Earlier this month Theresa May stood up at the London Wetlands Centre in Barnes and told the world that her Government was serious about tackling the travesty of plastic pollution. The Prime Minister said that she would work with supermarkets in a bid to encourage them to introduce plastic free aisles in their stores. For anyone invested in the global fight against plastic waste, May’s speech represented a seminal moment. 10 months ago, the concept of a plastic free aisle was a mere fanciful concept. Now it is starting to look like a tangible reality. We are closer than ever to turning off the plastic tap.
Over the past half century governments around the world have failed to legislate in any meaningful way to counter the explosion in plastic pollution. In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. Public policy has simply not caught up. In setting out a 25-year vision for the environment, Theresa May could plausibly claim to be righting the wrongs of her predecessors who elected to take a comically short-termist approach to environmental policy.
When I co-founded campaign group A Plastic Planet at the beginning of 2017 we had one goal in mind – a plastic free aisle in supermarkets. We want to give the public the choice to buy their food not wrapped in indestructible plastic. After this month’s announcement, it feels like we are closer than ever to delivering the kind of intervention that would empower shoppers to kick plastic waste into touch.
Theresa May has vowed to work with the grocery retail sector to make a plastic free aisle a reality. But the history books are littered with well-intentioned policy proposals that come to nothing. If the May premiership is serious about fundamentally changing the way supermarkets think about the plastic waste they generate, Whitehall needs give retailers a real incentive to make that positive change. A business rate relief scheme for supermarkets that do the right thing would be a high-impact, low-cost way of compelling Britain’s most influential retailers to act.
While Theresa May’s boldness on plastic should be applauded, her vision is a little skewed. The Prime Minister wants supermarkets to introduce plastic free aisles stocked exclusively with unpackaged, loose goods. We, the public, are as addicted to convenience as we are to plastic but we do not need to forsake convenience. The future of food retail will give us solutions that are viable, scalable and very importantly still give shoppers the current levels of food safety and convenience. That’s why plastic free aisles must showcase all the plastic-free packaging solutions that are emerging all the time.
Words are cheap in politics, and this month’s announcement will amount to little if the Government doesn’t compel supermarkets to take up the mantle and make a plastic free aisle a reality. A Populus poll published last year indicated that more than nine-in-10 UK adults would support the introduction of an aisle completely free from throwaway plastic.
We are on the cusp of a fundamental transformation in our relationship with plastic packaging in food and drink. Theresa May and Britain’s supermarkets must urgently work together to make plastic free aisles a reality. The time for talking is over. Together, we must follow through with decisive action. Not in 25 years, not even in five years. We want to shop plastic-free now.