• Consumers are pressuring brands and retailers to reduce plastic packaging.
  • A new report from the Green Alliance suggests plastic alternatives may cause other problems for the environment, too.
  • Greater involvement from government would help drive a more coordinated response and bring about faster changes.

The vast majority of UK shoppers is now concerned about the volume of plastic waste, finds a new report.

But pressure on supermarkets to change their packaging could cause other problems for the environment, it says.

Compiled by environmental think tank Green Alliance and based on responses from leading supermarkets and consumer goods companies, the report finds increasing pressure from consumers to move away from plastics. All of the UK’s top 10 supermarkets now have plastic reduction targets, compared to just half of them in 2018.

plastic single use waste environment renewable solar energy change transition friendly environment carbon footprint carbon emissions reduction change natural climate change global warming air pollution clean energy power renewables plastic plastics
How concerned are consumers about plastic?
Image: Green Alliance

But the report suggests there has not been a significant reduction in the amount of plastic packaging in use – and says many companies are simply substituting single-use plastics for other single-use alternatives. It cites statistics from the UK National Packaging Waste Database, which show a year-on-year increase in all packaging types handled in 2019 with the exception of steel.

plastic single use waste environment renewable solar energy change transition friendly environment carbon footprint carbon emissions reduction change natural climate change global warming air pollution clean energy power renewables plastic plastics
The young people are more likely to swap brands due to concerns over their packaging.
Image: Green Alliance

Nearly half of consumers ages 18-34 say they have changed food brands based on packaging. But retailers said this has yet to be seen in real consumer behaviour. In other words, people say they have changed, but in reality, many habits remain.

This could, in part, be a chicken-and-egg problem. Plastic still dominates the supermarket shelves, with one report by Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency saying UK supermarkets put at least 59 billion items of single-use packaging on the market each year – that’s nearly 900 pieces per inhabitant.

Public confusion

More worrying, perhaps, is the fact the brands questioned say decisions to move away from plastics can sometimes be made without considering the environmental impact of the alternatives. A ban on all plastics is not necessarily the best response, the report suggests. Instead, current consumer sentiment should be used to fuel discussions about packaging choices and the consequences of alternatives.

For example, swapping drink bottles from single-use plastic to single-use glass could have a negative impact on carbon footprints, as glass is heavier and more bulky to transport.

Likewise, switching from plastic packaging to paper on fresh fruit and bakery products could be problematic. Paper bags can use more energy in production. Some research suggests that when taking factors like ecosystem toxicity, water and air pollution into account, a paper bag would have to be reused 43 times in order to have a lower impact than a plastic bag.

Circular economy

What is a circular economy?

The global population is expected to reach close to 9 billion people by 2030 – inclusive of 3 billion new middle-class consumers.This places unprecedented pressure on natural resources to meet future consumer demand.

A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and business models.

Nothing that is made in a circular economy becomes waste, moving away from our current linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy. The circular economy’s potential for innovation, job creation and economic development is huge: estimates indicate a trillion-dollar opportunity.

The World Economic Forum has collaborated with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for a number of years to accelerate the Circular Economy transition through Project MainStream - a CEO-led initiative that helps to scale business driven circular economy innovations.

Join our project, part of the World Economic Forum’s Shaping the Future of Environment and Natural Resource Security System Initiative, by contacting us to become a member or partner.

The study also identifies misinformation and confusion among the public about the differences between packaging types – such as between "bio-based," "compostable" and "biodegradable" – which can lead to items being disposed of incorrectly.

plastic single use waste environment renewable solar energy change transition friendly environment carbon footprint carbon emissions reduction change natural climate change global warming air pollution clean energy power renewables plastic plastics
The types of packaging that cause the most concern for consumers.
Image: Green Alliance

So, what can we do?

Retailers may be slower to shift to plastic alternatives in the absence of clear-cut improvements, the report notes. And there are concerns about the cost of introducing some novel packaging types, such as plant-based compostables.

There have been some changes, though, with more focus from the industry on increasing recyclability and the volume of recycled materials being used. Retailers are also giving greater consideration to how they can incorporate refill models into their business.

Some supermarkets already offer refill options for some products, or allow customers to bring their own containers for delicatessen items, as two examples. But retailers highlighted the need for consumer buy-in for such models to be successful. Similarly, there are also environmental hurdles around losses, breakages and emissions from transport, as refilling generally requires heavier and more material-intense durable packaging than single-use options.

Greater involvement and direction from government would be an advantage, retailers say, helping to ensure companies’ plastics policies develop in compatible ways. And more focus on carbon footprints generally, as well as looking at how packaging innovations can contribute to broader market improvements rather than being treated simply as a competitive advantage, were also recommended.