Plastic pollution has been overwhelming ecosystems, affecting wildlife, exacerbating the climate crisis and interfering with our health. Barely a week passes without another horrific fact emerging about the devastating toll that plastic takes on the planet and its inhabitants. So far in 2022 alone, we have discovered microplastics deep in the lungs of living people, in the tissue of patients undergoing surgery and in people’s blood. We learnt that the chemicals found in everyday plastics are eating away at human fertility such that they may make unassisted reproduction impossible by 2040. Despite the outrage, coordinated action and mounting pressure from across all sectors of society – from NGOs, legislators and consumers – the amount of plastic that the plastic industry is placing on the market is growing and on a ‘business as usual’ trajectory this is even projected to skyrocket.
European supermarkets are very important actors when it comes to plastic pollution but they have largely been let off the hook. With a €2.4 trillion turnover, this sector has the resources to act,1 and public opinion polls consistently show that citizens firmly believe that retailers have a responsibility to address plastic pollution; however, this first-ever analysis of the role that European supermarkets play in addressing the plastic pollution crisis, shows disappointing results. It reveals that some of the biggest retail chains in Europe are only paying lip service to the problem, while behind the scenes they are trying to delay action and distract consumers and policymakers over their role in the plastic crisis.
Rather than implementing systemic changes and supporting the legislation required to address the problem, retailers have concentrated their efforts on voluntary commitments. Many of them are members of different national Plastic Pacts and some of them have signed the New Plastic Economy Global Commitment by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF). As such they are focusing on recyclability as their main strategy to deal with the plastic crisis instead of prioritising waste prevention and reuse systems, in line with the waste hierarchy. Only very few companies make serious efforts to reduce their plastic and other single-use packaging and move towards more environmentally friendly business models that prominently feature reuse systems.
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