British supermarkets voluntarily pledge to slash their plastic waste

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A total of 42 businesses in the UK have agreed to support a new initiative aimed at reducing plastic waste. The UK Plastics Pact is a voluntary scheme in which British food businesses and supermarkets pledge to cut the amount of plastic packaging they use. The major supermarkets including Sainsburys, Waitrose, Tesco, Morrisons, Lidl and Aldi have all agreed to support the pledge, although they have not committed to paying any more for plastic recycling and will not reveal the levels of plastic packaging they are currently responsible for.

According to Michael Gove, environment secretary, it is necessary for businesses, the public and the government to cooperate in order to eliminate plastic waste. He was pleased that so many businesses had already signed up to the pact and hoped that more would follow.

Critics of the pact have noted that there is no mechanism for enforcing it because it is a voluntary initiative and it does not promise to remove all plastic packaging that is single use, only that which is categorised as “problematic or unnecessary”. This should be achieved by 2025, as should the commitment that all plastic packaging should be compostable, reusable or suitable for plastic recycling, and that 70 percent of it should be composted or recycled. The pact also states that there should be an average of 30 percent recycled material in all plastic packaging.

Supermarkets and retailers are currently subject to the Packaging Recovery Note scheme, by which they pay towards having their waste collected and recycled, but changes to this scheme are being considered by the government and businesses may be forced to pay increased charges for the services. At present, UK supermarkets pay less than those in any other EU country for waste collection and plastic recycling and 90 percent of the cost is borne by the taxpayer.

The supermarkets that are supporting the voluntary pact have lobbied government strongly against increasing the charges for collection and recycling of their waste, including plastic waste, according to a freedom of information request, claiming that the increases would disrupt their businesses significantly. Changes to the Packaging Recovery Note scheme are expected to be announced in the summer, as part of the government’s waste and recycling strategy.

Although many supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s have signed up to the pact saying that they accept their responsibility, others such as Iceland have chosen not to join in the initiative which they see as largely focussed on recycling. According to Iceland’s Richard Walker, Iceland has committed to completely removing plastic packaging from its own range by 2023 and will be targeting its resources towards this.

The environmental impact of plastic waste has been highlighted by programmes such as Blue Planet and coverage by the media has ensured that the public is very aware of the need to reduce the amount of plastic that is used in the UK. The new pact is viewed by campaign group, Friends of the Earth, as a step in the right direction, but according to its plastics campaigner, Julian Kirby, the government also needs to introduce taxes and regulations to ensure that the targets are met.

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