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Reducing packaging weight first step in supermarket fight against plastic waste


Tracey McDermott

Head of Trading Law and Technical, Tesco Ireland

Solving the planet’s plastic binge culture isn’t a supermarkets job, but it is big businesses like these that hold the key to ensuring we buy less and therefore throw away less plastic.

Simply reducing packaging weight is making a difference in Ireland, with a long road still ahead.

The stark impact that our plastic use is having on the environment is now an unescapable fact, with programmes such as the BBC’s Blue Planet II showing us the effect that plastic waste has, especially on wildlife.

According to Greenpeace UK, a truckload of plastic enters our oceans every minute, affecting marine wildlife and making its way back into the food and beverages we continue to consume.

Single-use plastics pose the greatest threat to the environment, with supermarkets generating a substantial amount of the plastic that consumers end up throwing away.

Clearly, big businesses like supermarket chains have had to ask themselves how they can minimise waste.

Proactive approach to the challenge of plastic

Head of Trading Law and Technical at Tesco Ireland, Tracey McDermott, says: “Supermarkets must plan how they will help to tackle the social and environmental challenges that matter most to their customers. A valuable target is to ensure to never use more packaging than is needed, and that any packaging that must be used comes from sustainable sources and goes on to be reused or recycled.”

“There’s growing concern from our customers about packaging, quite rightly. Packaging does play an important role in protecting food from damage and preventing wastage. But, its use shouldn’t come at an unaffordable cost to the environment,” says McDermott.

Commitment to reduction of ‘hard-to-use recyclables’

‘Hard-to-use recyclables’ – namely PVC and polystyrene – are incredibly difficult to recycle compared to alternatives such as cardboard or other fully recyclable materials.

McDermott points out that simply reducing the weight and amount of packaging has short-term benefits.

“It takes an enormous amount of work with suppliers to ensure less packaging is used and ensuring that recyclable materials are used where possible. Once it doesn’t affect food safety in any way, where you can reduce the weight of plastic and the overall weight of packaging, there’s always a benefit.”

Empowering customers choice of purchase

One of the key criticisms of supermarkets’ use of plastic packaging is the sale of multipacks, often used to package multiple items of fruit or vegetables.

In days gone by, these would have been loose, whereas, now, we’ve become accustomed to buying apples or bananas in plastic bags. Customers may end up buying more than they need for the week ahead, something Tracey was more than aware of.

“Our stores offer both packaged and unpackaged products, giving customers choice over how much they buy. Potato and onion supplier, Country Crest, has worked to replace composite packaging with paper bags with paper handles, for example, ensuring that the end product can be fully recycled in household recycling bins.”

Industry support in tackling the problem

There is support for businesses out there in the shape of government agencies and Repack, a not for profit, which uses its membership fees to subsidise the collection of waste packaging at household level.

Educating consumers and empowering them to ensure they recycle as much of the plastic they use as possible is something supermarkets should aim to commit to.

There’s clearly nothing easy about reducing the weight of packaging or ensuring it is easier for customers to recycle, but big businesses committed to tackling excess plastic will help.

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