Supermarkets target plastic bags, but continue over-packaging

Profiteering by Coles and Woolworths has united the Greens and Liberals.,

Profiteering by Coles and Woolworths has united the Greens and Liberals., Photo: TND/Getty

Experts acknowledge supermarkets are working increasingly toward reducing the plastic in their stories, but over-packaging is undermining their efforts.

Coles’ announcement on Wednesday that it would trial the removal of single-use bags in its fruit and vegetable section is the latest in a concerted program aimed at reducing plastic and waste in retail stores.

In a significant pilot program, Coles will remove the traditional fresh produce bags from its 14 Australian Capital Territory stores for a month, starting on September 14.

The supermarket plans to help customers prepare for the trial by giving out free, reusable, mesh produce bags to those who spend $5 in store on fruit and vegetables from August 31 until September 13.

The Coles trial follows a similar move by major competitor Woolworths, which permanently replaced single-use, plastic fresh produce bags with compostable versions across its 67 South Australian stores in April.

Coles chief operations and sustainability officer Matt Swindells said the supermarket’s initiative is expected to eliminate about 11 tonnes of plastic each year, and could be rolled out nationally depending on the outcome of the ACT trial.

Natural packaging

Despite supermarkets taking steps to reduce plastic in stores as states and territories target the material in varying bans, Deakin University senior lecturer Trevor Thornton said progress has been slow.

‘‘We’re still using far too much plastic in supermarkets, particularly in the fruit and veg department,’’ Dr Thornton said.

‘‘There’s a lot of over-packaging of fruit and vegetables that come, funnily enough, with a natural wrapping around them.

‘‘So we are … using large amounts of plastic, and we do need to decrease it.’’

france packaging fruit

France phased out plastic packaging for fruit and vegetables in early 2022.

Dr Thornton said there was a role for plastics in supermarkets because they protect some vegetables.

Coles and Woolworths insist plastic packaging is necessary for certain items, such as cucumbers, which last three times longer when wrapped in plastic.

‘‘But we used to buy cucumbers without plastic,’’ Dr Thornton responded.

‘‘And they did seem to last a fair while.’’

Return to the ‘old days’

He said Australian supermarkets could put a bigger dent in plastic reduction if they returned to selling more items from bulk-buy displays, rather than have everything individually packaged.

Although it might be more convenient for stores to monitor stock levels when products are neatly packaged in boxes or bags, Dr Thornton said over-packaging can also lead to food wastage when shoppers have no choice but to buy more of a product than they need.

‘‘Going back to the old days, when you could shop and use paper bags, bring your own containers, all those sorts of things – that’s what the consumer wants,” he said.

Shopper demands

Gary Mortimer, consumer and retail expert at Queensland University of Technology, said reducing plastics in supermarkets was a response to customer demand.

Research released in June by the Australian Retailers Association and Queensland University of Technology shows ‘plastic reduction programs’ resonate strongly with consumers. 

‘‘Coles earlier this year removed the plastic scoops out of their own-branded laundry detergents, We’ve seen Aldi remove plastic straws from their fruit boxes,’’ Professor Mortimer said.

‘‘Supermarkets and retailers are certainly making good inroads in this space.’’

But he stressed that ‘‘more can be done’’.

Recycling push

Along with its ACT trial, Coles recently rolled out fresh produce bags made with 50 per cent recycled plastic.

Coles is also working with a number of its suppliers to reduce plastic packaging and carton liners used for produce, such as its packaged Fresh Select lettuce, and avocados, respectively.

Woolworths announced in June it will remove its reusable 15 cent plastic bags nationwide by June 2023, with the bags currently already phased out in Western Australia, Northern Territory and South Australia.

The supermarket has also promised 100 per cent of its home-brand  packaging will be recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2023, and that it will halve the amount of new plastic packaging by 2024

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