Supermarkets may be phasing out single-use plastic bags, but plastic still litters the aisles.

The Herald on Sunday visited New Zealand's three biggest supermarkets, armed with a shopping list of 17 kitchen staples or household items.

Our mission: can you shop without buying single-use plastic or any plastic at all? And, would the supermarkets let us use our own containers, jars and reusable bags?

The list avoided things where a plastic-free alternative was available, for example, instead of frozen vegetables, we opted for fresh, loose veges. Or leaving cleaning products on the shelf in lieu of home-made remedies.

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We searched for cardboard and paper alternatives which only take a couple of months to break down in soil, while plastic can take more than 100 years.

From the 17 items, we were able to purchase 13 plastic free from the three stores: PAK'nSAVE Royal Oak, Countdown Greenlane and New World Remuera.

Three items - a kilogram of cheese, two litres of milk and a packet of unflavoured crackers, could not be purchased without plastic.

And for tampons, it was easy to find packets in cardboard rather than plastic, but inside the box, they were individually wrapped in plastic.

Although two - at Countdown and New World - were wrapped in bioplastic, which is made from plant starches and takes just three to six months to break down rather then several hundred years.

Bamboo toothbrushes were available at all of the supermarkets, but New World's option was covered in plastic wrapping.

Vegetables, lettuce and fruit were easy to buy loose, without packaging but at Countdown, the only bunch of bananas available had a small plastic label unnecessarily around it.

Meat was able to be requested directly from the butcher, as long as you take the cut of meat available on any given week. The butchers at all three stores wrapped the meat in paper, as the deli staff did for ham.

And the checkout staff at all of the supermarkets were happy to accommodate when we put bulk food items like chocolate and pasta in our own containers.

To avoid creating more waste in the form of stickers on the containers to write the bulk food bin number, we put the numbers in our phone and told the checkout operator.

As much as 91 per cent of plastic is not recycled and with mass production in the past 60 years, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic now exists, according to National Geographic.

Of that, 9 per cent is actually recyclable.

New Zealanders use around 1.6 billion single-use plastic bags every year, which end up in landfills, litter, or oceans, where they can choke animals or break down and enter our own food chain when fish swallow them.

Countdown was committed to removing and reducing unnecessary plastic and packing but plastic was still the preferred and often most convenient packaging option for certain products for food safety, transportation and freshness, a spokeswoman said.

Larger quantities of cheese and milk were good examples.

"Over the past year we have removed 70 tonnes of unnecessary packaging from our produce section, including removing plastic packaging from bananas - this alone removed 15.8 tonnes of plastic.

"The produce section is an area of focus for us with more changes planned," the spokeswoman said.

Herald reporter Ryan Dunlop wanted to see if he could grocery shop without buying any single-use plastic. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Herald reporter Ryan Dunlop wanted to see if he could grocery shop without buying any single-use plastic. Photo / Jason Oxenham

In June this year Countdown, Pak'nSave and New World joined a New Zealand industry pledge towards using 100 per cent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging in our own brands by 2025 or earlier.

A spokeswoman for Foodstuffs NZ, the parent company of New World and Pak'nSave, some products, said the crackers on our shopping list, didn't stay fresh without plastic but there were options available.

"Let's be honest, nobody wants a soft cracker," said head of external relations Antoinette Laird.

"If you don't want to take the plastic packaging home, our suggestion is leave it in our soft plastic recycling bins which are readily available in all of our New World and Pak'nSave stores."

Suppliers were constantly reviewing and updating their packaging in direct response to consumer sentiment, she said.

There were alternatives to plastic 2l milk bottles, she said.

"With milk you could have purchased cartons of milk, though because of packaging limitations, 2 litres is pretty heavy for a carton, you would have needed to buy two 1 litre cartons – some stores also offer milk in glass bottles but this varies store to store."

And cheese wrapped in plastic could be avoided by visiting the store's deli. But the branch the Herald on Sunday visited didn't hold unwrapped cheese in its deli.

Foodstuffs had a host of plastic reduction initiatives underway, including trialling BYO containers at New World Howick, which was due to extend to more stores shortly.

The store's produce departments were also due for an upgrade that would do away with plastic for fruit and vegetables.

Called Project Naked, produce departments that were being upgraded or in newly built stores would have special misting systems to keep fruit and veg fresh and in "top notch" condition without plastic.

Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage said alternatives to packaging food in single-use plastic were becoming increasingly available.

"It is a case of consumers, food growers and manufacturers, retailers, and Government working to make the changes needed to help our environment."

"People can use their purchasing power to make it clear to retailers and manufacturers that they want to reduce waste and eliminate single-use plastics which end up in the landfill," Sage said.

The Government was working with industry to find more ways to ensure products we consume are designed to be reused time and again, or that their materials recovered and made into something new.

"This supports making the shift to a 'circular economy' where waste is designed out of the system and we don't waste resources by sending them to landfill or polluting the environment."

Undercover plastic shopper

Reporter Ryan Dunlop visited New Zealand's three biggest supermarkets, armed with a shopping list and our own containers, jars and reusable bags to see if he could shop without buying any single-use plastic (or any plastic at all).

The shopping list

Mushrooms, bananas, lettuce, milk, loaf of bread, meat (pork or lamb), cheese, ham, toothbrush, toothpaste, toilet paper, tampons, butter, crackers, pasta or rice, chocolate

Pak'nSave, Royal Oak

The first shop: Royal Oak Pak'nSave. We were unable to find any alternatives or plastic-free options for milk, block cheese, crackers and toothpaste. Photo / Jason Oxenham
The first shop: Royal Oak Pak'nSave. We were unable to find any alternatives or plastic-free options for milk, block cheese, crackers and toothpaste. Photo / Jason Oxenham

The good

I was able to put mesclun lettuce mix in my own plastic container, mushrooms in a brown paper bag and bananas in a bunch stayed loose in the trolley.

I struggled to find rice not in a plastic wrap but found an alternative in orzo, in the bulk food bins, where I also found chocolate.

Staff were happy to give me lamb chops from the butchery in brown paper, shaved ham in white paper, and I got a loaf of bread from the bakery in a paper bag.

Butter came wrapped in paper.

I bought a bamboo toothbrush which came in cardboard.

The bad

There was no block of cheese, milk or crackers that didn't come in plastic.

I went for an eco-friendly tube of toothpaste, but it was still plastic.

Pak'nSave was the only supermarket that didn't offer toilet paper wrapped in paper, and tampons came in a cardboard box but were individually wrapped in plastic.

Countdown, Greenlane

Our second shop: Countdown Greenlane. Banana's came with a plastic band around them and tampons, although bio-degradable, came individually wrapped in plastic. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Our second shop: Countdown Greenlane. Banana's came with a plastic band around them and tampons, although bio-degradable, came individually wrapped in plastic. Photo / Jason Oxenham

The good

Vegetables, lamb chops and a loaf of bread were no problem and toilet paper was available in singles wrapped in white paper.

Pasta was not available in the bulk bins so I opted for the only brand which came in cardboard and no plastic, San Remo's cannelloni.

I bought a bamboo toothbrush in cardboard.

The tampons were individually wrapped in bioplastic, which is made from plant starches and takes just three to six months to break down.

Like Pak'nSave we found chocolate easily in the bulk food bins.

Butter was paper wrapped.

The bad

Plastic-free cheese, crackers and milk were not an option.

The eco-friendly toothpaste brand was still a plastic tube.

Bananas all had a small plastic label unnecessarily around them.

New World, Remuera

The final shop: New World Remuera. New World was the only one of the three stores not to offer a completely plastic-free toothbrush. Photo / Jason Oxenham
The final shop: New World Remuera. New World was the only one of the three stores not to offer a completely plastic-free toothbrush. Photo / Jason Oxenham

The good

Vegetables came by the head, bananas by the bunch and mushrooms in a brown paper bag.

Pork loins came straight from the butcher and ham from the deli wrapped in paper.

Pasta was also not in the bulk bins but San Remo's cannelloni came in cardboard. Chocolate caramel chunks came from the bulk bins.

A loaf of bread straight from the bakery that could be sliced up for sandwiches, and butter came in paper.

The tampons again were wrapped in bioplastic, and toilet paper came wrapped in brown paper in packs of four.

The bad

Plastic-wrapped milk, cheese and crackers, appeared again.

The same eco-friendly toothpaste came in a plastic tube.

A bamboo toothbrush was offered but it was covered in plastic wrapping.