Waitrose to eliminate single-use plastic bags by spring 2019
The supermarket, which recently rebranded to ‘Waitrose & Partners’ to reflect its partnership with John Lewis, will be eliminating five pence plastic bags as well as the free plastic bags for fruit and vegetables in a move it claims will save 134 million bags, or 500 tonnes of plastic, every year.
The changes will initially be introduced in six shops from 8 October in order for Waitrose to see how to make the transition as smooth as possible, and will then be rolled out to all 348 of its branches across the UK.
While the five pence bags will no longer be available, Waitrose will be selling stronger bags for 10 pence in the hope that customers will reuse them and cut down on their plastic consumption. In this regard it seems Waitrose is one step ahead of government, which announced in August that it is planning to consult on raising the plastic bag charge in England to 10 pence, as well as extending the legislation to cover all retailers, not just those with more than 250 employees.
The five pence charge (which arrived in England in 2015 after being introduced independently by the other UK nations) has brought about a significant drop in the number of disposable bags consumed, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) claiming that 13 billion bags have been taken out of circulation in the last two years.
As well as replacing its five pence bags with stronger 10 pence ones, Waitrose is planning to ban plastic bags for fruit and vegetables, a first for any UK supermarket, and offer compostable bags instead. According to Waitrose, these will break down completely when put into home composting systems and could also be place in food waste caddies.
Tor Harris, Waitrose’s Head of CSR, Health and Agriculture, commented: “The removal of these bags will change the way our customers, many of whom have been asking us to do this, shop with us in the future. We know we still have a lot to do, but as with our commitment to removing takeaway disposable cups earlier this year, this represents another major step forward in reducing our use of plastics.”
The supermarket signed up to the UK Plastics Pact earlier this year, a voluntary agreement by UK businesses to make 100 per cent of their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. All the major UK supermarkets have begun taking action against single-use plastics: Asda also phasing out its five pence bags in favour of more expensive reusable ones, for example, while Iceland has adopted a plastic-free label to identify items that are completely free from disposable plastics.
Waitrose’s announcement has been applauded by campaigners, with Elena Polisano of Greenpeace UK saying: “We welcome their recognition that this is a small part of a much bigger issue – UK supermarkets generate over 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste each year.
“We urgently need transparency on total plastic use, and annual targets to reduce that total. It’s going to happen, but we need it to happen swiftly, and supermarkets can still choose whether to be market leaders or laggards.”
However, Polisano also added that retailers need to “focus on moving beyond packaging that's designed to be used once then discarded, rather than swapping one disposable item for another”.
Indeed, the use of compostable bags instead of standard plastic is admirable but will only have benefit as long as the bags find their way into composting environments. Not all households have access to home composting facilities, meaning they can either put the bags in with food waste or throw them in the residual waste bin.
Not all food waste processors can break down compostable plastics – anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities have to remove the bags before processing. This is because AD works without oxygen, which compostable plastics require to break down. While most councils will still accept compostable bags in food waste bins even if they only use AD – the processor will remove the bag before starting the digestion process – it is not clear if these bags all then find their way into composting.
In addition, Waitrose has stated that the bags ‘will break down in landfill if put in a normal bin’. However, it is not advisable to put compostable bags in residual waste bins – their benefit stems from them breaking down into organic matter in a composting scenario. In landfill, waste can become ‘mummified’ without light or oxygen, preventing it from degrading.