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France has banned plastic packaging on fruit and veg - why can’t the UK?

We asked experts why the UK hasn't yet banned plastic packaging - in spite of the damage it's doing to the climate and environment.

Many fruits and vegetables remain packaged in single-use plastic. Image: Philafrenzy

It’s 2022, and by now most people are aware of the untold damage plastic is having on animals, the environment and even human health

Yet walk into most supermarkets today and you’ll still find yourself greeted by row upon row of fruits and vegetables tightly wrapped in plastic packaging, little of which can be recycled. 

It’s a source of frustration for many eco-conscious shoppers, which is why France announced a ban this week on plastic packaging for fruit and vegetables.

The ban, which came into force on New Year’s Day, will see 30 types of fruit and vegetables including peppers, courgettes, aubergines and leeks sold without plastic packaging in supermarkets and other shops.

Spain is to follow suit in 2023, leading some to question why the UK is lagging behind on similar measures. 

It seems like an easy fix to an increasingly urgent problem – so why hasn’t the UK banned plastic packaging on fruit and veg yet? We asked the experts what’s slowing progress.

What measures has the UK taken to tackle plastic pollution? 

A spokesperson for environmental charity Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) said there have been some positive changes in the UK around plastic pollution.

“Over recent years supermarkets have been making strides to ensure they sell the whole crop to reduce food waste, for example selling ‘wonky’ vegetables,” the spokesperson said.

Amy Slack, campaigns manager at Surfers Against Sewage, (SAS) echoed Wrap’s comments, saying the government has taken “some positive steps” to reduce plastic pollution via bans on microbeads, straws, cotton bud sticks and drink stirrers, as well as charges on plastic bags. 

Slack added, however, that the UK is “lagging behind many of our European neighbours on measures to effectively tackle plastic packaging”.

How bad is the UK’s plastic pollution problem?

“The UK is simply not moving fast enough to end plastic pollution,” says Slack.

She points out the UK is particularly bad when it comes to plastic pollution, producing more plastic waste per person than almost any other county in the world, and recycling less than 10 per cent of everyday plastic.

Meanwhile, over 50 per cent of household packaging waste that most believe is recycled is actually sent abroad and dumped or burned illegally, contributing to carbon emissions.

Wrap says plastic is having a devastating impact on both the environment and the climate. 

“Almost all plastic is derived from fossil fuels, and the process of manufacturing plastic creates hundreds of millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases every year,” the spokesperson said.

“The more plastic we make, the more fossil fuels we need, the more we exacerbate climate change. We need to reduce it wherever it is possible, and where it is not, it is important to recycle it,” they added. 

Why hasn’t a ban on plastic packaging been introduced? 

Both Wrap and SAS say there are multiple factors at play when it comes to a ban on plastic packaging in the UK.

Wrap says social and cultural norms play into the problem, with packaging frequently used to “distinguish different sizes and quality (perceived or otherwise) of products”, meaning consumers have “come to expect” produce to be packaged in plastic.

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SAS, however, says there is a clear public demand for a ban on plastic packaging for fruit and veg, and that a “reliance on voluntary measures” is driving inaction on plastic packaging.

Relying on consumers to make choices that avoid plastic packaging “are proven to be ineffective in addressing the issue at the pace needed”, Slack says. 

Instead, “overarching plastic reduction targets are needed that mandate producers and retailers to reduce plastic packaging”, she adds.  

Have any supermarkets introduced measures voluntarily?

Some supermarkets are already trialling ways to remove single-use plastic packaging from their stores, with Tesco recently launching reuse trials at 10 shops across eastern England, with customers able to return containers for re-use.

Iceland also recently announced that it will remove plastic packaging from its own brand labels by 2023.

Co-op has removed more than 331 tonnes of plastic from its fruit and veg packaging over the last two years and customers can recycle soft plastics – such as plastic wrapping – at 1,500 of its stores across the country.

However, says Slack, “many retailers are still focused on making plastic recyclable or made from recycled content rather than reduction of plastic in the first place”.

“We need to turn off the plastic tap in order to end the plastic pollution crisis and recycling alone is simply not enough,” she adds. 

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