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Britain’s second-biggest supermarket chain Sainsbury’s has promised to halve the plastic packaging in its stores by 2025, making what it called an “ambitious” commitment to address an issue growing in importance to consumers. 

The new target covers all branded food packaging, Sainsbury’s own-label products and plastics used across the retailer’s operations, such as when it wraps pallets for transport.

It differs from larger rival Tesco’s efforts because it focuses on plastic packaging specifically, and places less emphasis on merely making packaging recyclable. Only Iceland, a smaller supermarket chain and frozen food specialist, has made a similar promise to get rid of plastic in all its own-branded products by the end of 2023.

Given uneven rates of recycling in the UK and well-documented problems with plastic waste being exported to developing countries, green campaigners question whether putting recycling at the centre of corporate efforts on packaging is the best solution.

To meet the goal, Sainsbury’s said it would switch to alternative materials, use lighter-weight plastics and introduce refillable packaging in a larger number of its stores. After “rigorous analysis of its plastic footprint”, the company said it believed the areas with biggest impact would be plastic milk bottles, packaging for fruit and vegetables, fizzy drinks, water and fruit juices.

“We can’t do this on our own and we will be asking our suppliers and our customers to work with us to help us make this important change,” said chief executive Mike Coupe in a statement.

The challenge food manufacturers and retailers face is how to strip out plastic packaging while not sacrificing shelf life or endangering food safety. They must also be mindful not to inadvertently increase food waste, which experts have already singled out as a big problem that pushes up greenhouse gas emissions and uses land and resources.

Sainsbury’s uses about 120,000 tonnes of plastics a year, compared with Tesco’s 252,586 tonnes in 2017 and Iceland’s 11,500 tonnes in 2018. National retailers’ plastic output is dwarfed however by that of large makers of packaged food. Nestlé produced 1.7m tonnes last year, while Unilever stood at 610,000 tonnes. 

Pressure on retailers to change has come from shoppers, and has only intensified since 2017 when the BBC broadcast a nature documentary called Blue Planet II that highlighted the problem of plastics in oceans. Executives in the food and drinks sector now speak of the “Blue Planet effect” and have had to react as once common items such as plastic bags and straws suddenly fall out of favour or are banned.

The EU has agreed to ban a range of single-use plastic items, including cutlery, straws and food containers, by 2021 in an attempt to spur the industry to move to greener alternatives. 

Siân Sutherland, who co-founded A Plastic Planet, a campaign group aimed at spurring business to cut their use of the material, questioned whether Sainsbury’s pledge to halve plastic by 2025 went far enough given the scale of the problem. 

“Pacts, pledges, policies, promises. We are overwhelmed with plastic goals that are so far in the future,” she said. “Supermarkets globally have tremendous power. They need to step up and use it to accelerate change.”

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