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How UAE supermarkets are tackling plastic pollution

It's all about single-use plastics!

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October 20 2019
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Supermarkets have been facing a challenge of over-packaged food or single-use plastic bags and so on. Environmentally conscious shoppers have also been expressing their discontent in recent times and now many supermarkets have started responding by looking for sustainable alternatives. Swaliha Shanavas takes a look at the measures that some of the popular supermarkets in the UAE are taking to cut down on single-use plastics, plus other responsible initiatives that help contribute to a more sustainable shopping experience.

The debate over the elimination of single-use plastics is getting stronger across the world. Over the past two years we have seen various sectors taking initiatives to cut down on the use of single-use plastics. Country Manager of Carrefour UAE, Majid Al Futtaim Retail[/caption] Several entities including corporate giants, manufacturers, packaging companies and so on have taken positive steps or announced their intention to reduce the use of single-use plastics. The same is the case in the UAE and 2019 is a year that has seen widespread bans on single-use plastic items.

For instance, Dubai Airports recently announced it will ban single-use plastics from consumer spaces with effect from January 1, 2020. Similarly, various airlines in the emirates have put forth initiatives to reduce single use plastics.  Supermarkets are also beginning to address the challenge of single-use plastics and various measures are being taken by some major supermarkets to tackle this issue. They are addressing other environmental issues as well, putting in place sustainable measures to improve the overall shopping experience.

Current trends

Recent retail customer trends indicate growing awareness with regard to sustainability and environmental issues, particularly problems related to plastics. Touching upon the trends regarding single-use plastics in the region’s retail sector, particularly in supermarkets, Philippe Peguilhan, Country Manager of Carrefour UAE at Majid Al Futtaim Retail says customers are growing increasingly environmentally conscious and some are actively looking at ways to shop in a more sustainable manner.

“A recent study we conducted found that 72% of Carrefour customers in the UAE are aware of the harmful effects of plastic bags and 89% of them would consider using reusable bags for grocery shopping. As a leading retailer, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to make it easier for customers to opt for eco-friendly alternatives instead of single-use plastics, by offering a wide selection of reusable bags and introducing dedicated green checkout counters among other initiatives,” he notes.

One of the trends they are starting to see is a reduction in the use of single-use plastics among the food retailers in the region, says Smitha Vijay, QHSE Operations Manager, Choithrams. Campaigns focusing on plastic reduction are being conducted by retailers to curb the usage of single use plastics, she adds.

So, is the region ready for a ban on single-use plastics?

Customers are gradually beginning to realise that if they do not make conscious choices today, it might be too late in the future, says Philippe Peguilhan. “Our responsibility in this regard is to use every opportunity at our disposal to educate customers about the importance of acting with our planet in mind. Ultimately, however, we all need to buy in so that together we can curb the use of single-use plastics on a wide scale and create meaningful and lasting change.”

Always one step ahead and a pioneer in many fields, UAE can surely implement a complete ban on single-use plastics “with coordinated efforts from the government and all players in the industry, however in a phased manner,” Smitha Vijay opines. According to the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, the average UAE resident uses 1,182 plastic bags per year. To protect the planet, “we must aim and plan high so that our future generations will benefit from our natural resources,” she says. Every bit counts so every individual needs to contribute towards such initiatives collectively by practising at each and every home, she remarks also adding that major corporates can make a bigger impact by leading by example.

Key initiatives

Leading supermarkets have introduced certain initiatives to encourage customers to decrease their reliance on single-use plastic bags and also make the business more sustainable. Carrefour is constantly exploring ways to support waste reduction and reduce its environmental impact “as dictated by Majid Al Futtaim’s overarching vision to become Net Positive in carbon and water by 2040,” says Philippe Peguilhan. From an operational perspective, they have implemented Building Management Systems in several locations which will help reduce their electricity usage by five percent over the years, he adds.

“Last April, we opened our 100th store and most sustainable hypermarket yet. Located in City Centre Masdar, the branch sets the gold standard in eco-friendly design featuring a state-of-the-art refrigeration system, solar panels, high efficiency cooling units and is also completely free of single-use plastic bags,” notes the Country Manager, Carrefour UAE.  Apart from this, they have “long been a leader in raising awareness about the harmful effects of single-use plastic bags”, he states, adding that Carrefour was in fact “the first retailer in the region to introduce reusable bags, doing so more than a decade ago.”

They recently refreshed their line-up of reusable bags under the theme “Connecting with Nature”. The bags are available in multiple sizes and designs “to suit a range of tastes and preferences” and they have also incentivised customers to bring their reusable bags along on each trip by introducing dedicated green checkout counters, and by holding buy one get one promotion, bonus points for MyClub loyalty members and more, he explains.

Grandiose Supermarket has also introduced various initiatives to make their business more sustainable, most importantly they have taken positive steps with regard to single-use plastic bags and even introduced ‘refill stations’ to ensure customers become more conscious in choosing sustainable alternatives. “At Grandiose, we have removed all single-use plastic bags from our checkout counters, providing customers with reusable bag options, along with paper bags for their groceries,” says Fabrice le Boulenger, CEO of Grandiose Supermarket.  “So, consumers don’t have a choice, whilst shopping with us, but to use environmentally friendly and reusable bags, which will instill a sense of awareness and drive a positive habit in their daily lives.”  

Moreover, they have a ‘refill section’ for nuts and many products in their stores, and “we recommend that customers bring their own jars/reusable containers to use while shopping with us, that way they are also saving time while shopping and reducing usage of plastic bags,” the CEO comments.

Choithrams’ sustainability strategy is ‘Planet 7 Sustainability Plan’. In their retail operations and supply chain, they focus primarily on three environmental clusters namely waste, water and energy, says Smitha Vijay. “All our newly joined employees are inducted in sustainability basics along with QHSE standards. They attend sustainability awareness sessions in water savings, energy reduction and waste minimisation (eliminating/reducing cling film wraps in certain fruit and vegetable items) initiatives. We achieved waste minimisation by waste recycling (plastic, paper, cartons and wood) and waste reduction initiatives.” 

They have started selling reusable jute bags called “Bags for Life” to their customers to encourage the reduction of single-use plastic bags. “We selectively source and encourage the sale of bio-degradable plates and other disposable cutlery in our stores. Bio-degradable containers have been introduced in our fresh salad counters. We also collaborate with local manufacturers and MNCs to collect re-usable plastic for recycling,” says the QHSE Operations Manager highlighting their initiatives to reduce the use of single-use plastics.

A major part of supermarket waste is organic waste in the form of food trimmings, expired food, near expiry and damaged foods. At present Choithrams is analysing the availability and suitability of installing a composting machine in their retail operation as it is the key to waste reduction, says Smitha Vijay. “We recycle huge quantities of unfit and expired food through Dubai Municipality approved recyclers to reduce waste to landfill. We are also a partner of UAE Food Bank and donate to this noble initiative food that is safe to consume.”

Major challenges in implementing these initiatives and customer response

While many customers know that their shopping habits need to change, it isn’t a shift that can occur overnight nor should we expect it to, says Philippe Peguilhan. Carrefour has introduced several initiatives to not only make it easier, but also rewarding to make sustainable choices, which their customers have responded positively to, he states.

“While it will take some time before it becomes second nature for customers to bring their reusable bags along on each trip, we remain committed to continuing to raise awareness on the topic for the sake of the environment and the communities in which we operate in. One caveat, however, is that this cause is a shared responsibility and therefore one that requires action from all segments of society and not retailers alone,” he underscores.

In Fabrice le Boulenger’s view, one of the many challenges is education. He says there is a lack of awareness and consciousness with regard to the benefits of recycling and the environmental advantages of ecofriendly initiatives. What Grandiose is trying to do is to create a momentum that they hope will trigger other players in the market to follow suit. “People still want to use plastic bottles, and plastic bags, as to them it is what they have been used to – and the easiest choice available too,” he comments.

Since Grandiose launched their operations in the UAE, they have been doing regular screenings and surveys with customers which have shown that the initiatives have been very well perceived by them, says the CEO. “Customers are loving the system we have implemented and are always returning to shop with us. What excites them most is that they feel part of rising eco-friendly culture that is contributing to the overall wellbeing of the society and creating a corporate citizenship force.”

When Choithrams started their Planet 7 Sustainability journey way back in 2013, they faced challenges in implementing the sustainability strategy in the supply chain and offices, says Smitha Vijay. “Challenges included the lack of awareness among the employees and certain activities consumed more time like achieving waste recycling goals. We tackled it by conducting more awareness sessions for our employees. Most of our customers are empathetic towards such initiatives. We are also the preferred retail partners of Unilever to carry out consumer awareness programmes in our stores, wherein we educate consumers on water saving techniques through their product ranges,” she remarks.

Consumers play a critical role in bringing about a change in environmental protection measures. It is important for them to understand and adopt options for sustainable living. It is also important for supermarkets that are seeking to encourage that change, to identify and offer sustainable choices, so shoppers can opt for the one that’s in the best interests of the individual and environment.

However, as one of experts has explicitly stated above, it is a collective responsibility and it is not just up to the supermarkets to make it easier for consumers to make sustainable choices, but also important for the shoppers and all other stakeholders involved to take necessary action to help tackle plastic pollution and reduce overall environmental impact.