Efforts to reduce plastic use by Woolworths, Coles, Aldi and IGA have been ranked in a new report, and the details have sparked a strong negative response from one supermarket, while another has promised a review and improvements.
The study comes almost a year to the day that nationwide supermarket-facilitated recycling scheme RedCycle collapsed following revelations soft plastics were actually being stockpiled rather than processed.
Plastics are a serious issue, choking oceans, killing wildlife and fouling beaches. It's estimated humans consume around a credit card's worth of plastic every week and it's regularly found in human blood, breastmilk and organs. It's even been linked to a scary new bird disease called plasticosis.
Which supermarket achieved the highest ranking?
Although German-owned Aldi achieved just two out of five stars, it was the clear winner in the UnWrapped: Plastic Use in Supermarkets report. They were followed by Coles with 1.5 stars and Woolworths with 1. Metcash, the owner of Foodland and IGA, came in last at zero.
AMCS campaigner Shane Cucow said supermarkets have a “huge influence” on our daily lives in Australia as they sell the majority of our groceries.
“Yet, we continue to see ridiculous and wasteful plastics, such as unnecessary packaging of fruit and vegetables, plastic multipacks with several layers of packaging, and tiny plastic toy promotions that inevitably end up polluting the environment,” he said.
While the report focuses on the influence of the supermarkets, many of them argue they have limited scope to influence their suppliers.
Woolworths says plastics report is unreliable
Aldi, Coles and Metcash immediately responded to the report, highlighting their commitments to reducing plastic use and recycling. Bottom-ranking Metcash promised to review the report’s recommendations and look at making improvements.
Woolworths, questioned the findings, calling the report “disappointing”, and alleging it was compiled using incomplete data. “As a result (it) is not a reliable reflection of packaging sustainability at Woolworths,” a spokesperson said.
“We know there is still more to do, and we will continue to publish our packaging data to hold ourselves accountable for our progress, while encouraging our suppliers to do the same,” it added.
Plastic-wrapped fruit and vegetables singled out
As the report was released, Cucow singled out promotions that encourage consumers to use more plastic by selling wrapped fruit and vegetables cheaper than loose items.
This concern was seized by Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek on Thursday who said, “I don’t think we should be wrapping fresh produce like bananas and zucchini in plastic.”
However despite there being widespread consumer concern about wrapping fresh produce in plastic, Woolworths said there is an important reason it did so. “The majority of our fruit and veg range is sold loose, however we do sell some packaged items to extend shelf life or offer produce in bulk,” it told Yahoo News.
Should we be wrapping fruit and vegetables in plastic?
Plibersek has been facing pressure to find a solution to Australia’s soft plastics problem. In 2022, following the RedCycle collapse, she said the government was willing to work with the supermarkets to find “a viable solution”.
While the manufacturing industry has been developing a soft plastics recycling system involving yellow bins, when this trial is converted to a permanent national program is yet to be confirmed.
In a statement provided to Yahoo on Thursday, Plibersek said the federal government was working with the states to phase out “problematic single-use plastics” through “strong regulations”.
“Business must also step up and take greater responsibility for the 6.7 million tonnes of packaging they place on the market every year,” she added.
What were the supermarkets graded on?
The report graded the retailers across five categories:
Plastic footprint reduction
Reuse and refill
Recycling and recycled content
Planning and governance
How supermarkets plan to reduce plastic
Woolworths has its annual sustainability report audited by Deloitte. It claims to have significantly increased recycled plastic use in its own-brand packaging and to have reduced virgin material by 26 per cent since 2018.
However, many of the products on its shelves are produced by other companies, and the supermarket maintains it cannot compel its suppliers to alter their packaging unless there is legislation requiring change, because doing so could breach the Australian Food and Grocery Code.
“While we cannot mandate packaging changes for the other brands that supply us, we have issued problematic material and sustainable packaging guidelines to our suppliers to encourage them to make positive changes,” it said.
Coles said it is “driven to reduce unnecessary plastic” and make it “easier” for customers to recycle. “We support the industry to achieve its target of 100 per cent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 and currently 83.8 per cent of Coles Own Brand packaging is recyclable,” it said in a statement.
Coles added 230 million plastic bags had been removed from circulation in a single year after it replaced them with paper alternatives.
Aldi’s sustainability director Daniel Baker said the business understands its role in tackling the problem, adding it is aiming to reduce plastic packaging by 25 per cent by 2025.
“We understand the important role we play in reducing our use of plastic and introducing more sustainable packaging within our own supply chains at a local and business level," he said.
Metcash said it was working with its independent retailer network to “phase out problematic plastic packaging material” and said it would consider improving transparency.
“Our priority for the year ahead is to continue to identify all problematic packaging and partner with packaging manufacturers and suppliers to further minimise waste and the use of plastic,” it said.
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