Swapping out plastic packaging for alternatives is confusing consumers and even having detrimental environmental effects, according to a new report on the grocery sector.

‘Plastic promises: What the grocery sector is really doing about packaging’, was published recently by Green Alliance as part of its work for the Circular Economy Task Force.

It said that over two years on from the release of documentary series Blue Planet II, “relatively little has changed”, with supermarkets still putting the equivalent of 900 pieces of single-use plastic on the shelf for every person living in the UK every year.

The report found that consumers struggle to understand terms like ‘bio-based’, ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable’ when it comes to plastic.

The industry insiders interviewed for the report feared consumers might put compostable plastic in with conventional plastic or litter material, wrongly assuming it will biodegrade in the open environment.
They expressed a desire for a clearer approach to where such plastic alternatives should be used and how they should be marked.

Interviewees also said that by switching from plastic to other materials such as paper bags and compostable or wooden cutlery, businesses might, in some cases, be increasing their carbon footprint, and that they are often making decisions without fully evaluating the environmental impact of the alternatives.

Furthermore, respondents warned that despite shared aims and joint commitments from companies in the grocery sector, individual companies are developing their own policies around plastic to gain competitive advantage, which could end up making environmental problems worse.

Most interviewees indicated that they would like to see more strategic direction, and often direct intervention, from government. Without it, one respondent cautioned, individual firms’ policies around plastic could develop in incompatible ways.