How do UK supermarkets rate on the climate crisis?
On the eve of the Cop26 summit, we see what the big chains are doing on the environment
When Morrisons last month pledged to scrap plastic packaging from its bananas – the second most commonly bought fresh product in its stores – it sounded like a sensible move. “Bananas have their own packaging: their skins,” Elio Biondo, Morrisons’ banana buyer, said. Instead of plastic bags, paper bands will be used to ensure bunches remain intact.
It was one of a number of initiatives disclosed by retailers in recent years, with others including more recyclable and compostable packaging and “refill stations” for loose items such as pasta.
I toured my local branches of Tesco, Morrisons, Waitrose and Lidl in north London to see what was happening on the ground and find out whether a “green” weekly shop is within reach.
Worries about Covid transmission have reportedly led to a reduction in sales of unpackaged produce and a relaxation of anti-plastic measures, but I could still buy loose fruit and veg.
For those who want to bag their goods, Tesco has switched to recyclable pouches made from a plastic/paper blend. This month, my nearest Tesco superstore was due to join Sainsbury’s by offering reusable net bags for 30p each. However, shrink-wrapped cucumbers and single-use-packaged potatoes were still in the aisles.
It’s not yet possible to buy loose leafy greens such as kale and spinach, or some herbs, in the larger supermarkets, though you could buy potted coriander and basil. In my Lidl, the potted herbs were in a plastic pot with a plastic sleeve.
Across all of the stores I visited, salad was being sold in clear glossy bags – typically made of composite plastics that most councils refuse to recycle.
In Lidl, it was easy to pick up fruit and veg loose, and customers could even scoop nuts into their own containers, or use their reusable string bags (two for 49p). But elsewhere in the shop there were still an alarming number of items in plastic.
In one branch, a honeydew melon was shrink-wrapped in plastic film. In that shop, customers could press fresh orange juice at a special machine, though it had only single-use plastic bottles. Freshly baked bread and pastries were still being sold in clear plastic bags.
In Morrisons, plastic bags were being used for carrying flowers and bouquets (though bags for life had disappeared). The salad bar offered only single-use plastic boxes. In Waitrose, at the weighing points in the fruit and vegetable aisles, only plastic bags were available.
Bags for life
Both Morrisons and the Co-op said in April they were ditching reusable plastic bags. None was visible in my Morrisons. Lidl still offers 25p bags but I didn’t see any.
Signs around the Waitrose store warned customers that “our 10p plastic bags are going” – a move to prevent people from using these bagsonly once. In Tesco, I was still able to buy a 20p bag for life. Lidl has, for some time, let shoppers take groceries home in discarded cardboard boxes, and there were no bags for life available at the tills.
Refill aisles are appearing in some supermarkets offering packaging-free alternatives for many everyday items such as rice, cereals, shampoo and pasta. Customers bring their own containers. While most major supermarkets have piloted zero-waste schemes, none of my stores – Waitrose, Tesco, Morrisons and Lidl – had refill aisles.
At the doors to Lidl, large bins were available where shoppers could place batteries, cardboard or plastic rubbish for recycling. As one of the ambitions of the UK Plastics Pact, grocers, including Tesco and Sainsbury’s, have rolled out “soft plastic” recycling points in selected stores, though disappointingly not where I live.
In my Waitrose, an array of reusable coffee cups and recycled products were on display at the entrance. In the car park, there were also drop-off points for recycling clothes and shoes.
Owing to fears of contracting Covid on public transport, and environmental concerns, growing numbers of people are choosing to cycle. Others are simply realising that bikes can outperform cars in cities such as London. However, at my Morrisons, Waitrose and Lidl – all on the same busy high street – there are only a few spots to park a bike. I counted about six cycle stands in the immediate area. These tended to be close to each shop’s entrance, within eyesight of the security guard. But there wasn’t much room if you are travelling with family or have a cargo bike/trailer. There was no rain shelter, so cyclists risked coming back to a soggy saddle. Tesco had a small cycle rack outside, too.
The climate crisis: what stores have pledged
Sainsbury’s this week accelerated its target to become carbon net zero from its own operations, with a date of 2035. It plans to install 100% LED lighting across its supermarkets by the end of this year.
Morrisons also brought forward its commitment to be carbon net zero from its own operations to 2035, five years earlier than initially pledged. It says it will be the first supermarket to own and operate its own solar farm across sites.
Tesco has a group-wide net zero target of 2035 for its own operations and has committed to net zero emissions from its supply chain and products by 2050.
Asda has a target to be carbon net zero by 2040 and to reduce food waste by 20% by 2025. It has opened three refill stores (one more to come in Milton Keynes by the end of the year).
Waitrose has pledged that its UK farming supplier network will be carbon net zero by 2035. It says it will increase its use of electric vans for home deliveries as part of a wider ambition to end the use of fossil fuels across its fleet by 2030.
Co-op has pledged to become carbon net zero by 2040, and says it will be the first supermarket in the world to sell fully carbon neutral own-brand food and drink by 2025. All own-brand food packaging is completely recyclable.