Whose responsibility is it to reduce plastic?

Alexandra Clark
Apr 2, 2019 · 6 min read

We interview the owner of a supermarket who is trying to make a difference.

Telltale Stories Episode #2

Caring for our planet and all the life that exists on it, as Sir David Attenborough urges us to do, means reducing the amount of plastic we produce and pollute the earth with, every minute of every day.

“Surely we have a responsibility to care for our blue planet. The future of humanity and indeed all life on earth now depends on us” Sir David Attenborough

This episode of Telltale Stories addresses the disposable lifestyle that is centred around excessive use of plastic packaging, much of which derives from everyday supermarket grocery shopping.

Tensions exist between the choice of products we make as consumers, the packaging brands choose for their products.

Supermarkets sit at the intersection between consumers and brands, and play a pivotal role in making sustainable choices more accessible and convenient. On the one hand, they influence consumers’ choice of products and, on the other, they choose which products to stock and can put pressure on brands to choose sustainable packaging options.

We interviewed Andrew Thornton, the owner of a Budgens Supermarket in North London, about his attempts to reduce plastic in-store to deliver customers a plastic free choice. In October 2018, he joined forces with the campaign group, A Plastic Planet and created 28 plastic free zones within his supermarket.

We visited his supermarket in Belsize Park to discuss the opportunities and challenges with becoming plastic free.

Is becoming plastic free viable for supermarkets?

There are a few reasons why becoming entirely plastic free is a big step for supermarkets, the biggest being that most products only come in plastic packaging. This tension raises the questions: should supermarkets delist the brands that use plastic and are not willing to change? How would customers react if the popular brands they buy were no longer available? Would they go elsewhere to buy them? It is a risk that few are willing to take.

“If the big retailers, like a Tesco or a Sainsbury’s said to our friends at Coca Cola that in a year’s time unless you solve this we’ll stop selling your product, they’ll do something about it. But if we said to Coca Cola, we will delist your product, they will say, well, fair enough…” Andrew Thornton

Andrew and his team chose to make it a gradual process and are planning to continue the expansion of product ranges, as more brands become available in plastic alternatives. It may not sound like the most radical of initiatives, but it is more than what most supermarkets have done.

The PR and media attention Andrew Thornton has received alone, has been nothing less than phenomenal. In among other, he has appeared on Sky News, the supermarket has been the focus of a Canadian Documentary, and several news stories have been written, including in The Telegraph . Shortly after our own interview, Swiss TV were next in line…

Beyond profit margins, having a sustainable ethos is something that can deliver other strategic advantages, such as staff recruitment and retention, as has been documented elsewhere.

What do customers think?

The public awareness of the issue of plastic pollution has steadily grown with extensive news coverages, the plastic bag levy, and what has become known as the “Blue Planet II effect”.

We spoke to 10 customers in Budgens, to gauge their opinion and appetite for supermarkets becoming zero waste, and found that they were poised for an even greater expansion of plastic free products, not just in Andrew Thornton’s supermarket, but in supermarkets across the UK.

The main drawback we heard mentioned, were the slightly higher prices of some of the non-plastic options, a considerable factor in a time when many people are financially squeezed.

The responsibility for soaking up the extra cost, making the plastic free choice and choosing the ethical brands is left with the customers. In Andrew Thornton’s Budgens, they have at least been given a choice, which is more than what most supermarket chains offer their customers.

5 key facts: Why is reducing plastic a big deal?

  1. Humans produce approximately 381 million tons of plastic every year (Geyer et al. 2017). Half of this is for single use, with just over 40% used for packaging. Worldwide, we use approximately 500 billion plastic bags a year and produce a million plastic bottles every minute.
  2. The majority of plastics produced are not recycled, in fact only 9% of plastics ever made have been recycled.
  3. The majority of plastic waste ends up in landfills (and is often shipped to poorer countries that do not have the infrastructure to manage it) or it is incinerated…which adds Co2 to our environment. Along the way, at approximately 812 million tons of plastic ends up in the oceans every year.
  4. Plastic bags take around 20 years to decompose and disposable diapers and plastic bottles take 450 years to break down .
  5. The presence of plastics in seas and oceans is one of the greatest threats to the conservation of wildlife throughout the world.

Product solutions

From our discussion with Andrew Thornton and Henri Allen from A Plastic Planet, we learnt that there are many alternative materials to plastic and hundreds of plastic free products on the market! The raised consumer awareness, paired with the reticence of larger brands to react, has created an opportunity for smaller brands to emerge with sustainable solutions.

Netting made of Beechwood by VPZ

Thornton’s Budgens, showcases a good variety of plastic free options within different product categories, but for those who do not live in North London, Pebble Magazine has compiled a great list of 59 zero waste stores around the UK.

We tested a few different plastic free products from Thornton’s Budgens for ourselves, and this is our feedback:

Georganics toothpaste and toothbrush

Toothpaste & toothbrushes: Georganics -Get the spearmint or peppermint -natural needs a bit of getting used to! Toothbrushes made of bamboo and the toothpaste comes in a small glass jar.

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Cloths from Maistic

Cleaning cloths, scrubs and sponges: Maistic -Cleaning products made from certified compostable bioplastic and other compostable materials.

Beeswax Wraps by Carly and Fran

The new clingfilm: Beeswax Wrap -We can’t express how much we love this product! It smells wonderful, looks cute, has multiple purposes and is far more user friendly than plastic clingfilm ever was. Organic cotton cloths covered in pine resin, organic Jojoba Oil and UK Beeswax.

Earth Conscious natural deodorant in eco-friendly packaging

Deodorants: Earth Conscious -Unless you are under an unusual amount of pressure…this one really works! Get the stick rather than the tub, which is more convenient to apply. Comes in cardboard packaging and 10p from the sale goes to the Marine Conservation Society.

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Hygiene: Lush offers a wonderful selection of shampoo, conditioning and body wash bars, which you get in a paper bag. They work a treat and last a long time, but are on the expensive side.

If you’re interested in sustainability, conscious consumption, sustainable brands and systems change, do visit our website and sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with our latest content: http://telltaleresearch.com/telltale-stories/

Telltale Stories

A series of topical reflections featuring expert…

Alexandra Clark

Written by

Consultant & Founder of Telltale Research | From Copenhagen, lives in London | Passionate about solving social & businesses problems through human insight.

Telltale Stories

A series of topical reflections featuring expert interviews, trailblazing brands and human insights by Telltale Research

Alexandra Clark

Written by

Consultant & Founder of Telltale Research | From Copenhagen, lives in London | Passionate about solving social & businesses problems through human insight.

Telltale Stories

A series of topical reflections featuring expert interviews, trailblazing brands and human insights by Telltale Research

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