Which? study compared 11 of UK's biggest supermarkets, and found the average percentage of packaging that could easily be put in household recycling bins stands at just 52 per cent
A Which? Investigation has challenged the prevailing narrative that supermarkets are making significant progress towards tackling the UK's waste mountain, finding that almost half of food packaging used by retailers still cannot be easily recycled.
Researchers compared 11 of the UK's biggest supermarkets, taking the 46 most popular household items from each, breaking them down into their component parts, and assessing whether each piece could be easily recycled. They found the average percentage of packaging - including cardboard, glass and plastics - that could easily be put in household recycling bins was just 52 per cent.
The study concludes the worst offenders were Morrisons and the Co-Op, with 61 per cent and 58 per cent of their packaging respectively found to be not easily recyclable.
A Morrisons spokesperson challenged Which's assessment, calling the findings "very misleading" due to the small sample size and the sole focus on the proportion of individual pieces of packaging that were not easily recyclable, rather than total weight. Based on a weight metric, Morrison's actually came out first in the rankings, as the Which? research acknowledges.
"They called out Morrisons as being the best retailer in 2018 for using recyclable plastic and then a few months later have arrived at a completely different conclusion in a year when we've improved further," a Morrisons spokesperson told BusinessGreen. "Some 81 per cent of Morrisons plastic packaging is recyclable - and that's across tens of thousands of items not the 46 collected by Which?."
A Co-Op spokesperson countered the criticism by emphasising that overall, almost three out of four Co-op branded products are now widely recyclable, which accounts for 95 per cent of packaging for these products when measured by weight.
At the other end of the scale, Which? found the best supermarkets for recyclable packaging were Tesco and Waitrose, with only 40 per cent of both supermarkets' packaging unable be easily recycled.
Which? researchers also looked at the proportion of packaging from each supermarket which was either incorrectly labelled or not labelled at all in relation to whether it was recyclable, making it difficult for well-intentioned consumers to dispose of correctly and increasing the chance of it ending up in landfill. In this instance, Iceland was by far the worst offender, with only 38 per cent of its packaging labelled correctly. M&S performed second worst, despite its widely admired sustainability work, with only 43 per cent of its packaging accurately detailing whether or not it was recyclable, according to Which?.
An M&S spokesperson said: "Over 80 per cent of our packaging currently contains recycling logos and we're advocating for this to become mandatory and consistent across the industry."
Iceland had not responded to a request for comment at the time of going to press.
According to the report Asda performed best in terms of its labelling, with nearly eight in 10 of its items of packaging correctly labelled.
The British Retail Consortium responded to the findings by reiterating the commitment of its members to tackling the plastics crisis.
"Our members are working hard to ensure all plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable, in line with the UK Plastic Pact, and are eliminating single-use packaging where they can, whilst ensuring it doesn't lead to avoidable food or product waste," a spokesperson said.
But Which? head of homes products and services Natalie Hitchins called for government action to tackle the issue. "To reduce the waste that goes to landfill, the government must make labelling mandatory, simple and clear as well as invest in better infrastructure to ensure that recycling is easy for everyone, regardless of where they live," she said.
Over the past year the government has consulted on a raft of new policies designed to curb packaging waste, including streamlining recycling practices around the country and expanding extended producer responsibility rules to ensure retailers and food companies cover more the recycling costs associated with packaging.
"Supermarkets have a clear responsibility to cut unnecessary packaging, reduce waste going to landfill, and increase the amount being recycled and recovered," said a government spokesperson. "Through our landmark Resources and Waste Strategy we have recently consulted on plans for a 'one size fits all' approach which would mean the same materials can be recycled in England no matter which part of the country people live in. We have also set out plans for consistent labelling on packaging so consumers know what they can recycle."
Which? researchers analysed products from Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Iceland, Lidl, M&S, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Waitrose. Most of the firms analysed are signatories of the WRAP Plastic Pact, which commits them to a series of targets to reduce their use of unrecyclable packaging, and many of have sustainability strategies that establish similar goals.
The retail sector is clearly making progress in tackling its massive packaging waste footprint. Driven by consumer pressure and the threat of higher costs companies have rushed to trial new designs and retail models, including high profile pilots that aim to get rid of packaging altogether for many products. But as today's Which? report shows it is going to take a long time to chip away at the UK's packaging waste mountain.
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