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The war on plastic bags is far from over.

Yes, the 5p bag charge worked. Yes, there’s far fewer than there used to be. There will be more on that later — but a fresh report from Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has revealed that supermarkets are still producing billions of them every year.

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Ten of Britain’s biggest supermarkets — including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Co-op, Morrisons, and Aldi — reportedly add an extra 810,000 tonnes of single-use plastic packaging a year onto an already urgent problem. 

But that figure doesn’t include the additional 1.1 billion plastic bags, 958 million “bags for life," and 1.2 billion plastic packaging containers for fruits and vegetables, according to the report published on Thursday.

The investigation sent surveys to the 11 largest supermarkets in the UK — and, in total, seven responded. From those that provided information on their plastic footprint, it was found that 59 billion pieces of plastic were produced every year.

It’s a particularly damning report considering the widely acclaimed success of the 5p plastic bag charge. It came about after a law was originally passed by the European Union, before being adopted by the UK in 2015. It has reportedly resulted in an 86% drop in plastic bag sales in Britain — and a 30% fall in the number of bags found on seabeds around Europe.

Before the 5p charge, the equivalent of 140 bags per person were being given out, according to Climate Action. Now, just 19 per person are being sold.

Indeed, Tesco — Britain’s largest supermarket — got rid of its traditional plastic bag altogether in August 2017, replacing them with a “bag for life” that costs 10p. The Greenpeace report shows, however, that Tesco now sells more of those reusable bags than any other supermarket.

And Iceland — despite scoring highest on plastic reduction and, in other news, releasing a killer Christmas advert combatting deforestation and palm oil production — was reported as having the highest rate of plastic bag consumption.

With billions of plastic bags still being pushed into circulation, it appears that the problem — although seeing improvement — is far from solved.

So are supermarkets even addressing the problem?

The report suggests not as much as they could be: half of them have no targets to reduce plastic packaging, and all were more focused on recycling than reduction, according to the Guardian. 

The UK Plastics Pact earlier this year saw companies — together responsible for 80% of Britain’s plastic packaging — make voluntary commitments to reducing plastic consumption. The “world-leading” voluntary agreement included a commitment to make 100% of plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025. But there’s not a whole lot about actually reducing single-use plastic.

“Plastic pollution is now a full-blown environmental crisis and our supermarkets are right at the heart of it,” said Greenpeace campaigner Elena Polisano. “Much of the throwaway plastic packaging filling up our homes comes from supermarket shelves, but high-street giants are still not taking full responsibility for it.”

“So far, most retail bosses have responded to growing concern from customers with a pick-and-mix of different plastic announcements, but have failed to come up with the coherent plastic reduction plans required to solve this problem,” she added.

The best course of action? Greenpeace said it’s either a “significant increase” in the price of plastic bags or a complete stop on their sale.

Globally, it’s estimated that there are over 150 million tonnes of plastic in the oceans already, with an additional 2 billion tonnes of plastic due in the world by 2050 — the equivalent weight of a car for every single human being on the planet.


Defend the Planet

Britain's Biggest Supermarkets Still Produce Billions of Plastic Bags Every Year

By James Hitchings-Hales