Sustainable Energy

As the coronavirus changes the way we shop, stores press ahead with plans to cut plastic use

Key Points
  • In the U.K., concerns related to the coronavirus have resulted in a surge in demand for online grocery orders.
  • Covid-19 has resulted in some significant changes to how these goods are delivered, which has had a direct impact on plastic use. 
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The way people shop is changing.

In the U.K., concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic have resulted in a surge in demand for online grocery orders, with an increasing number of consumers eschewing in-store visits for the convenience of home deliveries. 

Covid-19 has resulted in some quite significant changes to how these goods are delivered, which has in turn had a direct impact on the use of plastic.

Take bags. Since October 2015, big retailers have been required to charge customers 5 pence for single-use plastic bags in England. As attitudes changed, a number of major retailers started to deliver groceries without plastic bags.

Toward the end of March, however, the U.K. government said the levy would not be required for online grocery deliveries in England in a bid to "speed up deliveries" and "reduce the risk of contamination." Although shops are still allowed to charge their consumers for plastic bags if they wish, most are not. 

"As a part of their response to coronavirus, some retailers have reintroduced plastic bags on a strictly temporary basis," Andrew Opie, director of Food & Sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, told CNBC last month.

When it comes to handling actual goods, the government has described the risk of Covid-19 "cross-contamination to food and food packaging" as being "very low." For loose items such as fruit, vegetables and baked goods, in-store shoppers are being advised to "only touch" items they will purchase.

"While some customers may prefer to purchase more packaged goods during the pandemic, retailers are still committed to eliminating problematic or unnecessary single use packaging, and ensuring 100% of it is either reusable, recyclable or compostable, through the U.K. Plastics Pact," Opie added.

A collaborative scheme, the U.K. Plastics Pact is led by environmental charity WRAP. It aims to achieve its "reusable, recyclable or compostable" goal by the year 2025, while other targets include getting rid of single use packaging within the same timeframe.

Helen Bird, strategic engagement manager at WRAP, told CNBC via email that "almost all U.K. supermarkets" were signed up to the pact. Looking at the wider picture Bird, who made her comments in June, said that WRAP was "yet to fully understand the impact of Covid-19."

"Clearly there have been some short-term issues to contend with, particularly at the out-break of the pandemic when significant demand for foodstuffs resulted in some supermarkets needing to use plastic packaging that they may well have been phasing out," she added. "Despite this setback all are committed to achieving the targets by 2025."

Whether the coronavirus pandemic will derail what appears to be a systemic shift away from plastic use in retail remains to be seen. At the moment, retailers do appear to be making the right noises when it comes to cutting plastic use. 

Last week, major supermarket Aldi — a signatory to the U.K. Plastics Pact — pledged to cut 74,000 metric tons of plastic packaging in the U.K. across a five year period.

The firm, which has 880 stores in the U.K., explained that the move would equate to getting rid of 2.2 billion "single items of plastic."

In order to achieve its goal, Aldi said it would look to "remove and reduce unnecessary packaging and switch to alternative materials." If plastic is needed, the supermarket said it would be "recyclable and made of recycled material wherever possible."

Aldi is one of many retailers attempting to reduce its use of plastic packaging. In January, Tesco — which has also signed up to the pact — said it would be getting rid of "plastic-wrapped multipacks" of canned food, replacing them with plastic-free multibuy options instead.

Major grocers in other parts of the world have also made pledges related to plastic packaging. Walmart wants to use "100% recyclable, reusable, or industrially compostable packaging" for its private brands in the U.S., while Carrefour has a similar goal for its own brand products. Both companies want to achieve these targets by the year 2025.  

The manufacturers of food and drink products are also looking to reduce their reliance on plastic. On Monday, Diageo announced it would roll out "100% plastic free" bottles of Johnnie Walker whisky from next year.