Supermarkets could face legal action for failure to act on plastic, say lawyers

Legal campaigners have said supermarkets and major food manufacturing companies across the globe that “turn a blind eye to the risks related to plastic pollution” could face legal action.

Photograph: Tesco is one of a number of UK supermarkets to offer recycling= points for soft plastic. Photograph: Tesco Photograph: Tesco is one of a number of UK supermarkets to offer recycling= points for soft plastic. Photograph: Tesco

Environmental law charity ClientEarth said blue chip fast-moving consumer goods companies (FMCGs) and grocery retailers – which it calls collectively ‘big food’ – are responsible for the bulk of single-use plastics on the market.

In a report published by ClientEarth today, its lawyers found that many big food companies are failing to recognise, report and act on the risks of continuing to rely on plastic packaging, putting them at risk of legal action, and their shareholders in line for financial losses.

ClientEarth plastics lawyer and report author Rosa Pritchard, said: “The time is up for single-use plastics but big food is burying its head in the sand. A slew of stricter laws on single-use plastics are rapidly making our continued reliance on plastic packaging untenable, and consumers are turning their back on single-use plastic culture.”

In the UK, DEFRA is consulting on banning plastic plates, cutlery and polystyrene cups having last year introduced restrictions on the supply of single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds.  

“Yet the companies behind many of our household brands are treating the plastics crisis as a PR problem, rather than a serious and escalating business risk,” said Prtichard.

Companies in the UK are obliged to disclose the financial impacts of their reliance on plastic to investors, under the the Companies, Partnerships and Groups (Accounts and Non-Financial Reporting) Regulations 2016.

However, ClientEarth notes that many companies are failing to do so, putting them at “risk of legal action”.

In the report, ClientEarth’s lawyers urge investors, asset managers and financial advisors to engage with big food and push for greater transparency, more ambitious targets and more effective policies from big food on plastics – to protect their holdings and ensure compliance with their own legal obligations. 

Pritchard added: “Investors and other financial institutions have a huge amount of leverage with big food. They could demand better performance from businesses on their plastic strategies, or decide to invest elsewhere to avoid plastic-related business risks – as they too are not immune to serious financial consequences.”

A number of UK supermarkets including Tesco and Sainsburys are currently rolling out initiatives to recycle flexible plastic packaging.

However, an investigation by ENDS earlier this year revealed that the company contracted by to recycle the material for both Sainsbury’s and Tesco is locked in a legal dispute with authorities in Poland, and is unwilling to provide details about the ultimate fate of the material.

Greenpeace said the investigation threw up “serious questions about what happens to plastic waste shipped off to Poland by major supermarkets” and that “both retailers and government agencies should seek answers”. 

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