/ Shopping, Sustainability

Waitrose plastic-free shopping: your views

Waitrose is trialling allowing customers to bring their own refillable containers for fruit and veg, pasta, cereals, coffee and wine. Do you back its initiative?

Waitrose’s Oxford supermarket kicked off its ‘Unpacked’ trial last Monday – it’s hoped that the idea could save thousands of tonnes of unnecessary plastic and packaging.

Since I moved into my own place last year I’ve been far more conscious of the amount of packaging a household consumes.

Every time the shower gel runs out or we go through another bottle of a soft drink it’s another plastic bottle into the pile, so I personally feel this is a positive step in the right direction from Waitrose.

I was also delighted to see the Which? team head to the Waitrose store in Oxford to try it out!

Is packaging-free food budget-friendly? Read how the team got on here.

Perhaps the rows of refill stations are a glimpse at what the supermarkets of the future may look like as brands seek to get more sustainable with their packaging choices?

Do you support ‘buying loose’?

We’ve had discussions here on Which? Conversation before about packaging, specifically last April on how we can rethink the way or products are distributed and sold.

That topic spawned a number of contributions with ideas and concerns, with many of you calling on supermarkets and other shops to reduce their packaging:

Other supermarkets, including Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Iceland, Lidl, Morrisons and Tesco, are also getting in on the plastic-cutting act, with many of them signed up to the Plastics Pact.

But with Waitrose being the first to take the packaging-free/refills route, it’s keen to hear and review feedback when the test ends in August.

We’re hoping it’s not all just a publicity stunt – initiatives like this could have a big impact if they’re rolled out to other stores and chains. But what do you think?

Would you bring your own refillable containers along on your shop? Should this idea be rolled out across the country? What other ways could supermarkets reduce packaging?


I spend time in New Zealand, where several major supermarket chains have precisely this system, offering a big range of dry goods in dispensers. These are often cheaper than branded and packaged goods and efficient and allows one to to choose the right quantity as well. They do provide small plastic bags for customers ( but NZ has very good rubbish recycling, and is much more environmentally conscious than UK) but a system of providing biodegradable food bags or bringing your own would work better. This is a very good system for buying dry goods. I wold like to see more fruit and veg sold like this in supermarkets.

What I find interesting is that we seem to be going full circle from my early years of going up to the co-op with Mum’s shopping list some 80 odd years ago. Nothing was pre wrapped except tinned goods. Even butter was weighed up and patted into shape before being wrapped in grease proof paper. I also remember in my grand mothers house going ou with a jug to buy milk ladled out of a churn on the back of a horse and cart.- not even a bottle in that transaction!.

Dunbar says:
16 June 2019

Let’s face it John 80 odd years ago the population was 20 million lower and there was nowt much to wrap. Killer TB was rife as was lung disease, cholera, malaria polio and poverty. During the war the country almost starved as Hitler cut off imports. We should concentrate on saving people and forget the crazy myth of saving the planet, continue forwards not backwards on some theoretical whim.

It’s not a myth that our world is being polluted with plastic and it’s slowly becoming part of our diet: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/feb/14/sea-to-plate-plastic-got-into-fish

We have achieved a great deal in tackling disease thanks to better nutrition, better medical care, use of smokeless fuels, removal of lead and sulphur from petrol and reduction of sulphur in petrol and diesel, and the decline in smoking.

We changed from what we were doing 80 odd years ago because we did not realise what the consequences would be, and because there were disadvantages too. Hopefully in the intervening period we have realised that a little inconvenience is worth the trouble. 80 years ago nothing was self-service, and so systems that work with this model have had to be developed. A couple of decades ago there was also a version of this using huge ‘bins’ that you put a scoop into (‘greens’ have been banging on about the evils of packaging for a very long time) but I imagine this didn’t take off because of hygiene issues – just imagine what could end up being put INTO the bins; cross-contamination being the least distasteful. This kind of shopping requires planning – and until supermarkets completely did away with ‘free’ carrier bags, I could see that a lot of people were not planning even so far as to bring a bag, so I imagine people will also need a bit of a push to bring their own containers – surely a discount would work? I think the best thing about this (apart from trying to do what we can to reduce plastic pollution) is not having to buy larger quantities than you need, if you are a small household or simply can’t afford to buy in larger quantities. It’s great. I have been disappointed that since Sainsburys stopped doing disposeable plastic bags for fresh produce I have realised that very little of this is actually sold loose in any case – so I still end up with a lot of plastic packaging. And before anyone says I should shop in a market – I work full time and there is no weekend market in my town.

Richard says:
15 June 2019

How about stackable wooden crates, that fits into a trolley.

I would be interested to know how Waitrose and other supermarkets package loose produce for home delivery.

It is some time since we had a Waitrose home delivery but each type of loose fruit and veg was put in a polythene bag before being included with other goods in large plastic bags for which there was a charge.

We have a large delivery from Sainsbury’s about every three weeks but rarely order fresh fruit and vegetables. Last time, however, there was a bag of four apples on the order but due to a picking error only one apple was delivered, in its own polythene bag, inside a bag with some other items.

Sainsbury’s will deliver with or without bags but if you wish to have bags there is a standard charge of 40p, presumably on the assumption that the average requirement is eight bags. We find having the delivery in bags is much more convenient and easier to handle so we opt for bags. Our last delivery came in over twenty bags, some of them containing only one item. The bags don’t get wasted and we use them over and over again but we now have far more than is sensible. I am considering getting some tubs or strong carriers so that we can transfer the shopping, without bags, from the tote boxes brought to the front door but the tote boxes contain such a variety of goods from different categories that it would be difficult to do it systematically.

Thanks John. I do hope the supermarkets can come up with a solution that involves less plastic waste. On the other hand, home deliveries might – if they become more popular – be a more efficient way of distributing groceries than us all heading to the supermarkets in our cars.

Elo_D says:
8 October 2019

A bit of a late response, but if it helps the discussion: see the Loop program which is starting in France and the US :https://www.greenbiz.com/article/loops-launch-brings-reusable-packaging-worlds-biggest-brands

I cannot understand why supermarket deliveries don’t just charge a one-off ‘deposit’ for their crates – and exchange them on the next deivery. Wouldn’t that work?

I’m not sure Waitrose is really pulling its weight here. Yes they are trying things out in one store, but where I live we can already buy dry goods from similar racks in a local shop and equally in a market van. In France recently, all supermarkets seem to have compostable bags for fresh fruit and veg etc and at least one had piles of paper bags for customer use – all very easy and cheap. And whilst all this noise goes on, Waitrose still sells some products where two together wrapped in plastic is cheaper than two loose – tissue boxes for example. It would be good to go on a walk around one of their stores with a Waitrose manager pointing out the excessive use of plastic and that their plastic recycling bins are perennially full. I don’t think they understand the urgency of the situation. As an aside, I would love them to state clearly that all their plastic recycling is actually recycled in the UK and not exported. Whilst I am critical of Waitrose, this is not to say the other supermarkets are any better. I doubt it.

J Radford says:
15 June 2019

Having lived in Ontario for many years the Bulk Barn was my go to place for many things. From a tsp of a spice to 3kg of large porridge oats; exotic preserved fruits to teas and coffees, you served yourself. There were poly bags or paper bags to put things into. I am sure if I took in a container they would weigh it before things were put in it …… as happened at the pick-your-own farms. I hope Waitrose will roll out their program to other branches quickly and extend the range of products. Here I have a cupboard of baking leftovers because I didn’t need the entire package for a recipe. Take a look at the “The Bulk Barn With 265 locations from coast to coast – and growing – we are home to more than 4,000 quality products and Canada’s largest zero waste shopping program!”

We are behind the times, J Radford. And did many people suffer stomach complaints from serve-yourself groceries, fruit and veg? I think I can guess the answer.

Years ago, before supermarkets, as has been said elsewhere many products were sold loose – including biscuits. Meat and fish were wrapped in a greaseproof paper, bread in a kind of tissue paper, potatoes went straight in the shopping bag, and so on with paper bags predominating. There was waste – I passed Roses’ cake shop on the way back from my school sports field and they put their damaged cakes (cakes were served loose) on one side and you’d get 2 or 3 for 1d – including cream cakes. Broken biscuits were also cheap.

On a different tack, when you could buy cod and chips for 1/3d the fish was wrapped in a greaseproof paper, the chips in a shallow greaseproof bag, and the whole lot wrapped in newspaper to keep it warm. Now the very good haddock and chips I get (a “small” portion of chips serves 3 and a haddock would do 2) are put in a cardboard box and then in a paper carrier bag. All very convenient, but unnecessary.

Mrs M Horne says:
15 June 2019

Could be a winner all round. Reduces single use plastics; can try small amounts of ingredients which may not be used again; allows for experimentation with unfamiliar ingredients; can take up less cupboard space if buying small amounts; a help to people cooking for one.

There’s certainly a huge number of food stuffs that could be better packaged. There’s not a simple answer, but bringing your own multi-use containers is a good start. It’s a start, but there’s a long way to go yet.

Although it is welcome that Waitrose is looking at reducing packaging waste, I hope they and other retailers will get rid of unnecessary products such as ready-made mashed potato:

Here are some other examples of how supermarkets contribute to the mountain of plastic waste: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/shortcuts/2018/mar/14/is-ready-mashed-potato-britains-most-pointless-pre-made-food

If someone needs the ability to put a quick meal together, or just requires a small portion, then this can be very convenient for them. I think we should concentrate on bottled water, although canned air might be coming along soon for people living in polluted cities 🙁

I suggest we look at all aspects of waste rather than just some of them.

The problem with that is there is too much to tackle at one go, so nothing will get done.

Our present problem, one in the public eye, is excessive packaging and, in particular, plastics that are polluting the planet. It is a major issue to sort out, with huge benefits when we do. We should get stuck into that and deal with it now.

I think we could leave mashed potato for a later day. Incidentally, someone might work out how much electrical energy it takes to make one portion of mash at home, rather than putting ready-made in the microwave for a couple of minutes – but that’s no doubt another Convo.

Ready-made mashed potato is a very good example of plastic waste. In the photo we have a black plastic tray, which is unlikely to be recycled for technical reasons, a plastic film that cannot currently be recycled and a paper sleeve.

It is the packaging that is the issue, not the potato, isn’t it? Perhaps it could be sold without so much packaging and, if necessary, in an aluminium tray that can be repeatedly recycled. Many products need a film cover to keep them fresh; there may be better materials that can be used, even aluminium foil perhaps. I’d suggest these are the primary issues to address first.

If we are not careful we will keep talking about the problem, instead of getting stuck in to dealing with it. It is now at least 2 years since this topic first arose in Convos and we are still going round the same houses. I think Which? have a magazine article coming up in July (is my memory correct?) and, if so, it will be interesting to see whether they have constructive proposals that can be pursued.

I think we are more likely to tackle waste plastic if we look at all aspects rather than picking on the ones we think are most important.

We often discuss the value of education in helping young people manage money and to improve numeracy. With a sea of plastic pollution and other environmental problems I suggest it’s important to encourage young people to drive forward the changes needed to make our society more sustainable. It’s very much their future.

How did tea bags containing plastic ever get onto the market when the problem of plastic particles has been known for a couple of decades?

Which? could work with WRAP and major environmental charities to help bring about change, but those who can achieve most are the supermarket and other food retailers.

Mashed potato is not compulsory. I can easily microwave a few loose potatoes – if I wanted them mashed, I could always mash them afterwards.

Given all the data that supermarkets and others collect about our shopping habits, we should all be aware of the butterfly effect and try to employ it whenever we shop.

I’m very glad that the Yowk does not seem to have made it to the supermarket shelves. Have a look at this video and think about the waste packaging: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5TuPIHQivQ

Which? could work with WRAP and major environmental charities to help bring about change“.

This issue should be coordinated properly, not a fragmented approach. Which? should not campaign on its own but get together with organisations specialist in a particular field. Feeding in Convo contributors proposals should be a part of their role.

Here is the WRAP initiative. wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/The-UK-Plastics-Pact-Roadmap-v2.pdf. However, it seems to focus on plastics, on a roadmap, but seems to lack real proposals on how to minimise unnecessary packaging. It rightly focuses on plastics but focuses largely on reaching recycling targets. That is a good start but I am not convinced that continual recycling is the answer; plastics degrade in that process and cannot often be reused for the original purpose. I don’t want to see applications being “created” for otherwise unemployed plastic waste.

I believe the focus should be on eliminating unnecessary packaging and, where we need packaging, to use continually recyclable or reusable materials and products to help eliminate plastics from this market.

The decline in quality of plastics during recycling is a point that I have been making since we started to discuss how to deal with plastic waste. Other materials including paper, cardboard and glass lose quality when recycled. Foil made from recycled aluminium can have pinhole defects.

We are agreed on a collaborative approach. I can see a case for legislation to encourage better practice. One possibility would be to provide a financial incentive to sell loose goods.

Preferring the carrot to the stick, perhaps awards could be given to companies that are independently judged to make the best contribution to reduced plastic and other waste. After posting a negative comment about the Yowk above I found that the product had won an award for innovation. 🙁 There is a YouTube video.

Aluminium foils thicker than 25 μm (1 mil) are impermeable to oxygen and water. Foils thinner than this become slightly permeable due to minute pinholes caused by the production process.“.

Essentially, aluminium is infinitely recyclable. https://www.ecomena.org/recycling-aluminium/. Recycling requires only 5% of the energy that is needed to produced “brand new” aluminium, and, apparently, 70% of all the aluminium ever produced is still with us (but 30% loss is an awful lot!).

It seems to me a prime candidate to replace much plastic. It might, of course, cost a little more to use in place of plastics, but if we really want to deal with the plastics problem there might be a contribution needed from consumers. It may be more than offset by eliminating unnecessary packaging and the use of customer’s own containers.

I’d be interested to see expert views (mine aren’t) on where and how aluminium could be used to replace plastics. Doing that would be a huge step forward. Whilst we may not solve all the plastics problems at one go a big start is better than prevaricating.

Mashed potato is not compulsory

Everyone in the office laughed at my shock at this comment. I am a big fan of mashed potatoes. Granted I very rarely buy the pre-packaged mash as my own mash is far superior. 😉

wavechange makes a very good point about tea bags and I note that Waitrose, self-appointed champions of all things environmental, are still putting their own brand tea in platstic tea bags – as I discovered after fishing some still whole from the bottom of my compost heap ,and later confirmed by checking the packets.

Dunbar says:
16 June 2019

If we just forget minor the minor problems of transporting/filling, liquids, eggs, fresh meat, frozen foods etc. Take the simple task of getting a plastic bag of rice packed at the factory and eventually ending up in your home.
Large ‘plastic’ containers of rice packed and delivered from the factory to the supermarket, you buy numerous ‘plastic’ containers to fill at the supermarket to take home, the supermarkets and factory’s will not reuse these tubs as it’s uneconomical plus they become discoloured and scratched. Items such as cereal, sugar and flour normally packed in paper will also be transferred into plastic tubs. We can then carry all our plastic tubs in our reusable plastic bag feeling we have saved the planet, in reality it makes no difference. The problem needs to be addressed in India, Philippines, Bangladesh, Africa, Pakistan to name a few where dumping rubbish in the rivers is the norm, it’s estimated that only 10 rivers account for 90% of the oceans plastic pollution. [https://ibanplastic.com/top-10-most-polluted-rivers-in-the-world/].

Much packing can be done in paper – leave flour as it is for example. To carry home vulnerable goods in our own reusable containers seems sensible – plastic ones will last for a long time. Every time I buy eggs I end up with a card carton that I could simply take back and refill from a large tray, but instead have to send it to the council tip. Wine bottles get dumped by the millions when they could be refilled (if the wine is acceptable). There are so many individual measures we could make that would build up to a substantial reduction in waste packaging, and demands on landfill, if we simply make a start.

Dunbar – You make a good point about plastic tubs becoming scratched, and I expect that this could lead to them being replaced by the user. Maybe they would be demoted to non-food uses but sooner or later they will become plastic waste. I have noticed that those who have reusable water bottles often have new shiny ones, though thankfully there are exceptions.

I have a green plastic egg box that my parents used from the mid-1950s:

With a couple of elastic bands it can be used to transport loose eggs. Even if I buy eggs in cardboard cartons, I transfer them to the green box because if pushed to the back of the fridge the cardboard soaks up condensation running down the back, which is normal in automatic defrosting fridges. The green box avoids the problem.

I confess that the eggs in the photo were bought in a supermarket and the cardboard carton put in the recycling bin, but loose eggs are available from the village shop and local farms.

“plastic tubs becoming scratched, and I expect that this could lead to them being replaced by the user.” This does not seem to have affected your egg box.

Supermarkets sell a variety of eggs, so I assume they would need to serve the customer and apply a label for the till operator. I don’t see serving the customer as at all bad. You could buy just 3 large eggs if needed.

I rarely use Waitrose – just distance – but my nearest has a deli and cheese counter, fresh meat and fish, patisserie and bread, all staffed where you can buy as much or as little as you need, and had loose vegetable and fruit (weigh and price-label yourself). The Oxford initiative is seemingly just extending the products included. Not that radical but hopefully others will follow suit.

The eggs box is somewhat abraded but that does not matter because the eggs are protected by eggshells and it can be hand-washed if an egg gets broken.

I rarely visit Waitrose because of distance, but a friend does some shopping there for me. There is less packaging than pre-packaged equivalents and a greater choice than equivalent counters in the more local Morrisons and Tesco stores.

Although in principle I agree, of course, to reducing packaging, I am concerned about cross-contamination. I have serious, life-threateningly allergies, and have seen Waitrose proposing ‘pick and mix’ style frozen fruit, for instance. I have no confidence that users will not use the same utensil for different items. That could cause cross-contamination capable of killing those who get anaphylaxis. This would make even more foods we would be unable to purchase, when restricted already.

Gosh I hadn’t thought of that. Good point. That’s why a discussion is helpful. Maybe somebody could come up with an idea to solve the cross-contamination issue.

This approach may simply not suit everyone, such as Jenny’s problem. But if it works for the majority, and there are still choices that the minority can use, then well worth pursuing. I hope peer pressure, and consumer response, will spread the supermarket initiative trialled by Waitrose.

This is a very good point that I hadn’t considered. A balance needs to be struck between encouraging sustainable practices for people who can do it and making sure people with particular needs aren’t put at risk or disadvantaged. It’s a good one to pose to Waitrose.

Severe food allergies are a growing problem and the Food Standards Agency often reports problems with undeclared ingredients in food when these are known allergens.

Producing factory-packed food eliminates the possibility that customers could cross-contaminate foods during self-service. Cutting down the use of plastic and other materials is highly desirable but does pose some difficult challenges for the companies involved.

C Fraser says:
21 June 2019

We have a similar challenge in our family where the nut oil gets spread around the shop. We can no longer visit the local shop in our village as a result due to fear of an anaphylactic reaction.

Lily says:
29 June 2019

I have written to Waitrose on this point. They are looking to provide a full response. Maybe others could write as well?

Surely one answer is to avoid products sold loose that might become contaminated, and stick to pre-packaged ones.

Plastic packaging is something we have to minimise, and fast, before we do yet more environmental damage.

Cross contamination (and other things that can get into open containers – yuk-) is best avoided by having dispensers that have a ‘tap’ at the bottom. This avoids customers tipping back anytime they got a bit too much, and any foreign objects being introduced, either maliciously or accidentally. Designers need to get on top of this – it is a solvable problem. Open containers for dried foods just cannot meet high enough hygiene standards and self-service from this type of container should really NOT be allowed.

I would like to see all shops reduce the plastic mountain, although I think a crucial point is being missed here. Whilst we all do our best to recycle plastics, the majority of councils aren’t melting it down for re-use but are just shipping it abroad to third-world countries who don’t have the infrastructure to do so – hence so much plastic ends up in the sea. Not only do supermarkets need to massively reduce their plastics packaging, but local councils also need to be pro-active and return the used plastics to the plastic-producing companies in this country for recycling.

C Fraser says:
21 June 2019

Great ideas, unfortunately it doesn’t work for people who have anaphylactic reactions to nut oil etc. We used to love going into the Market garden and cafe however can no longer visit there.

Trisha Todd says:
24 June 2019

I never buy from open containers after getting very ill after someone coughed near an open stand. Hygiene must be of utmost importance.

A good article in July Which? on plastic packaging and supermarkets.

We need to drastically reduce the use of plastics. I was a little concerned that in the investigation there seems to be an assumption we must continue with plastic, but aim to recycle more. The WRAP aims were to use 100% recyclable plastics by 2025, but accepted only 70% of that will actually get to the recyclers. 30% of 800 000 tonnes a year of plastics going to waste is an unacceptable amount of pollution.

I hope, therefore, this investigation will be followed up by one looking at the consequential issues.

Plastic degrades each time it is recycled. So while some is blended with virgin material for bottles and trays, for example, other will be less useful and forced into products like garden furniture and artificial wood, just to use it. I think this is avoiding the real issue of reducing our use of plastics and the waste and pollution they create.
I’d like to see a campaign to see other materials that are fully recyclable used for packaging – aluminium trays and foil for example, glass, card, paper. But I’d also like to see more emphasis on minimising packaging to essential only, selling products loose wherever possible whether direct into a shopping bag, into paper or card containers, and into reusable containers provided by the retailer and the customer.

Another 800 000 tonnes of packaging seems to be used around Christmas in the toy industry, much of it discarded. That also needs to be tackled. There needs to be a disincentive to wasteful unnecessary packaging, particularly plastic.

Martyn says:
29 June 2019

Interestingly, with regards to black plastic trays, man from veolia when talking on radio Shropshire said there machinery could sort & process; presumably just idleness or profit incentivisation that drives not taking it

Chris says:
30 June 2019

There is a “Refill Larder” operating from a Florist’s in Teddington that provides a range of cereals, grains, nuts, dried fruit, washing liquids and washing up liquids. We take glass, plastic or metal jars/bottles/containers of any size to be refilled and charged by weight, so it doesn’t matter what you (re-)use. It’s a brlliant scheme which should be simple to replicate in a supermarket, although I’m happy to continue with the human scale Refill Larder in Teddington.

Plastic waste is a major problem but we are going about it in the wrong way. All these efforts to reduce waste will fail. What is needed is each family to have a plastic digester. Anaerobic digesters are good but limited. What is needed is some proper research into how each household can digest the plastic.

Anaerobic digesters are an alternative to composing for green waste and not plastics. About the only plastics that can be composted at home are based on starch, such as those supplied by councils for food waste.

We have seen how permanent plastics are, and how difficult it is even to compost so-called compostable plastics unless conditions are good. We must drastically reduce our use of single-use plastics; no other choice. Alternatives are available, from nil or minimal packaging to materials that can be usefully recycled and reused.

From going from 3 bags a week to be recycled to nil for one person, that will be a challenge