Coles and Woolworths customers have taken aim at the supermarket giants for their excessive use of plastic packaging, sharing photos of grocery items wrapped in what appears to be a disproportionate amount of the material, while urging the retailers to adopt more sustainable alternatives.
During a recent visit to Woolworths, a Victorian shopper was taken aback by the heavy-handed approach to plastic packaging in the store's produce aisle. He uploaded over a dozen pictures to Facebook, showing zucchini, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, apples and pre-packaged salads, all wrapped in plastic.
"I dropped in to buy some fresh veggies for some dinner with mum," he shared. "A huge percentage of everything was covered in single-use plastic. No wonder as a society we are drowning in plastic waste."
The man implored Woolworths to "do better" by reducing their reliance on plastic and encouraged fellow shoppers to make their voices heard by not purchasing pre-packaged items.
A Coles customer shared a similar concern after shopping in the bakery section of her local store, astounded to find single cookies packaged in plastic containers.
"This makes me angry," she shared alongside the image of an entire shelf full of individually wrapped cookies. "So much plastic for one bloody cookie, Coles you need to fix this."
Coles and Woolworths respond
In response to public concern, Coles and Woolworths have defended their sustainability practices and noted the environmental initiatives they currently have in place.
A Woolworths spokesperson stated that the supermarket has removed over 800 tonnes of plastic from their fruit and vegetable range in recent years. "The majority of our fruit and veg is sold loose and we're working to reduce unnecessary packaging across our range where we can," the spokesperson told Yahoo News.
Woolies also maintains plastic packaging can reduce food wastage. "Packaging is an important balancing act to reduce plastic without compromising shelf life, which can lead to more food waste in our store or in customers' homes," the spokesperson said, noting that a continental cucumber wrapped in plastic, for example, lasts three times longer than one that isn't.
In a first for a major Aussie supermarket, Woolworths will stop selling reusable plastic shopping bags nationwide later this year. The retailer ditched single-use plastic shopping bags in 2018.
Woolworths did acknowledge, however, a need for improvement. "We're growing greener, but we know there's more to be done and we look forward to sharing our progress with customers in the years ahead," the spokesperson added.
Coles also responded to the criticism, stating that they've adopted several strategies as part of their goal to reduce single-use plastics. "Coles Bakery cookies use packaging that is recyclable and made with 100% recycled plastic. This is one of the many initiatives Coles has adopted as part of our Together to Zero waste ambition, to reduce problematic and unnecessary single-use plastics packaging in our Coles Own Brand product packaging," the spokesperson said.
Expert rejects sustainability claims
Addressing Coles and Woolworths' statements, environmental scientist Dr Paul Harvey, author of The Plasticology Project, told Yahoo News he believes the retailers are showing a lack of understanding of the shifting Australian market.
"Consumers no longer want to see supermarket shelves packed with plastic packaged fruit and veggies. They want to see fresh produce, presented as fresh produce. This is clearly evident in consumers' posted photos of their products online. Consumers are sick of seeing the packaging," Dr Harvey said.
He also expressed scepticism towards Woolworths' claim that plastic packaging is used to extend the shelf life of products, and called for a change in the consumer mindset, as people have grown accustomed to year-round availability of fresh produce. "There is certainly a case to be made here about returning to seasonal eating, for both health and environmental reasons," he argued.
'Time to get serious'
Dr Harvey added there is much debate in Australia regarding the precise meaning of the term "100% recycled" and advised consumers to exercise caution when evaluating such claims.
"Plastic is a valuable resource that is also polluting the planet. It should not be wasted on ridiculous applications like single-wrapped cookies. Given that globally we are in the grip of a plastic pollution pandemic, I can't fathom the decision-making process that led to Coles thinking it is acceptable to individually package cookies. It is time to get serious about reducing plastic in stores."
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