Sainsbury's front of store

None of Sainsbury’s flexible plastic recycled in the UK

Image credit: Lizziemaher | Dreamstime

None of the flexible plastic waste that Sainsbury’s collects from its customers as part of a controversial nationwide initiative is currently recycled in the UK, the supermarket has admitted.

Meanwhile, the UK’s largest supermarket chain, Tesco, has announced it is carrying out an audit of the waste exporter employed by both supermarkets to recycle this plastic waste - following an E&T investigation.

E&T revealed in February that the firm in question, Eurokey, had its export accreditation suspended last year after mislabelling the type of plastic it exported to Turkey. In its suspension notice, the Environment Agency (EA) said for at least four months last year Eurokey had exported plastic waste to Turkish sites that were not authorised to process the material.

The soft plastics initiative, which has been adopted by most of the major UK supermarkets, aims to provide a route for the recycling of hard-to-recycle flexible plastic packaging, which includes items such as soft plastic films and crisp packets. The UK does not currently have the capacity to recycle this type of plastic, so customers are encouraged to take their flexible plastic waste back to supermarkets.

Eurokey then collects this waste from Sainsbury’s and Tesco and ships it to a plant in Poland, where it is sorted before being sent for reprocessing elsewhere. Sainsburys has now confirmed that all its front of store flexible plastic is currently recycled in Europe.

A Sainsbury’s spokesperson said: “Our front of store flexible plastic is currently recycled in Europe, however we continue to work with industry and government to support the development of recycling infrastructure in the UK.”

Tesco said the soft plastic collected in its stores was currently being recycled into bin liners at a recycling facility in Derbyshire but Nina Schrank, senior plastics campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said supermarkets were still producing “far too much plastic”.

“These soft plastic recycling points are being introduced as a way to convince shoppers that supermarkets are taking action on the plastics crisis that they continue to fuel,” she said.

Following E&T’s investigation, Bloomberg placed digital trackers inside three used plastic items and deposited them in Tesco storefront collection bins. One of these items made it to an industrial zone near Adana in Southeast Turkey just miles from where activists and journalists in Adana have previously found Tesco-branded wrappers at illegal dump sites.

Tesco said there was no evidence that any of its branded plastic discovered at Turkish landfills came from its soft plastic collection points. However, it said it took any allegations that suggest the waste it sends for recycling is going to landfill “very seriously” and that it was therefore undertaking its own audit of the supplier.

A Tesco spokesperson said: “There are many challenges associated with recycling soft plastic materials and it is precisely because soft plastics are hard to recycle and are not recycled by the vast majority of councils in the UK, that we introduced our soft plastic recycling points at our stores to prevent it otherwise going to landfill.”

Greenpeace says that most of the soft plastic collected at soft plastic collection points “won't and can’t be recycled”, and that supermarkets “need to come clean about this”.

“We need a fundamental shake up, the amount of plastic on their shelves drastically reduced and innovative reuse models introduced that allow packaging to stay out of the environment, and in a loop where it is used, washed and refilled again,” said Schrank.

Both Sainsbury’s and Tesco have offered to support the government to develop recycling infrastructure in the UK, as scrutiny over plastic exports intensifies.

Last month waste industry leaders joined with environmental campaigners to call for a ban on the export of plastic waste that goes further than the government’s current proposals.

Speaking in front of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee, Jacob Hayler, executive director of the Environmental Services Association (ESA) said firms do not have to pre-notify the EA about where they are exporting waste making it “very challenging for them to be able to regulate that appropriately”.

He said there was also a lack of transparency about where some of the plastic waste was ending up. “While there are requirements that the material should then be recycled to an equivalent standard to the UK, it is very difficult to check,” he added.

Eurokey repeated its comment that the packaging export recovery notes it claimed, which act as proof that material has been properly recycled, "were claimed based on an approved recovery rate and to facilities that were approved by the EA". In the meantime, it said its 2022 accreditation had been approved by the EA "without any delays or issue".


This article was updated on 27/4/22 to include a comment from Eurokey

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles