Reduce, reuse, recycle, urges the famous green mantra. Last week, Sainsbury's arguably went a step further when it announced it wanted to start "an environmental revolution" by eliminating, rather than reducing, plastic packaging from 500 lines. But though arguably more radical than some of its rivals, Sainsbury's is just the latest multiple to unveil ambitious plans to tackle the packaging, recycling and waste crisis.

In fact, they all seem to be at it. Even Morrisons, which has been criticised for being less proactive on the environmental front, has been getting in on the act.

It's easy to see why the issue has come to the fore. Britain's waste mountain is steep. It has been revealed to have one of the worst records in the EU on recycling by an Institute for Public Policy Research and Green Alliance report.

The finger of blame has inevitably been pointed at "the supermarkets" - but though they are seen as a major part of the problem, they are also seen as the potential solution, and not just by pressure groups and the media. Consumers are demanding that they take a lead, particularly in areas relevant to them such as recycling.

Justin King, Sainsbury's chief executive, confirmed as much last week when he announced the packaging initiative: "Customers tell us food packaging is important and can determine what they buy."

This is substantiated by research by Harris Interactive, which shows that 42% of consumers think it is very important that their supermarket is committed to recycling, packaging and waste-reduction initiatives. Indeed, they place recycling at the top of the list of ethical and environmental initiatives they expect it to be involved in. And the more customer-facing the initiative the better. Just witness the publicity surrounding Tesco's bag for Clubcard points initiative.

Whether recycling and packaging initiatives are beginning to influence where consumers shop is harder to establish - because although consumers in our survey claim they do, conscientious sentiment doesn't always translate into behaviour.

Alison Austin, Sainsbury's head of brand policy and sustainability, says: "Our customers want to be greener but want us to make it easy. That's why we've got recycling facilities in our car parks and we're helping customers buy low-energy products. We also have the widest range of reusable bags - we sell 4.2 million bags for life every year."

Others are adopting different strategies in a bid to reduce packaging and waste. Mike Barry, head of CSR at Marks and Spencer, says: "We're trying to make sure packaging comes from sustainable raw materials that are easier to recycle. We don't have big car parks so don't have the option of recycling facilities - we're more focused on the product."

The Co-operative Group launched Britain's first 100% degradable plastic carrier bag and was also first to introduce degradable technology into mainstream grocery packaging. Morrisons says that its main job is to prevent generation of waste. And Tesco has made much of its automated recycling facilities.

This all adds up to good PR of course, but there are also clear commercial imperatives. With energy prices rising, it makes financial sense to reduce packaging, because it cuts energy use, waste and transport. There are also regulatory drivers, which is why attention is partly turning to non-customer-facing initiatives such as waste handling back of store. One major bone of contention for experts is waste segregation.

Mark Shayler, environmental director of Environmental Capital and managing director of Eco3, says: "The supermarkets don't segregate because it takes too much time. It's easier to pay for extra landfill than to de-pack."

Andrew Duckworth, Tesco's head of waste management, agrees it is an issue but says Tesco separates as much as possible and is taking measures to divert residual waste from landfill. "We believe energy from waste is sustainable and are looking at processes such as pyrolysis and gasification, which are used elsewhere in the world but not in the UK because landfill has tended to be cheaper."

Asda, meanwhile, has ambitiously declared that it will stop sending any waste to landfill by 2010, by recycling, reusing and composting its waste.

Duckworth insists that there is a genuine desire on the part of the supermarkets to tackle the packaging and waste issue head on. "The momentum is building. Retailers are being criticised for the amount of packaging they use and we're now entering a phase where we're working with people like WRAP to reduce it."

However, pressure groups continue to question both their motives and the scale of their ambitions. Vicki Hird, senior food campaigner at Friends of the Earth, thinks there was more spin than substance to Tesco's carrier bag initiative. "I was disappointed they didn't go further."

Supermarkets should go further in reducing the waste they play such a major role in creating, she says: "We're talking to local authorities about charging for recycling kerbside waste."

Sue Dibb, author of the National Consumer Council's Greening Supermarkets report, agrees.

"I think there's huge potential to engage customers. A lot of waste in our homes come from the supermarkets. There's a lot they can do, not least in reducing unnecessary packaging. In France we barely saw any plastic bags. Bags for life are everywhere."

The good news is that the multiples see packaging and waste as an area they can make a real difference and are competing to be top of the class. So what if their motives are as much commercial as moral?n