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FactCheck: Are supermarkets required to accept plastic packaging, if you leave it at the checkout?

Supermarkets have pledged that they take extensive efforts at recycling, but do they have to accept if you want to leave them behind?

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IRELAND’S ISSUES WHEN it comes to dealing with climate change are well known. 

Minister for Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton said late last year that the country is “far off course” and “way off target”. He said a “huge step up” is needed from government to play its part in cutting emissions.

The issue came to the fore last week with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar saying he was cutting down on his meat intake due to health and climate concerns. This was followed by a damning report by the EAT-Lancet Commission on how red meat and sugar consumption must halve by 2050 to save the planet.

Another area where we can cut down on the effect we have on the environment is our use of plastics.

Last year, Bruton’s predecessor Denis Naughten wrote to all supermarket CEOs and called on them to reduce their use of non-recyclable plastic packaging for fruit and vegetables.

Plastic packaging

In this FactCheck, we’ll look at the policy of supermarkets when it comes to plastic waste, and whether or not they’re required to take the packaging you leave at the checkout.

Last week, novelist Sinead Moriarty urged people to leave unnecessary plastic at the supermarket and said “they have to take it”. “We need to stop the overuse of plastic packaging,” she added. 

Last year, an initiative from Friends of the Earth urged people to leave their unwanted plastic packaging at their local supermarket for a ‘Shop and Drop’ day of action. 

In response, supermarkets made provisions for people to dump their packaging in store on the day.

Friends of the Earth’s head of mobilisation  Meaghan Carmody said: “The supermarkets know we are coming and most are putting out bins for people for people to put the unwanted packaging in. Now we need them to make lasting changes that give customers an easy way to choose less plastic in future.”

So what’s the story here? Can you leave your plastic packaging at the checkout, and do supermarkets have to take it?

Packaging

To initially check whether there was a legal basis for supermarkets being required to accept plastic packaging and recycling it, TheJournal.ie contacted the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. 

A spokesperson said that the obligations for all producers of all packaging, including retailers, are set out in the European Union (Packaging) Regulations 2014. 

“Their obligations vary on the basis of the amount of packaging they place on the market and on whether or not they are a member of the national packaging compliance scheme, Repak,” the spokesperson said.

A major producer is a producer who places in excess of 10 tonnes of packaging on the market a year and has an annual turnover of more than €1m (Regulation 4(3) refers).  Such producers are obliged to take back packaging from customers (Regulation (10(1) refers).
However, producers who are members of Repak are not obliged to do so (see Regulation 17). Their obligations in this regard are carried out on their behalf by the Scheme, which provides funding for the collection of the domestic recycling bin.

Let’s break that down.

So, when a company produces more than 10 tonnes of packaging a year and has an annual turnover of over €1 million, they must take packaging away from customers.

But, if you’re a member of Repak, this provision doesn’t apply. So a member of Repak doesn’t have to take packaging from their customers. 

And it so happens that many of Ireland’s supermarkets are members of Repak – a not-for-profit set up by Irish businesses to help coordinate the recycling of products they produce.

repak

Supermarkets aren’t the only contributors to Repak. Members also include the likes of Diageo, Eason, Dulux, Glanbia, McDonalds, Microsoft, Primark and Unilever.

These companies produce packaging and plastic waste in various forms, and all are charged a fee to be a member of Repak.

Repak says the fee paid by its members is used to fund the collection and recovery of waste packaging through registered recovery operators (the people who come and collect your rubbish for sorting and separation) across Ireland.

So, through the likes of green bins getting collected, supermarkets who are members of Repak are helping to fund the recycling of the packaging they create – since packaging used by consumers will end up in green bins. 

So the likes of Tesco, Lidl, Aldi, Dunnes and Super Valu are contributing towards this recycling by being a Repak member.

Supermarkets’ say

TheJournal.ie also contacted some of the major supermarkets to ask what their policy was in this regard, whether a customer could leave plastic packaging at the checkout, and we received responses from Tesco and Aldi.

A spokesperson for Tesco said the company is “working hard to reduce the use of plastics through working with suppliers and by minimising plastic packaging in Tesco own label products”. 

The spokesperson added: “We know that packaging is a growing concern for our customers and so we’re keeping this under review.

Our focus is on reducing plastic packaging in Tesco own label products and we’re working with our suppliers to stimulate design innovation. We are a member of Repak and we are already funding the recycling of packaging consumers buy in store.

An Aldi spokesperson said that it had a wide-ranging packaging and plastics reduction plan that was being implemented across its Irish operations.

“We have committed to ensuring that 100% of our own label packaging will be recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2022 and achieving a 50% reduction (relative to 2015 levels), in packaging across our own-label products by 2025,” the spokesperson said.

It is also our intention to discontinue the sale of single use plastics from our own label range this year.

Late last year, Lidl said it was also planning to stop selling single-use plastics like those for fruit and veg.

While saying they are committed to reducing the use of single-use plastics and indicating measures they are taking to fund the recycling of packaging through their commitments to Repak, the retailers stopped short of saying that they must accept plastics from customers in store.

The retailers who responded to our queries did not directly answer whether, as a rule, they accepted plastics from customers in their stores.

Thomas Burke, the director of Retail Ireland – a lobby group that is part of Ibec – told TheJournal.ie that Irish retailers had been working hard over recent months to review their use of plastic in the packaging and transport of products they sell.

“In response to consumer requests and in line with environmental best practice, retailers have made a range of commitments to ensure all plastic packaging placed on the market is recyclable within the coming years and conforms with emerging legislation in the area as laid out in the EU Directive on Single Use Plastics,” he said.

However, Burke added: “Retail Ireland would be concerned at the prospect of any dumping of plastic packaging in our member’s stores.”

He said that its members already fund the collection and recycling of all of the plastic packaging they place on the market through Repak.

“Amongst other initiatives, this funding pays for the nationwide kerbside collection of household green bins for recyclable materials,” he said.

Verdict

Many supermarkets have said they’re committed to tackling the issue of plastic packaging but there is no provision within the law requiring them to accept customers’ packaging in store as they are members of Repak.

But while they may not be required to take it, there is already a precedent for them doing so, as last year’s initiative from Friends of the Earth demonstrated.

So, when it comes down to it, it’s a case that while supermarkets don’t technically have to accept packaging that customers wish to recycle right then and there at the checkout under the law, for example, they do help to provide the means whereby its customers can recycle their products.

As the case of the initiative last year shows, they can choose to offer those facilities.

The claim was that supermarkets have to accept plastic packaging from their products in their stores. While not obliged to accept it specifically in their stores, being a member of Repak means that they pay a fee which goes towards the recycling of the products they produce.

As a result, we rate this claim: Mostly FALSE

As per our verdict guide, this means “There is an element of truth in the claim, but it is missing critical details or context. Or, the best available evidence weighs against the claim.”

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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