Which of your High Street Shops are Recycling Most Effectively?

With television programs such as Blue Planet II (David Attenborough), War on Plastic (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall) and Drowning in Plastic (Liz Bonnin) raising awareness, more consumers are looking to their own habits regarding plastic.  Much of this effort is directed to the weekly grocery shop and food packaging. 


According to a study by The Telegraph, “more than two thirds of the packaging in families’ weekly shops is not recyclable”. The same study of four major supermarkets (Tesco, Morrisons, Waitrose, and Sainsbury’s) also revealed that 68 percent of their packaging could not be recycled or had confusing labelling such as 'check local recycling'.

It could be concluded from this that supermarkets and consumer wants are still not coming together for the best results. According to research by QCR -  a recycling company specialising in cardboard and plastic - UK supermarkets generate around 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging every year. Let’s take a look at the recycling efforts of UK supermarkets, and other actions they are taking to reduce plastic use and waste.



In the Telegraph study, Tesco was ranked the worst of the four supermarkets. 73 percent of Tesco’s plastic was classified as either:

-          Non-recyclable

-          No information about disposal

-          Confusing labelling about the packaging

A spokesperson for Tesco responded to the study results, saying that the company was "reviewing all packaging to remove plastic wherever possible". Where it cannot be removed it will be replaced with recyclable packaging. The confusing labels will also be checked and improved.

Interestingly, despite this poor performance for its own products in April 2019, Tesco introduced a soft recycling scheme in ten of its stores, allowing customers to drop off items not collected to recycled by local authorities.  If the trial is successful, it will be rolled out to other stores.


Morrisons ranked second for poor recycling and plastic usage with 70 percent identified under the criteria stated above.

For all four supermarkets, it was found that own brand packaging was less environmentally-friendly and less recyclable than some household brands. Additionally, some own brands had no labelling regarding recyclability.

Morrisons responded with a spokesperson stating that "82 percent of their own brand packaging by weight is recyclable".

As recently as mid-2019, Morrisons has removed plastic bags for self-pick produce, replacing them with paper bags – although this isn’t favourable to the “less paper” ethos. The chain also introduced a carry home paper bag (alongside its  'bag for life'), and allows customers use their own containers when making purchases from the deli counter.


In response to their third place ranking with 69 percent, a Sainsbury’s spokesperson said that the company’s aim was to "make all own brand packaging recyclable, compostable, or reusable by 2023".

Sainsbury’s claim to be the first supermarket to remove all plastic bags for loose items (produce and bakery); but Morrisons was trialling the same, months prior to this. On the favourable side, Sainsbury’s has pledged to remove all black plastic packaging (hard to recycle) by the end of 2019.

Like Morrisons - who are trialling recycling schemes where customers can earn points for money off coupons in some stores -Sainsbury’s have been introducing “reverse vending machines” since June 2019.   They claim that customers can earn up to £25 to be used against their grocery shopping.


Waitrose fared the best of the four chains studied with a score of 60 percent. The John Lewis and Partners chain reacted by saying that the sample shop for the study was not a true representation of their product range. This was qualified with the statement that 85% of own brand goods have recyclable packaging.

It should be noticed that overall, in The Ethical Consumer Guide, Waitrose is rated as the second best UK supermarket. Their website states that in 2017, they recycled more than 780 tonnes of plastic.

Other Supermarkets

Asda is the biggest of the supermarket chains not in the Telegraph study. Their website has a page dedicated to their environmental goals which include:

-          100 percent recyclable packaging by 2025

-          90 percent operational waste recycled or sent for anaerobic digestion

By the end of 2019, Asda aim to have removed more than 10 percent of plastic from their own brand packaging- equivalent to more than 6,500 tonnes.

 While Marks and Spencer is not traditionally thought of a supermarket, they do have 615 stores solely dedicated to food. They too have a proactive recycling program. Customers can use in-store bins to drop off plastic items that local councils do not collect – this will be recycled into children’s playground equipment.

Online Grocery Shopping

The biggest issue for this sector of retail is plastic bags. In recent months, all supermarkets offering a home delivery service have made big changes regarding bag use.

-          Asda have stopped packing home deliveries in plastic bags

-          Tesco still use them but if you request them, you are still charged 40 pence, but you have to answer the question of “why do you want them?”

-          Ocado (Waitrose) charge for bags but also refund 5 pence for each bag returned via the driver.

-          Morrisons charge 40 pence but have introduced paper bags in store.

What Are Other Retailers Doing to Help the Cause?

An area of retail that is really in the spotlight at the moment is “fast fashion”. The UK buys the most clothes out of all countries in Europe and £140 million worth ends up in landfill every year. There is an appetite to change this from the top down.

Sadly in June 2019, government ministers rejected a call from MPS to levy a one pence tax on every garment to fund a recycling scheme. Instead they have put the onus on retailers to lead the way in their own recycling schemes and programs to cut throwaway fashion. 

Lush is a retailer that has always taken an ethical stance. In 2019, it opened its first “Naked” store in the UK which sells products without any plastic packaging of any sort. Customers obtain content information and ingredients by scanning items into their mobile phones. Lush also collects cosmetics bottle tops, plastic milk bottle tops, drinks bottle tops, and household cleaning bottle tops which numerous local councils do not recycle. Customers can drop them off in store of send to a freepost address.

These examples show action is being taken by top retail companies. The real question is, "is it enough and what more can be done?" Greater public awareness of the various schemes and actions would surely help the cause.

About the Author:
Ruby Clarkson is a freelance writer who is passionate about our planet and the animals we share it with. When she isn't writing, she can often be found out in the garden, scrolling through Pinterest or curled up under a blanket with a book.