Why We Need to Remove Single-Use Plastic from Supply Chains

How to head for a sustainable, cost-effective supply chain future 

With over 8 million tons of plastic ending up in the oceans each year, businesses around the world are waking up to the fact that they need to review their corporate responsibility and address the environmental impact of their supply chains.

There are benefits to be had from raising your ‘green’ game. According to a UK and US-based survey for change agency, Futerra, 88% of consumers want brands to help them live sustainably, yet 43% feel companies make it harder. Increasingly, businesses will need to keep up with proactive competitors who are actively cutting back on their plastic use. 

Although reducing and replacing plastic can present challenges, there can also be cost benefits to avoiding waste. Even without today’s focus on sustainability, disposable packaging that only has a short useful life should surely be a thing of the past. 

Find out how several major commercial players are aiming to make a difference by changing their practices and helping their customers to live more sustainably.

The power and potential of retail giants

Initiatives from the High Street and online indicate the positive influence large chains could have by leveraging their considerable share of the market to reduce single use plastic. (They could also influence their competitors).

John Lewis and Waitrose

Department store chain John Lewis’s recent trial in its Oxford branch has explored ways to cut back on or replace plastic. One example is replacing bubble wrap with recyclable wrapping for in-store china and glass purchases. The store is also trying out a recyclable ‘click and collect’ bag for one in four online orders (staff will offer to retain and recycle cardboard and single-use plastic from the remainder).

These moves sit within a wider John Lewis Oxford sustainability pilot programme set to continue into 2020. It includes offering ‘eco slots’ for delivery (based on vans already being in the customer’s delivery area).

John Lewis Head of Sustainability Stephen Cawley said that the trial was in response to customer feedback and that “recycling packaging is key for them”. 

The brand has made reducing waste a two-pronged campaign, recognising the importance of consumer habits as well as in-store practices. Its BeautyCycle scheme – successfully adopted across over 30 shops – provides an incentive for card holders to return recyclable packaging in exchange for gift vouchers. 

Sister company Waitrose is also trialling packaging-free food and drinks, as well as the use of refills, to test consumer interest and the viability of this option. The initiative has been extended in the first store and rolled out to several others in the same region, based on ‘an overwhelmingly positive response’. 


Tesco supermarkets will also attempt to remove a billion pieces of plastic from their supply chain by the end of 2020. This includes plastic trays, plastic straws, wrapping for cards and clothes, fruit/vegetable packing bags and various product lids.

Importantly, Tesco is tackling suppliers as one way to improve its sustainable supply tactics. In August 2019, it held meetings with 1,500 suppliers to explain that packaging will now be a key part of deciding which products it stocks. The chain will work with suppliers to minimise the use of unavoidable packaging, but plans to avoid the use of non-recyclable packaging materials altogether.
Dave Lewis, CEO of Tesco, has commented that the measures are designed to “achieve real scale in our efforts to tackle plastic”. The brand may be able to make a significant impact by introducing comprehensive measures and attempting to solve some problems at the source.

Online retailers

It’s not just consumers and big chains who desire change regarding plastics and packaging. Online retailers have highlighted this area as one where they can cut costs. Services that offer fresh food and rapid delivery are under pressure to keep their model achievable; avoiding single-use plastic bags and packaging can help them increase efficiency. 

BITO is an example of a packaging supplier that has redesigned its packaging in order to meet demand from online sellers. Its latest new container is designed to ensure undamaged food and secure storage for items like upright bottles. It also aims to assist with optimal use of van space, using as few bags as possible and leaving storage space for empty containers. The new container can transport a variety of product types in the same box by using EPP inserts to create different temperature zones. Fewer containers are needed per customer, so this is particularly useful for smaller orders.

Read more about recycling, reuse and remanufacturing to help satisfy consumer demand in this blog post.

How Unipart worked with the Sky supply chain, cutting single-use plastic to just two tons

Sky is one major firm that has committed to highlighting the issue of ocean plastic. With 127 metric tons of single-use plastic in its supply chain in September 2017, the company wanted to find innovative ways to reduce that amount.

In July of that year, Unipart partnered with Sky on their Sky Ocean Rescue initiative. Sky was looking to eradicate single-use plastic from its supply chain by 2020, but was aware of the challenges the project faced. Firstly, plastic is significantly cheaper than currently available alternatives. Second, there are no alternatives to plastic pallet wrap suitable for this task. 

As an organisation aiming to remove plastic from its supply chain, you may recognise the need to change mindsets, while the pressure to remain cost-effective can make embracing sustainability even more difficult. 

To tackle such challenges, Unipart’s ‘innovation workshops’ engaged with teams throughout Sky’s business, including suppliers. We looked to remove packaging where possible and if not  for packaging alternatives, as well as ways to offset the additional costs involved. As a result, we were able to help Sky get their single-use plastic from 127 metric tons to just two tons using alternatives such as these:

  • paper instead of plastic bags for stock shipments
  • reusables for waste returns
  • bespoke boxes with dual seals for returns of unwanted or faulty products
  • new Jiffy Bags made with environmentally friendly paper padding
  • paper tape and specialist water-activated paper tape to replace traditional sticky tape
  • pallet socks and pallet lids to protect pallet loads instead of shrink wrapping
  • trials of cardboard pallet sleeves.

Looking to the future

Currently, plastic’s protective qualities and versatility mean it still has a firm place in the supply chain. Alternatives must be genuinely environmentally friendly, rather than simply appearing to solve the problem; negative examples are those containing non-biodegradable ingredients or using such high levels of water as to render them an unacceptable option. 

Happily, the precedent set by some retailers and major manufacturers indicates that reducing plastic use is possible, even for ambitious targets. To be successful in this aim, supply chains need to keep sustainability as a constant focus. 

From increasing recycling and take-back schemes, changing sources and suppliers, to redesigning your supply chain operations, there is plenty that can be done. Prominent brands like Waitrose have seen customers thanking them for it, while the apparent hesitations over cost could well be off-set by the avoidance of waste. Get in touch with us if you’d like specialist advice on how to make your supply chain more efficient and sustainable.

Want to know more about how supply chains can improve their environmental impact?? Read more articles like this on our Supply Chain Insights page.