Tesco has issued details on the packaging it wants suppliers to use in the UK. Compostables remains a tricky issue but David Burrows welcomes the retailer’s decisions.

Tesco, the UK’s largest grocer, has just published a list of the packaging it wants food manufacturers to use in the UK from May. Each material and format falls into one of three categories:

    • green – the preferred options based on the recycling available to UK customers;
    • amber – to be used when green ones are not an option (but only once the supermarket’s packaging team has approved it); and
    • red – not to be used because customers cannot easily recycle these in the UK. 

This traffic light system is a remarkably simple approach to what is a head-achingly complicated issue. Indeed, Tesco’s strategy – which initially covers own-branded goods but
could be rolled out to branded products – aligns with both impending regulations (nationally and Europe-wide) and its commitments under the UK Plastics Pact – a voluntary commitment to make all packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 and recycle or compost 70% of it. Polymers like polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyethylene (PE, which many supermarkets collect front of store) are all given a ‘green’ code; cardboard, aluminium, glass and paper are all ok, too. 

The hard-to-recycle stuff like polystyrene and PVC, plus black plastic (which many sorting facilities find it impossible to detect), all end up on the ‘red’ list. As do the oxodegradables (which the European Commission is seeking to ban). 

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By GlobalData

More intriguingly, Tesco doesn’t want suppliers to use compostable packaging – including polylactic acid (PLA), a compostable bioplastic derived from plant sugars. An earlier list, published in 2018, put PLA and industrial compostable packaging as red, but had home compostable packaging as amber. Now it’s all red.

And compostable packaging manufacturers are far from happy about it. They hoped Tesco would rethink its approach and come round to the public’s way of thinking. Tesco is “setting itself against a tide which will only become more powerful as consumers understand that they cannot recycle many of the plastics Tesco is compelling suppliers to use”, warned the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industry Association (BBIA), which represents manufacturers of compostable packaging. 

It’s undoubtedly a brave move in the current climate (which perhaps explains the lack of press release for the new list). In the eyes of the public, all plastic is bad and all other packaging is good. And consumers particularly love compostables (which can actually be plastic). Almost four in five (79%) are positive toward these materials, according to a 2018 survey of 6,214 UK consumers by the Waste & Resources Action Programme. However, the survey also hinted doubts were beginning to creep in: only 17% thought it best to forget about recycling and make everything compostable or biodegradable; this compared to 44% who said the solution is to make all packaging recyclable and then recycled. Tesco’s approach mirrors this.

As the UK’s biggest supermarket sees it, there’s no point in compostables currently because they’re not composted. The compostables lobby are at pains to point out the paltry recycling rates for traditional plastics, and they have a point. But how many of the 8,000 to 10,000 tonnes of compostable packaging placed on the UK market is composted? They have no idea. Compostable packaging volumes could reach 138,000 tonnes, but where will they all end up? 

There have been a few unfavourable headlines of late, with compostable packaging ending up in landfill or incinerators (including those being used in the Houses of Parliament). Tesco’s thinking is if it ends up in landfill then this creates the powerful greenhouse gas methane, so the sensible approach is to use other materials that can be recycled – and this includes oil-based plastics (and in time recyclable plastics from renewable sources rather than fossil fuels). But Tesco is being equally ruthless with some of these plastics: suppliers have been warned that if it can’t be recycled then it will have no place on shelves.

The approach is simple and suppliers know exactly where they stand. And so will shoppers. Confuse them with compostables that aren’t clearly marked, or they have no clue what to do with, and contamination will rise in other recycling streams. What’s more, if compostables continue to end up in landfill – sites that anaerobically digest food waste strip all packaging out pre-treatment, whilst getting compostable packaging to one of the 50-odd industrial composting sites remains tricky – trust in the whole system starts to wane. This is why Tesco wants to streamline the materials it’s placing on the market. This should also help distance itself from accusations of greenwash.

There are myriad magic new materials being marketed at brands and retailers currently, but pitch one of them at Tesco (new innovations are listed ‘amber’) and you’ll be grilled by its packaging team. It would be great if others took this approach; to do their due diligence and ask: what will happen to the packaging?

Over time, Tesco’s red list will get longer as it reduces materials further so all its packaging is easily recyclable and – this is critical – easily recycled back into packaging fit for food. This will take time, and what critics have failed to grasp is that Tesco’s list is evolving. They have also failed to ask for the detail. 

Indeed, contrary to some of the reports, it still permits the use of compostables for items like teabags, coffee pods and food bin liners, which is in line with WRAP’s recommended approach through the Plastics Pact. There could even be future opportunities for these compostables, most notably in flexible packaging. It’s currently impossible to recycle this back into food grade packaging, which could make polymers like PE increasingly expensive and publicly unacceptable options. Ricardo, a UK consultancy, reckons compostables could replace 53,000 to 77,000 tonnes of flexible plastic packaging. 

So Tesco isn’t saying compostables are crap. It just isn’t sure what role they will play. Neither is the UK government (which has delayed responding to a consultation on bioplastics because of the “technical” nature of the topic). In such circumstances, caution is surely the sensible option?