The mandatory 5p charge for plastic bags in supermarkets was first introduced in 2015, with the intention of reducing and eventually cutting plastic waste, as it is important that we ensure that plastic is disposed of correctly, and that as much of it as possible is recycled rather than released into the environment or added to landfill. So how much plastic have supermarkets actually reduced?


According to the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), supermarkets have collectively distributed 90% fewer single-use plastic bags in 2019 than 2015. The average shopper in the UK uses just 10 bags a year now, compared to 140 before the 5p charge was instated. Although we have managed to significantly increase awareness of the impact that pollution caused by plastic is having on the environment, it is still extremely difficult to avoid plastic packaging. Currently, our methods of disposing of plastic are damaging our oceans and is causing land and air pollution, with damaging, long-lasting effects. According to experts, UK supermarkets are producing more than 900,000 tonnes of single-use plastic every year. The Environmental Investigation Agency and Greenpeace UK state that this is in addition to over 1.1 billion single-use bags and 1.2 billion plastic bags for fruits and vegetables.


In the UK, only a third of plastic packaging used for consumer products is recycled, so we should aim to reduce this as much as possible. In particular, fruits and vegetables tend to be wrapped in several layers of plastic, despite mostly having their own, natural wrapping and being washable. While plastic packaging prolongs shelf-life and helps to keep food hygienic, in some cases it is unnecessary, for instance a single piece of fruit being wrapped in plastic just so that a label can be applied to it. Some supermarkets, for example the local Sainsbury’s near me, have started getting rid of pointless plastic bags for loose fruits and vegetables, which is a great step towards plastic reduction in supermarkets. Other measure meant to take place within the next year include scrapping plastic trays from some vegetables, switching PVC and polystyrene trays for a recyclable alternative, and encouraging customers to bring their own containers to meat and deli counters. However, there is still more we can do to overall reduce our plastic usage and consequently our carbon footprint. For example, we should prioritise buying produce in recyclable packaging, identifiable by the green triangle on the label, and aim to buy loose, seasonal produce where possible.


Although things have been improving and supermarkets aim to make 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable and 70% to be effectively recycled by 2025, we still have a long way to go, therefore it is crucial for the future of or environment that we try to further reduce the amount of plastic we use.


By Sahana Motta