Want your fruit and veg without the plastic? You’ll have to pay more

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Shoppers who are trying to cut down on plastic packaging are being charged more for fresh produce than those who buy packaged goods, with a new survey showing that supermarkets charge more by the kilo for fruits and vegetables sold without plastic.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society sent volunteers to 180 supermarkets across the country to survey their plastic footprint.

Shoppers are being charged more when they buy loose produce, with supermarkets offering cheaper prices for fruit and vegetables in plastic packaging.

“In a concerning finding, 78 per cent of volunteers conducting shopper surveys for this audit reported that plastic-packaged fresh produce was cheaper than loose produce, when comparing price per kilogram,” the report said.

“This price discrepancy not only incentivises customers to choose plastic packaged options, it penalises those who try to shop plastic-free. ”

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said the reforms she is leading will force suppliers and retailers to comply with “strong regulations”.

“I don’t think we should be wrapping fresh produce like bananas and zucchini in plastic,” Plibersek said.

“Business must also step up and take greater responsibility for the 6.7 million tonnes of packaging they place on the market every year.”

Australia is the second-highest generator of single-use plastic waste per person after Singapore, according to the Minderoo Foundation.

More than 14 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Plastics entangle and smother marine animals, are often fatally swallowed by fish, birds and mammals, and break down to create chemical pollution.

It’s estimated one million seabirds die a year from eating plastic floating in the ocean, which they mistake for food. WWF estimates 100,000 marine mammals die each year after they have eaten or been snared in plastic.

The Marine Conservation Society’s audit report also said major supermarkets have set voluntary packaging standards to reduce plastic packaging, but they are nearly always applied only to home brand lines and not third-party suppliers.

“Aldi has some enforceable requirements where, if they receive packaging from a supplier that has prepackaged straws and cutlery, for example, then they will return it,” the society’s plastics campaign manager Shane Cucow said.

“But none of the other supermarkets are currently enforcing those guidelines on suppliers.”

Aldi says in addition to removing plastic straws and cutlery packaged within products like juice boxes and pre-made salads, it has achieved a 22 per cent reduction in plastic on fresh produce.

The report said supermarkets should be required to offer loose fresh produce at cost-competitive prices.

Cucow said higher prices for loose produce were widespread.

“We had surveys returned across all of the four major chains and it happened in all of them.”

“Given supermarkets are not paying for the cost of packaging on these products, it is concerning that environmentally conscious consumers are expected to pay more, particularly during a cost of living crisis.”

Australia’s environment ministers announced in June they will move to regulate plastic packaging use in 2024 after concluding voluntary targets and design guidelines to reduce plastics weren’t working.

The rules will make sure packaging waste is minimised, and that any packaging used is designed to be recovered, reused, recycled, or reprocessed.

The state and federal ministers are expected to release plans for regulating packaging waste in the coming weeks after their meeting on Friday.

A Woolworths spokesperson said the supermarket was increasing the use of recycled plastic in own-brand packaging.

“We use around 9000 tonnes of recycled plastic per annum in our packaging to reduce the creation of new plastic,” they said.

Coles has trialled reusable boxes for online orders in Tasmania, and in South Australia, customers can bring their own container for some deli items.

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