With targets now likely to be missed, Wrap is set to call for a ban

As the COP28 summit looms in Dubai next week, it’s not an ideal time to discover a serious threat to the war on plastic.

But that’s exactly what happened last week, when The Grocer revealed supermarket pledges to remove packaging on loose fruit & veg – a key part of Wrap’s UK Plastics Pact – were running out of steam.

In 2002, retailers agreed on a course to rid up to 80% of packaging by 2025. Now even a massively watered down target of 30% of products sold loose looks almost certain to be missed by that date.

In the face of this inaction, Wrap is now calling for the government to implement a new ban on packaging.

So what has gone wrong, and what can be done to salvage the fresh aisle shake-up upon which the hopes of the UK Plastics Pact rest?

1.6 million tonnes in the bin

Fresh fruit & vegetables make up more household food waste in the UK than any other food type, with 1.6 million tonnes thrown away each year, worth £3.8bn.

One argument for plastic packaging had been its potential to reduce food waste by keeping items fresher for longer. But Wrap’s research found quite the opposite: removing plastic packaging could slash food waste by over 100,000 tonnes a year, by encouraging shoppers to buy only what they need.

At the same time, Wrap claims 8,800 tonnes of plastic packaging a year could be taken off the market if supermarkets switch to selling just three products – apples, bananas and potatoes – loose.

Organic Produce

An average 19.4% of fresh produce sold was loose in 2022

Yet progress has been slow. Last week’s update to the Pact, launched five years ago, showed an average 19.4% of fresh produce sold was loose in 2022.

Within that is huge variation between retailers, ranging from 30% to just 2% in the anonymised data.

Wrap is expected to formally call on the government to introduce a packaging ban in the spring, likely focusing on 24 products including apples, bananas, broccoli and cucumbers.

However, Helen Bird, head of business co-operation at Wrap, admits progress has been affected by “technical and economic” challenges rather than supermarkets dropping the ball.

One major technical issue is the lack of digital weighing capacity, which affects many discounters and convenience stores. Bird admits this requires “massive capital investment”.

Wonky produce

The plastic packaging goals also potentially clash with the work retailers are doing to sell so-called “wonky” items.

“There is a big economic challenge because fundamentally people will always leave behind the rotten satsuma and that will be waste that supermarkets have to dispose of,” says Bird.

“We have to ensure our measures don’t have unintended consequences. The issue is how do you overcome that.”

Tesco perfectly imperfect wonky apples fruit

Source: Tesco

Wrap is working with supermarkets to sell ‘wonky’ fruit loose

On that front, Wrap is working with supermarkets to explore ways of selling “wonky” fruit loose.

Wrap is also exploring nudges that push consumers towards loose versions. One mooted suggestion is for the government to legislate on a price commitment from supermarkets that packaged fruit & veg would “never knowingly be cheaper” than the loose equivalent.

In January, trials with a number of unnamed supermarkets will explore the impact of those new pricing strategies.

However, the clock is fast ticking towards the 2025 deadline. Given that key targets on plastic look increasingly likely to be missed, Wrap believes voluntary moves will not be enough.

Mandatory action from this government has appeared highly unlikely until now. But new environment secretary Steve Barclay’s decision this week to potentially revive plans for mandatory reporting on food waste will provide hope for those who say it is time for ministers to get tough.

Because when it comes to the loose fruit & veg revolution, success will likely require both the carrot and the stick.