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UK supermarkets have launched a new voluntary pledge to cut plastic packaging as ministers are considering forcing them to pay towards collecting and recycling the waste they produce.

In a response to the growing public backlash against huge volumes of plastic rubbish, most UK supermarkets signed up on 26 April to support the industry-wide initiative to transform packaging and reduce avoidable plastic waste. Supermarkets supporting the UK Plastics Pact include Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Aldi, Lidl and Waitrose.

The UK Plastics Pact aims to reduce all plastic packaging and make it reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

Earlier this year it was revealed that supermarkets create nearly one million tonnes of plastic packaging every year. While they have to declare the amount of plastic they put on the market annually under an EU directive, many supermarkets keep this information secret and refuse to share the numbers with the public claiming the information to be ‘commercially sensitive’.

Environment secretary Michael Gove said: “Our ambition to eliminate avoidable plastic waste will only be realised if the government, businesses and the public work together.

“Industry action can prevent excess plastic reaching our supermarket shelves in the first place. I am delighted to see so many businesses sign up to this pact and I hope others will soon follow suit.”

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By GlobalData

Sainsbury’s CEO Mike Coupe, added: “We all have a role to play in reducing the amount of plastics used in society. For our part, we accept our responsibilities and are working hard to reduce the use of plastic across our business.”

Since the Blue Planet TV documentary series exposed the impact of plastic waste on the oceans, people have grown increasingly concerned about the dangers of plastic.

Newton associate director John D’Arcy said: “It’s fantastic to see so many organisations sign up to the UK Plastics Pact. Stepping up to this global sustainability challenge will no doubt provoke a significant transformation in the use of single-use plastics.

“However, in the pursuit of plastic-free, significant change is required throughout the entire supply chain and we must be aware of unintended consequences.  In some cases, changes in packaging can impact the production process, reducing manufacturing efficiencies and potentially increase waste across the supply chain. For instance, we must be aware of changes in packaging which impact shelf life, thus potentially increasing food waste. Both retailers and manufacturers must look at the entire process to better understand where the use of plastic is really necessary and communicate this to customers.

“Any transformational change in the use of plastics is going to significantly change the way products are presented to customers. Consumers will need to accept these changes if this initiative is going to be a success.”

While the pact aims to eliminate the amount of plastic that ends up in the oceans, critics believe that there is no enforcement mechanism behind the pledge. They also believe the pledge fails to commit to removing all single-use packaging, instead promising to remove the ‘problematic or unnecessary’ single-use plastic by 2025.

Iceland is one of the supermarkets, which has not joined the pact but says it supports the initiative. In January it became the first retailer to commit to eliminating plastic packaging for all its own-brand products within five years.

Iceland CEO Richard Walker said: “We have taken the decision not to participate directly in their Plastic Pact because we have already taken a more far-reaching decision to eliminate plastic packaging from our own label range in its entirety by 2023. Given the scale of our ambition, we feel that is right to focus all Iceland’s resources on delivering this.”

The government is considering changes to the way retailers and supermarkets contribute to the collection and recycling of their waste, known as the Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) scheme. The PRN would force supermarkets and other retailers to pay more to clear up the waste they create as part of a circular economy package within the EU.

Currently, supermarkets in the UK pay less towards collecting and recycling of their plastic waste than any other European country, leaving 90% of the bill to the taxpayers. Supermarkets are reportedly strongly against paying more towards collection and recycling of their plastic waste claiming it would create a ‘significant and disruptive change’ to business.

Changes to the PRN scheme, which could place more financial responsibility on retailers, are expected to be announced by the government this summer.