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Walking the Talk
European Retailers Called Out for Cutting Corners on Curtailing Plastic Pollution

First-ever ranking of leading European supermarkets’ commitments to dial back their use and waste of plastic reveals lack of real action.

Retail giants across Europe are being called out for what a coalition of NGOs considers promoting false solutions to the plastic pollution crisis and perpetuating double standards, according to a new report.

The first-ever analysis of the role European supermarkets are playing in addressing plastic pollution, Under wraps? What Europe’s supermarkets aren’t telling us about plastic is a result of collaboration of over 20 influential NGOs from across Europe. The ranking developed by the Changing Markets Foundation — the lead organization within the Break Free from Plastic movement — revealed a near-complete lack of consistency and follow-through across three categories of questions on the topics of Transparency and performance, Commitments, and Support for government policy.

Analysis for the Under Wraps report was conducted by the Changing Markets Foundation with input from NGOs including ClientEarth, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

Of 130 retailers contacted, only 39 (30 percent) provided a written response to the coalition’s questionnaire; but many of these responses did not provide meaningful replies to the questions. Further analysis of 74 retailers across 13 countries revealed a concerning lack of actions to tackle the plastic crisis. The overall average score achieved by retailers was only 13.1 out of 100.

Even within supermarkets performing well in the UK, the report uncovered double standards for brands with international operations extending across Europe. For example, Lidl — owned by the biggest European retail group, Schwarz — with €125.3 billion turnover in 2020, achieved 44.7 percent in the UK, while only achieving between 13 percent and 23.7 percent in countries such as Germany and the Czech Republic.

Similarly, ALDI Süd — the top performer in the UK and Ireland, with 65.3 percent and 61 percent, respectively — only achieved 11 percent in Austria (where it operates under the name Hofer) and 25.7 percent in Germany. Aldi is Europe’s second-largest retailer, with €106.3 billion turnover.

Overall, retailers from the UK and France scored 39.6 percent and 23.3 percent, respectively. No other country achieved a total average of more than 20 percent. The average score achieved by retailers in Spain, the Czech Republic and Estonia was below 10 percent.

Nusa Urbancic, Campaigns Director at the Changing Markets Foundation, laments the inconsistency and lack of pursuit of systemic solutions.

“Our report shows that even the best performers, such as ALDI and LIDL, have double standards when it comes to addressing the plastic crisis — they performed well in the UK and Ireland, but show abysmal results in Spain, Germany and other countries where they operate,” she says. “Such differences cannot be explained through different national legislation and show that not a single retailer is responding to the plastic crisis with the urgency this situation demands.”

WRAP recently reported that more than one-third of UK plastic packaging is not recyclable and only 5 percent is reusable. Instead of investing in systemic solutions, Under Wraps reveals that supermarkets are promoting false solutions — such as in-store flexible-plastic take-back schemes. On top of this, plastic packaging waste that was marketed as being “recycled” was often exported to countries that have much fewer resources to deal with the problem, and previous investigations have revealed that exported waste was dumped in nature.

Christina Dixon, Ocean Campaign Leader at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), said: “EIA and partners have been surveying UK retailers on their plastic use since 2018; and in that time, we've seen a marked improvement in transparency, the quality of the data they provide and the targets they are setting themselves. That said, being European leaders when the bar is set so low is little cause for celebration. Ultimately, tangible reductions in plastic use and the pace towards a packaging-free future built around the concepts of reuse and refill is still far too slow to meet the scale of the crisis the planet is facing.”

Glimmers of hope

More and more legitimate plastic-waste solutions are emerging from retailers around the world, but standardization and scale will likely remain a challenge for the foreseeable future; packaging-reuse models such as Loop are now available in both online and brick-and-mortar retailers worldwide, but they provide a solution for a mere fraction of the global retail market.

And while Lidl may be inconsistent across countries in terms of delivering on its plastic-reduction promises, Lidl Switzerland is working with Swiss materials scientists to develop a cellulose protective coating for fruit and vegetables that — if used at scale — could greatly reduce both retail packaging and food waste.

Here in the US, some retail giants have joined forces to keep various sources of plastic from becoming waste: In fall of 2021, the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag — comprising CVS, Target and Walmart — launched a series of first-of-their-kind, multi-retailer pilots to advance sustainable alternatives to the single-use plastic bag and accelerate their potential to scale. Target and Walmart are also members of the US Plastics Pact — a cross-industry coalition of companies and NGOs actively working to achieve a circular economy for plastics in the US by 2025; Walmart is a member of the Recycling Partnership’s Pathway to Circularity Industry Council, which last fall launched a transparent national framework to standardize packaging recyclability; and Target also recently launched its Zero collection — which features products and packaging designed to be refillable, reusable or compostable; made from recycled content; or made from materials that reduce the use of plastic.