Plastic food and drink packaging Contents

5Reducing plastic packaging

84.In Chapter 1, we expressed our disappointment that the Government had placed comparatively little emphasis on reducing plastic, compared to recycling. This chapter explores ways of reducing the amount of plastic packaging we use, other than by substitution with other materials.

What does reduction mean?

85.The UK Plastics Pact (see para 20) includes targets to “eliminate problematic or unnecessary single-use plastic packaging through redesign, innovation or alternative (re-use) delivery models” and for “100 per cent of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable” by 2025.225 WRAP’s 2019 progress report on the Pact highlighted examples of actions taken towards these targets, including that “Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose, M&S and Morrisons are trialling the removal of plastic packaging across a number of produce lines, to understand where plastic can be removed without impacting food waste”.226

86.Keep Britain Tidy stated that “the [UK Plastics Pact] target of 100% for re-use and recycling is likely to favour recycling over re-use” and added that the aim to eliminate unnecessary packaging was not supported by a specific target.227 Therefore, creating and using packaging would remain the status quo, rather than the “exploration of packaging free solutions”.228 Unpackaged Innovations Ltd, which provides retail and consultancy services tackling packaging, stated that “everything points to reuse, yet all of the focus to date is on recycling - because that allows business (retailers, manufacturers, consumers) to carry on with business as usual - over producing, over selling and over consuming”.229

87.The Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL) coalition was concerned that manufacturers, producers and retailers had “largely focused on light-weighting rather than unit-based reductions”.230 In other words, because data on plastic packaging is measured by weight, it is possible to reduce the weight of packaging produced by using lighter materials rather than reducing packaging units overall. WCL was concerned that “if a company achieved its target by reducing the weight of plastic items but did not actually reduce the quantity sold, the number of items leaking into the natural environment may not actually decrease”.231 Barry Turner, British Plastics Federation (BPF), defended light-weighting by stating that:

The waste hierarchy obviously starts with focusing on reduction. That is one of the ways you reduce—by lightweighting. […] That is the start of the journey.232

Packaging free solutions

88.Reusable and refillable containers are becoming more commonplace, for example, reusable cups for hot beverages.233 The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) stated that there was “a new wave of plastic-free and zero waste shops – rising to approximately 200 stores in the UK” which showcased “the feasibility of […] alternative product delivery models”.234 These included “simple reusable solutions” that “have long existed”, such as “water and soft drinks dispensers in store, reusable bags for produce, loose ranges of fruit and vegetables, refillable containers and dispensers for items such as shampoos, dried goods and household cleaning products”.235

89.Unpackaged Innovation Ltd stated that “we don’t give consumers enough credit for their ability to change” and highlighted the “change in behaviour with reusable plastic bags, the drop was 85%+ within the first year showing consumers are more than happy to change their behaviour”.236 It suggested that “the barrier is the fact that no-one wants to question our consumerist culture that means we sell and buy too much, no one wants to tell consumers that they can’t have exactly the product they want, in the moment that they want it”.237 Peter Maddox, WRAP, also highlighted the issue of consumer choice in relation to plastic water bottles, stating that “not everybody wants to carry a reusable bottle around with them”.238 He posed the question: “are we going to enforce a certain way of life on [consumers/citizens] or are we going to give them the choice?”.239

90.In 2019, Waitrose & Partners experimented with an unpacked trial at one of its stores.240 Termed “Waitrose Unpacked”, the trial meant the store had “the largest number of loose fruit and vegetable lines of any national supermarket, […] removed plastic wrap from its flowers and indoor plants and […] launched refillable options for everything from wine to beer and cereals to coffees as well as cleaning products”.241 As well as bringing their own containers, consumers were able to “borrow a box” for purchases.242 Karen Graley, Packaging and Reprographics Manager at Waitrose, explained that in a four week period, “50% of our customers are already reusing packaging, so they are bringing back their own containers already”.243 She explained that “some are reusing maybe ice cream tubs or a butter carton as well, so they are being quite creative […] As long as it is anything that is resealable, the customers are at liberty to bring those in and refill them”.244 The trial ended in August 2019 and “after an overwhelmingly positive response”, Waitrose plans to extend the trial to two more stores.245

91.Karen Graley stated that in all Waitrose stores, customers “could bring in their own vessels to purchase from the counter or the delicatessen, whether that be meat, fish or cheeses” so long as “those containers were clean and had a lid to stay on”.246 However, she stated that “we did not publicise that greatly, because we wanted to give customers the choice”.247 A 2018 report by the EIA and Greenpeace found that only four of the major supermarkets offered customers options to use refillable containers.248 In Morrisons, Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, “customers can use their own reusable containers for certain products bought over the counter, such as meat and fish”.249 Four supermarkets, Aldi, Lidl, Asda and M&S, “reported scoping work under way”.250

92.One concern around customers bringing their own packaging is health and safety. WCL suggested that “this could be addressed through the establishment of industry standards for refillable containers to mitigate the risk of contamination and address concerns of liability”.251 Karen Graley told us that “should a container not look clean, we would offer to rinse or wash that container for the customer”.252 On the potential for cross contamination of foods with allergens, she stated that:

we have over 200 items that we are selling loose in that one store for this [Waitrose Unpacked] trial. We have specifically selected those products so that there is no risk of contamination or allergen, so there are no peanuts or anything like that at the moment. That is a greater challenge for us as we look to scale that.253

93.WRAP suggested that “we definitely need to move towards how we can think more about reuse and going packaging free, but in ways that are supportive of the lifestyles we’ve evolved do, such as with women working”.254 One of the schemes discussed at our producer roundtable was Loop, which would allow consumers to buy products online, which would be delivered in re-usable containers that would then be collected from consumers’ homes by Loop, cleaned and refilled.255 The system has been described as “based on the old milk delivery model”.256 Terracycle, which will operate Loop, told us that for “moving consumption from single use/disposable to reuse/refillable like our new Loop platform”, to be successful “the change needs to be simple and easily accessible for consumers and for there to be a wide variety of choice”.257 In the UK, Loop will be piloted in September 2019, in collaboration with Tesco.258

94.The EIA called for “the adoption of long-term Government strategies and targets to incentivize a significant reduction in single-use packaging and shift to reusable and refillable alternatives”.259 We asked the Minister what the Government was doing to encourage a behavioural shift away from single-use food and drink packaging, and she responded:

We have been working closely with other European countries on the single-use plastics directive. That has now been passed, and we now have just under two years to start the transposition. Those sorts of things include polystyrene packaging […] plastic plates and plastic cutlery. We had already signalled that we were going to do some of that stuff, and we were getting on with it. We are now going to go through the whole process of trying to, in effect, regulate them out.260

95.Previous examples of the Government regulating out plastics include a “ban on the supply of plastic straws, drinks stirrers and cotton buds” from April 2020 and a 2018 ban on the manufacture of products containing microbeads.261 The Government introduced the 5p charge on plastic carrier bags in 2015.262 ESA also highlighted that retailers had introduced incentives for reusable coffee cups.263 However, such actions can have undesired consequences. For example, the restaurant chain McDonald’s, which uses 1.8 million straws a day in the UK, has switched from recyclable plastic straws to unrecyclable paper straws.264 Research by the Environment Agency in 2006 found that a paper bag would need to be reused at least three times to make it more environmentally friendly (in terms of global warming potential) than a single use plastic bag and a cotton bag would need to be reused 131 times.265

96.Reduction is the most important way to reduce waste, and greater efforts need to be put into this. A fundamental shift away from all single use food and drink packaging, plastic or otherwise, is vital for the future protection of the environment.

97.In its response to this Report, the Government should explain how it intends to transpose the EU Single Use Plastics Directive, or to ensure an equivalent or better alternative. The Government should clarify how it intends to ensure that banning single use plastics doesn’t lead to worse overall environmental outcomes, particularly with regards to carbon emissions.

98.Government and retailer initiatives to reduce the use of plastic products, have encouraged consumers towards alternatives such as reusable carrier bags and refillable drinks containers. However, these are relatively small-scale changes compared to the consumer behavioural shift that would be required to use reusable containers for grocery food and drink purchases. We are pleased that unpacked and “zero waste” options are becoming increasingly available to consumers, including online delivery models. However, these changes are unlikely to enable a revolution in the way most consumers shop unless they are widely available.

99.The Government and WRAP should conduct a review of reusable and refillable packaging systems for food and drink to determine what works and where Government intervention might be appropriate to encourage retailers to offer refillable options, and consumers to use them. This should include an assessment of the environmental impact of reusable packaging, such as how many times items would need to be reused before they became more beneficial than single use packaging. It should also consider how to manage food hygiene and potential cross contamination of food containing allergens.


100.As highlighted in the previous chapter, Parliament has introduced compostable packaging in its catering facilities. This suffered a difficult start, with a significant amount of compostable packaging initially sent to landfill due to contamination.266 Charges on single use cups for hot drinks have also been introduced, to encourage reusable options. A recent Freedom of Information (FoI) request found that the House of Commons had purchased more than 600,000 single use plastic bottles, cups and coffee cups in the last financial year, down from over a million in 2016.267 Parliament’s Restoration and Renewal Programme, which is anticipated to start in the mid-2020s, provides a significant opportunity to further improve its environmental performance.268

101.Parliament has taken steps towards reducing plastic packaging on the Estate but needs to continue to lead by example in the removal of single use packaging, regardless of material. Both Houses of Parliament should consider how they can remove the remaining single use packaging from catering facilities on the Parliamentary Estate and enable customers to bring their own containers for takeaway food. We suggest that the Restoration and Renewal programme provides an opportunity to implement any infrastructure changes that may be necessary to enable this.

225 UK Plastics Pact, WRAP, last accessed 2 September 2019

227 Keep Britain Tidy (PPP0022), para 2.1

228 Keep Britain Tidy (PPP0022), para 2.1

229 Unpackaged Innovation Ltd (PPP0038), para 4

230 Wildlife and Countryside Link (PPP0023), para 1.5

231 Wildlife and Countryside Link (PPP0023), para 1.5

233 See, for example, UK retailers see rise in sales of reusable coffee cups, The Guardian, 11 January 2018

234 Environmental Investigation Agency (PPP0018), para 2.2

235 Environmental Investigation Agency (PPP0018), para 2.2

236 Unpackaged Innovation Ltd (PPP0038), para 15; About us, Unpackaged, last accessed 2 September 2019

237 Unpackaged Innovation Ltd (PPP0038), para 6

245 Waitrose & Partners Unpacked, Waitrose & Partners, last accessed 2 September 2019

248 Checking out on plastics: A survey of UK supermarkets’ plastic habits, Environmental Investigation Agency and Greenpeace, p 13

249 Checking out on plastics: A survey of UK supermarkets’ plastic habits, Environmental Investigation Agency and Greenpeace, p 13

250 Checking out on plastics: A survey of UK supermarkets’ plastic habits, Environmental Investigation Agency and Greenpeace, p 13

251 Wildlife and Countryside Link (PPP0023), para 2.7

255 TerraCycle unveils ‘Loop’ shopping platform, Let’s Recycle, 24 January 2019; Annex A

256 The University of Sheffield, Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures (PPP0011), para 1.5

257 TerraCycle (PPP0034), p 1

258 TerraCycle unveils ‘Loop’ shopping platform, Let’s Recycle, 24 January 2019

259 Environmental Investigation Agency (PPP0018), p 1

261 Gove takes action to ban plastic straws, stirrers, and cotton buds, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 22 May 2019; World-leading microbeads ban takes effect, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 9 January 2018

262 Plastic bag sales in ‘big seven’ supermarkets down 86% since 5p charge, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 27 July 2018

263 Environmental Services Association (PPP0012), para 4

268 Restoration and Renewal: the journey, Houses of Parliament Restoration and Renewal, last accessed 2 September 2019

Published: 12 September 2019