Early this June in Thailand, a pilot whale was found in distress. In a story that received wide circulation, it spit up five plastic bags before it died. An autopsy subsequently revealed another 80 plastic bags in its stomach. In 2017 another whale was beached in Norway and around thirty plastic bags were discovered in its stomach. Such events provide visceral evidence of plastic gone wrong. They resonate with an increasingly sensitive public.
The Institute for European Environmental Policy notes in a recent report, a “holistic evidence-based approach to the role of packaging in the food system” is required. In other words, incorporate single use plastic only where it is justifiable, and make recyclable cloth bags accessible to consumers and encourage growers to invest in reusable packaging such as RPCs.
Poll says supermarkets not doing enough
Plastic waste associated with supermarkets has become controversial. A recent poll from the UK found that more than 80% of people find it difficult to avoid plastic packaging during their regular shopping trip. The Populus survey, taken on behalf of Greenpeace, found that 72% of respondents think retailers are not doing enough about packaging to address plastic pollution. Only 31% believe that their usual retailer has made moves to reduce its plastic packaging. More than half of people indicated they would choose to shop at a store that does not over-package merchandise.
Retailers respond in Europe and Australia
This June, Australian retailers Coles and Woolworths, announced new targets for reducing the usage of plastic on fresh fruit and vegetables. Coles made it clear it was listening to customers. "We know that 69 percent of customers say that we need to actively reduce waste and landfill through recyclable packaging and find alternative uses for waste," Coles managing director John Durkan said in a release.
Coles will also switch to recycled and renewable source packaging for its meat and poultry, indicating that all packaging for its branded products will be recyclable by 2020. Once switched, Coles will experience reduced supply chain costs, quicker handling times, and fresher produce through better temperature control with reinforced ventilated sidewalls thanks to RPC’s rigid construction.
Retailers in the UK are also mobilizing. This April, UK supermarkets and suppliers formed a voluntary pledge to cut plastic packaging. The UK Plastics Pact is an industry-wide initiative aimed at transforming packaging and reducing plastic waste, with a goal of all plastic packaging being reused, recycled or composted by 2025.
In February, Ekoplaza, a Netherlands grocery retailer, opened its first plastic-free aisle at one of its Amsterdam stores, offering around 700 plastic-free products. The move prompted an online petition in support of a major U.S. retailer to follow suit by offering a plastic-free aisle, receiving over 120,000 endorsements.
But what about in the U.S.?
Aside from the petition mentioned above, there is little evidence that the public movement against plastic packaging has yet to gain the same kind of traction in the U.S. that it has elsewhere around the world. Additionally, restrictive government policies, including extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes or progressive taxes on the use of virgin plastic (which would help increase demand for recycled plastic), are much less likely to be enacted in the U.S. compared to other countries.
While actions in other countries have followed public pressure, American retail leaders still have the opportunity to get in front of the disposable plastic packaging waste controversy before it washes ashore in force.