Supermarkets Charge More for Unpackaged Produce, Undermining Plastic-Free Efforts

Customers seeking to reduce plastic waste by purchasing unpackaged fresh produce are being penalised with higher prices, according to a new survey, supermarkets charge a higher per-kilo price for fruits and vegetables not wrapped in plastic.

The survey, conducted by the Australian Marine Conservation Society with volunteers across 180 supermarkets nationwide, revealed that a staggering 78 percent of volunteers noticed a cost advantage for plastic-wrapped produce over their loose counterparts.

“This discrepancy in pricing not only drives consumers towards choosing plastic-wrapped goods but also places a financial burden on those aiming for a plastic-free shopping experience,” the report highlighted.

Tanya Plibersek, Federal Environment Minister, expressed her commitment to strong regulatory reforms that would mandate compliance from suppliers and retailers. “Fresh produce such as bananas and zucchini should not be encased in plastic,” Plibersek stated, urging businesses to assume greater accountability for the 6.7 million tonnes of packaging they introduce to the market annually.

According to the Minderoo Foundation, Australia is the second-largest per-capita producer of single-use plastic waste, trailing only Singapore. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has found that over 14 million tonnes of plastic are deposited into oceans each year, causing detrimental effects on marine life, including entanglement, ingestion leading to fatality, and chemical pollution as the plastics break down. The WWF has reported the tragic deaths of an estimated one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals annually due to plastic consumption or entrapment.

The audit by the Marine Conservation Society also pointed out that while major supermarkets have established voluntary standards to cut back on plastic packaging, these measures are typically enforced only for store brands and not for third-party vendors. Shane Cucow, the plastics campaign manager for the society, noted that Aldi has implemented some enforceable guidelines, rejecting packaged goods from suppliers that include plastic straws and cutlery. However, other supermarkets have yet to enforce similar standards.

Aldi has reported a 22 percent reduction in plastic use for fresh produce beyond eliminating plastic straws and cutlery from items such as juice boxes and pre-made salads.

The report advocates for mandatory cost-competitive pricing for loose produce. Cucow emphasised that the issue of overpricing for loose items is common across all major supermarket chains.

Amid a cost of living crisis, Cucow finds it particularly troubling that eco-conscious shoppers are being charged more, especially when supermarkets do not incur the costs associated with the packaging of these products.

In response to the ineffectiveness of voluntary plastic reduction targets and guidelines, Australian environment ministers announced plans to introduce regulatory measures for plastic packaging use by 2024. These forthcoming regulations aim to ensure minimal packaging waste and that any packaging used is recyclable or reusable.

In light of the impending regulatory changes, Woolworths has highlighted its initiative of using approximately 9,000 tonnes of recycled plastic annually in its own-brand packaging to curb the production of new plastic. Meanwhile, Coles has experimented with reusable boxes for online deliveries in Tasmania and allows South Australian customers to use their containers for select deli items.
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