Tesco’s plastic pledge has ‘fallen short’, according to a Bloomberg expose which reveals the truth behind a plastic bag’s 2,000 mile journey across Europe and a “messy reality that looks less like a virtuous circle and more like passing the buck”.
Tesco first started collecting customers’ plastic bags and wrappers to be recycled in March 2021, as part of its widely-publicised 4R’s initiative – remove, reduce, reuse, recycle.
Soft plastics – such as crisp packets, plastic bags and food wrap – are notoriously difficult to recycle, as the waste needs to be heavily processed first. This only happens to about 6% of the UK’s soft plastic, so customers and environmental groups were pleased when Tesco’s soft plastic recycling scheme rolled out to larger stores across the UK.
Keen to understand exactly what happened to the plastic waste collected by the UK’s biggest supermarket, Bloomberg placed tiny digital trackers inside three used plastic items.
The rubbish – which started off in a Tesco store recycling bin in London – soon ended up at “the margins of European waste management”, where “some was recycled but the rest was burned or shipped off to an uncertain fate”.
While one tracker stopped working fairly quickly, the others travelled through Germany and into Poland, roughly 700 miles from London. “Truckloads of garbage” arrive from Europe every day, heading for the Eurokey Recycling Group.
A ‘waste broker’ which transports and sorts rubbish to be sent on to other contractors or buyers, Eurokey waste processing centre acts as a stopover point for plastic on its way somewhere else.
Tesco has a long-standing relationship with Eurokey and has continued to work with the company despite “periodic bad publicity”, including sanctions from the Environment Agency for mislabelling waste to avoid overseas import restrictions.
The second tracking device began moving again after two days and ended up in a factory in East Poland which manufactures recycled rubbish bags. Any plastic that isn’t suitable for recycling is burned and used to power the facility.
Tesco has previously pledged that none of its packaging will end up being buried. However, two former Eurokey employees in Poland say they saw the lowest-quality material being disposed of in precisely this way.
“We believe no plastic packaging should end up as waste in the natural environment,” Tesco told Bloomberg.
“That’s why we are committed to creating a system where we minimize single-use plastic and ensure everything we use can be recycled as part of a closed loop.”
The third tracker stopped working shortly after arriving at Eurokey and was assumed lost. Two months later, the final digital tracker came back to life at an industrial estate in southern Turkey, roughly 2,000 miles from the start of its journey.
The Turkish company denied accepting imported waste, leading Bloomberg to question whether it was authorised to process the material at all.