Going 'nude': British supermarkets test plastic-free zones

Signs promoting plastic-free packaging are seen as shoppers browse the shelves at Budgens supermarket in Belsize Park, north London. Big brand shops in Britain, bowing to increasing pressure from environmentally conscious consumers, have begun taking
Signs promoting plastic-free packaging are seen as shoppers browse the shelves at Budgens supermarket in Belsize Park, north London. Big brand shops in Britain, bowing to increasing pressure from environmentally conscious consumers, have begun taking steps to strip their shelves of plastic wrapping over concerns about saving the oceans from waste. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • British supermarkets are starting to go "nude".

Bowing to pressure from environmentally conscious consumers, big brand shops have begun taking steps to strip their shelves of plastic wrapping over concerns about saving the oceans from waste.

"Nude zones" and "Food in the nude" campaigns are already being rolled out in countries such as New Zealand and South Africa, where fresh fruits and vegetables are grown within relatively easy reach.

Now, retailers in Britain - where even bunches of bananas are often sealed in plastic to keep them fresh and undamaged during long-distance shipping - are gradually following suit.

"I've just done my first-ever plastic-free shop," said Ms May Stirling, who travelled 60km from the village of Ramsbury to Oxford for the university city's "unpackaging" event at the local Waitrose supermarket. "It's so liberating," the 49-year-old mother said, carrying her own containers for the loose products.

The Oxford branch of the upmarket chain was selling 160 types of vegetables and fruits, as well as cereals, grains, couscous, lentils, wine, beer and other items in bulk, in what was initially planned as an 11-week trial.

Currently, British stores rely greatly on plastic to ship, store and sell items.

The country's 10 largest grocery chains produce 810,000 tonnes of single-use plastic packaging every year, a figure that does not include bags, Greenpeace and the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency said last November.

 
 
 

Like Ms Stirling, other shoppers have also been pressing the Oxford Waitrose supermarket to do more to stop plastic pollution via a wall, set up by staff, where customers have pinned hundreds of suggestions, many asking for refillable bottles for items like milk and cleaning products.

It has now extended its trial in the branch and announced that it would soon introduce the scheme in three other stores.

Waitrose has said, however, that it has yet to establish whether plastic-free zones would work in all of its 344 locations across Britain. "While the priority is the environmental benefit, we clearly need to ensure (the trial) is commercially viable," spokesman James Armstrong said. Plastic packaging is cheaper than some of the other possible options.

So, are shoppers ready to pay more for their groceries to come wrapped in more ecological packaging?

Ms Fran Scott, a 55-year-old marketing consultant, is unsure. "I genuinely don't know," she said, while also shopping at Waitrose, armed with her own plastic containers.

Other big supermarket chains have signed up to "The UK Plastics Pact".

The pledge's four tenets include eliminating all single-use packaging and making the remainder recyclable or compostable by 2025.

Tesco and Asda, a low-cost retailer, have promised to stop using plastic for online shopping deliveries.

Morrisons, which, like Tesco and Asda, is among the biggest five supermarket chains in Britain, intends to install plastic-free produce zones in 60 locations by the end of the year.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2019, with the headline 'Going 'nude': British supermarkets test plastic-free zones'. Print Edition | Subscribe