackle the problem, but as seen on BBC One’s Inside the Supermarket, food shops are also considering what they can do to cut single-use plastics.

How can you ditch plastic in favour of more sustainable shopping habits?

Which bag is best?

Once upon a time, the average person in England got through 140 single-use plastic carrier bags a year. We’ve slashed this by a staggering 86 percent, partly due to the plastic bag tax and a heightened awareness of the detrimental effects of plastic on the environment. But major retailers in England still sold 1.75 billion plastic bags between April 2017 and April 2018.

When it comes to choosing a bag, do you know your options?

It takes more than four times as much energy to produce a paper bag as it does a plastic bag. Paper also weighs more than plastic, making transport emissions higher.

The Environment Agency finds paper bags need to be used at least three times to have lower global warming potential than standard plastic bags used only once. But paper bags do not tend to be reused. However, paper is recycled at a higher rate than plastic, so landfill is less of a problem.

By comparison, a bag for life, made of low-density polyethylene, needs to be used at least four times to have lower global warming potential than those standard plastic bags used just once. While this seems doable, it still adds to plastic pollution if you throw it away. Cotton bags need to be used 131 times, but they last well and cut down on plastic pollution dramatically.

Whatever type of bags you use, the key to minimising environmental impact is to use them as often as possible until they break and then return them to a supermarket bag collection point, which many chains now provide. Lots of these 'bins' also accept plastic wrap from bread, cereal boxes, toilet roll, freezer bags, ring-joiners and lots of other single-use plastic items. Ask in store if you’re not sure if your shop has one or what it accepts.

Is plastic ever better?

Some vegetables, such as cucumbers, bananas, peppers and potatoes, and meats such as beef, can last much longer when wrapped in plastic. This is due to the oxygen-free environment or micro-climate that can be created.

So which is worse for the environment – plastic or food waste? We enter the plastic paradox.

According to anti-waste charity WRAP, increasing the shelf life of produce by just one day would save UK shoppers up to £500 million per year by cutting back on their food waste.

One way to avoid the need for long-life fresh ingredients is to shop for them locally so you can easily pop back when you want something. “Veg box deliveries and local markets or greengrocers are a way of ditching packaging while supporting local businesses”, says Emma Priestland, plastics campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

Kathryn Kellogg, the founder of Going Zero Waste and author of '101 Ways to Go Zero Waste', recommends shopping for whole foods rather than processed. "Most of the processed foods we buy come in a lot of packaging and fruits and vegetables tend to come with less. Bring your own container to buy meat and cheese from the deli and butcher. If available, you can also grab staples like nuts, grains and legumes from bulk bins”.

Pasta, rice and dried beans and pulses are often sold wrapped in plastic and if they weren’t they could be spoiled by water damage or breakage, creating food waste. If there is a plastic-free shop offering refill schemes near to you, you can take along reusable containers.

Many major UK supermarkets have pledged to reduce avoidable unrecyclable plastic packaging while slashing the amount of food waste produced. So in the future we could start seeing better alternatives and new solutions to plastic that increase shelf-life.

Staff at Sainsbury’s supermarket in BBC One’s Inside the Supermarket

What is your supermarket doing to cut plastic use?

So what commitments have food retailers made to reducing single-use plastic? We asked them…

Sainsbury’s say they’re committed to reducing plastic packaging, including all branded food packaging and packaging across all operations, by 50 percent by 2025.

According to Ocado, “Reducing single-use plastic is a key area of focus for us”, and they say they’ve already changed the main component of packaging on more than 45 percent of their own-label products, switching to widely recyclable materials.

Aldi explain they’ve “already removed more than 550 tonnes of plastic” and are targetting a 25 percent reduction in plastic packaging by the end of 2023. Asda say that by the end of 2020, “almost a third of the plastic we use will come from recycled sources, while all of our packaging will be 100 percent recyclable by 2025”.

Tesco have told us that over the next 12 months they will remove “one billion pieces of plastic” and add they’re “currently reviewing every piece of packaging across Tesco”. Marks and Spencer say they have set a target to remove all hard-to-recycle plastics from their products by 2022 and have introduced a “take-back” scheme into 12 stores – with plans to roll-out further – where customers return their hard-to-recycle plastic, which is then converted into school playground equipment.

Iceland’s Managing Director, Richard Walker, says they are committed to eliminating plastic packaging from their own-label products by 2023. He adds that they are trialling a number of initiatives in their stores, including a reverse vending machine where customers can return plastic bottles to receive a 10p voucher. He says more than a million bottles have been collected and recycled.

Morrisons explain that “by no later than 2025, all of our own-brand plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable.” Meanwhile, Waitrose have plans for the next three years, ranging from reducing their own-brand packaging – including plastics – by a third by 2023 to eliminating plastic toys from crackers by 2020.

The Co-op “are focussed on removing unnecessary plastic, making all our packaging recyclable and we are well on the way to removing all hard-to-recycle black plastic”.