The Welsford Report – Plastic in the Food Chains – September 2017

Plastic in the Food Chains  

On the issue of fossil fuel consumption, journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot says that “governments of the rich world … have a demand-side policy for tackling climate change.” The onus is put on the consumer to change their habits in a bid to save the planet. Monbiot continues: “Not one of them has a supply-side policy. None seeks to reduce the supply of fossil fuel. So the demand-side policy will fail. Every barrel of oil and tonne of coal that comes to the surface will be burnt.”

It takes no great leap to draw a parallel between our consumption of fossil fuels and the widespread use of plastic packaging in our societies.

In the UK, government policy has been introduced to encourage people to reuse plastic bags, and since the 5p charge was introduced, usage has dropped by 85% in England. However, the use and supply of plastic food packaging in our major retailers is still widespread and remains a huge problem, as this report investigates.

A Huge Risk to the Human Food Chain

Plastic waste has in recent years become a big topic in public debate, due in part to a growing number of reports about the pollution of our oceans and soil. An estimated 100,000 tonnes of plastic has made its way into the world’s oceans and it is thought to pose a huge risk to the food chain. The potential environmental impact of this phenomenon is only just beginning to be understood, but harrowing images of seabirds with stomachs full of plastic and turtles with plastic straws embedded in their nasal cavities are becoming commonplace on many of our social media news feeds. It is an undeniable truth that non-recyclable plastic packaging poses a serious risk to the environment and the sustainable future of life on earth.

In a 2009 study conducted by the British Market Research Bureau, commissioned by the Local Government Association, it was revealed that almost 40% of the packaging from supermarkets wasn’t easily recyclable. Eight years on, most of the UK’s major retailers now have ‘zero waste to landfill’ targets. For the purpose of this article we’ll be looking into the three largest UK supermarkets (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and ASDA) to discover what they are doing to reach these targets and to look at the strategies undertaken by them to recycle or cut down on waste, particularly in food packaging.

If They Can – Why Not You?

Let’s briefly turn our attention to the many independent food businesses across the country, many of whom are dedicated to being socially and environmentally responsible. PO41 Coffee House, in Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, is one such business.

Here, you can buy a sandwich packaged in 100% biodegradable material: the carton is composed of simple brown card, and even the plastic window on the front is fully biodegradable.

UK’s second largest retailer can’t share this commitment

Browsing through the wide selection of fresh sandwiches available from Sainsbury’s, however, it is surprising – and somewhat alarming – to discover that the only recyclable material in their packaging is the card. How is it that an independent business can afford to commit themselves to environmentally friendly packaging, with recyclable plastics, but the UK’s second largest retailer can’t share this commitment?

When quizzed by Ayres Punchard on this subject, Sainsbury’s said that, when selecting packaging for their food products, they need to ensure that “the safety and quality of the product is protected” to prevent food from going to waste. They claimed to have a ‘materials hierarchy’ which “prioritises recyclable and recycled materials for use where possible” but implied that the use of biodegradable plastics would endanger the safety and quality of fresh food.

On the surface, this sounds like a reasonable enough response, although I struggle to find any evidence to suggest that recyclable plastics pose a greater health risk than ‘standard’ plastics. When you also consider that Sainsbury’s own brand multipacks of tinned tuna are wrapped in non-recyclable plastic, one can’t help but to wonder if Sainsbury’s are really being all that environmentally responsible with their packaging decisions, and how honest their response to our query was.

Waste Less; Save More; Could Do Better 

After a quick Google search, Sainsbury’s ‘sustainability plan’ was easy enough to find, but the precise figures and information in this plan weren’t as forthcoming. On page 17, I found a vague description of the company’s environmental commitments, where they promise to “reduce waste and put it to positive use in our business, and invest £10 million to help customers reduce their waste” through something they describe as their ‘Waste less, Save more’ initiative.

Upon closer inspection, this initiative seems more concerned with reducing food waste rather than excess packaging, repeating the point that they made when questioned earlier. While food waste is a major problem in our society, the issue here is the recyclability of plastic packaging. Why is it so difficult for retailers to be open about their policies regarding this subject?

Perhaps investigating a different company may yield some more useful information…

So what about Tesco, Britain’s largest retailer? Like Sainsbury’s, Tesco are on the list of companies in our investment portfolios.

The information on their website claims that they are signatories of Courtauld 2025, a “voluntary agreement that brings together organisations across the food system to make food and drink production and consumption more sustainable”, and that as part of this commitment they are looking to reduce waste from their operations.

Every Little Word Counts!

They proudly declare that since 2009 “no waste from Tesco has gone direct to landfill”. The key word here is, of course, ‘direct’. But waste packaging from Tesco’s products surely finds its way to landfill through its customers, so what is Tesco doing to reduce the amount of non-recyclable packaging on its shelves? The answer to this question is not readily available, though one can only assume that the answer is “not enough”.

By George! Purpose-built recycling facilities by ASDA!

Turning to the UK’s third largest retailer, ASDA, whose ‘zero waste to landfill’ target was set back in 2006. What kind of commitments had they made to not only reduce waste from their stores, but also to help customers in the endeavour? In 2005, ASDA opened four purpose-built recycling facilities across the UK, recycling 140,000 metric tonnes of cardboard and 5,500 metric tonnes of plastic packaging from in-store waste that year alone.

These figures are encouraging, if a little outdated, but the figures from 2016 are presented in percentages of waste, rather than the more digestible metric tonnes. ASDA also claimed to have reduced the thickness of the plastic in its salad bags by 15%, although this plastic still remains non-biodegradable – perhaps due to the same reasons stated by Sainsbury’s.

They could do it, if they B&Q it!

It is worth noting that B&Q’s sandwich packaging is 100% biodegradable, so why can’t all large food companies provide the same care? It would be refreshing if there was a little more alternative vision in the mainstream. Promising examples of environmentally conscious business models are being set by independent businesses such as Earth.Food.Love, a zero-waste shop based in Totnes, who ask that customers bring along their own containers – be it a mason jar, jam jar, ice cream tub or lunchbox – in a bid to promote green values and support their company ethos.

If Earth.Food.Love, B&Q, and PO41 Coffee House can provide their customers with alternatives to harmful plastic waste packaging, then why can’t the three largest food retailers in the UK follow suit? It seems that the major retailers in this country are doing a lot to reduce the amount of waste leaving the backdoor of their stores, but not enough is being done to address the wasteful packaging which customers are walking away with through the front door. There is, in short, a transference of responsibility from the corporate to the individual. If the supply of non-recyclable plastic from the store to home continues to go unchecked then the zero-waste-to-landfill targets are nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

A Role For Government?

Perhaps government has a role to play: much of what is considered recyclable depends on what your local authority is equipped to recycle. The Isle of Wight Council demands that paper and card be clean and dry in order to be recyclable. Paper contaminated with food waste goes to landfill or into bio waste digestion, whereas in the Cherwell Valley District of Oxfordshire most paper and card is pulped and washed – everything including pizza boxes can be recycled in their facilities. Until central government steps up and plays a leading role in harmonising our waste disposal services, it should fall on the corporations to ensure that the supply of plastics is reduced, or alternative methods of packaging are adopted.

Sustainability Is An Investment Choice

As investors, it is possible to shape the increasingly corporate world in which we live, by encouraging companies to provide more sustainable returns whilst also articulating our desire for a more sustainable planet. As investment advisers working on the behalf of clients with an interest in ethical investments, Ayres Punchard are putting pressure on fund managers who still claim that including companies such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s in their ethical portfolios is somehow justified, despite mounting environmental concerns.

If, on an individual level, we are told to reduce, reuse and recycle as much waste as we can, but the products that we buy from major retailers are packaged in non-biodegradable or non-recyclable plastics, it might seem there is little we can do to change things. But for investors, there is a chance to put the big supermarkets under pressure, and insist that they engage more in the global drive to reduce plastic waste. This is a mutually beneficial relationship, which leads to more sustainable businesses, with more sustainable returns for investors, while simultaneously addressing the minor issue of saving the planet.

Alex Welsford
18th September 2017