Supermarkets under the plastic microscope

Retail giants across Europe have been the subject of a new report by  the Break Free from Plastic movement. The analysis of the role European supermarkets play in addressing plastic pollution is laid out in the report 'Under wraps? What Europe’s supermarkets aren’t telling us about plastic'.

The ranking, which was developed by The Changing Markets Foundation, seems to show a lack of ambition across three categories of questions on the topics of: transparency and performance, commitments, and support for government policy.

Of 130 retailers contacted, only 39 retailers (30%) provided a written response to the coalition’s questionnaire, but many of these responses did not provide meaningful replies to the questions. Further analysis of 74 retailers across 13 countries revealed a concerning lack of actions to tackle the plastic crisis.

Even within supermarkets performing well in the UK, the report suggests a significant difference in standards for brands with international operations extending across Europe. For example, Lidl, a brand from the biggest European retail group Schwarz with 125.3 billion EUR turnover in 2020, achieved a ranking score 44.7% in the UK whilst only achieving between 13% and 23.7% in other countries such as Germany and the Czech Republic.

Similarly, Aldi Süd was the top performer in the UK and Ireland, with 65.3% and 61% respectively, but it only achieved 11% in Austria, where it operates under the name Hofer, and 25.7% in Germany. Aldi is the second biggest retailer in Europe with 106.3 billion EUR turnover.

Overall, retailers from the UK and France scored 39.6% and 23.3% respectively. No other country achieved a total average of more than 20%. The average score achieved by retailers in Spain, the Czech Republic and Estonia was below 10%.

WRAP has recently reported that more than one third of UK plastic packaging is not recyclable and only 5% was reusable.

Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) Ocean Campaign Leader, Christina Dixon said: “EIA and partners have been surveying UK retailers on their plastic use since 2018 and in that time we’ve seen a marked improvement in transparency, the quality of the data they provide and the targets they are setting themselves.

“That said, being European leaders when the bar is set so low is little cause for celebration. Ultimately, tangible reductions in plastic use and the pace towards a packaging-free future built around the concepts of reuse and refill is still far too slow to meet the scale of the crisis the planet is facing.”

Although overall current retailer performance is low, the analysis also shows that such abysmal results do not have to remain the reality. Combining the best responses to each question created a fictional ‘best-in-class’ retailer with the total score of 82.7%.

Rosa Pritchard of ClientEarth said: “A number of the supermarkets included in this report are public companies and as such they have legal obligations to be transparent about their performance on plastics. But crucially, disclosure obligations are going to become much stricter for all companies in the coming years. That’s why those at the bottom of the ranking need to start preparing now to be able to adapt to tomorrow’s legal environment.”