A UK supermarket will be the first in the world to remove plastic packaging from all of its own-label products.
Iceland’s landmark move puts pressure on its rivals to follow suit amid public demands to turn back the tide of plastic pollution.
The company, which has more than 900 stores, has a five-year plan to ditch plastic from all of its own-brand products.
Packaging on 1,400 product lines will be replaced, and the changes involve more than 250 suppliers. First to go will be plastic ready meal trays in favour of wood-pulp alternatives made in Britain. Plastic bags used for frozen vegetables and other food will then be dropped in favour of paper alternatives.
Iceland, which has already removed plastic disposable straws from its own range, is also working on alternatives for plastic bottles and milk cartons.
Last week, UK Prime Minister, Theresa May set a 25-year deadline to banish ‘avoidable’ plastic and called on supermarkets to introduce plastic-free aisles. However, the reaction to this from many campaigners (including Green Waste Enterprises) was that a target of reducing plastic waste by 2042 without the full weight of legislation behind it was “far too long” and appeared to many as “weak and woolly”.
Iceland’s move suggests it is possible to go further and faster. Iceland managing director Richard Walker said: ‘The world has woken up to the scourge of plastics. So what are some of the other leading supermarkets up to in the fight against plastic?
By 2025, Tesco wants all its packaging to be recyclable or compostable and its total packaging weight to be halved compared to 2007.
It has removed all polystyrene from its fish packaging, and claims that more than 78% of its packaging is recyclable, though this depends on the type of material accepted by local authorities.
Replacing two layer plastic trays with single layer plastic has also helped them to remove 92 tonnes of plastic.
Asda has reduced the weight of its packaging by 27% since 2007, partly by introducing “skin” packaging on some of its meat products.
It also saved 82 tonnes of plastic by making its two-litre own-brand water bottles lighter. All Asda stores have had carrier bag recycling bins for customers since 2008. Plastic from these bins is combined with the plastic from the back of Asda stores and comes back as their Bags for Life. Customers can also use these bins to recycle clean plastic film from their homes.
Morrisons also recycles its carrier bags and uses “returnable bins” for fish products to reduce the use of poly boxes. The company says it keeps 95% of its store waste out of direct landfill.
It has also banned microbeads and plastic cotton buds in its own-brand cosmetic products, and plans to phase out drinking straws in its cafes.
In September, it trialled removing single-use carrier bags entirely in six of its stores.
Waitrose has thinned its prepared salad bags and reduced smoked salmon packaging by 50%.
It charges 30p or 40p for its food to be delivered or collected in plastic bags. Despite plastic bag charging, Waitrose says it supplied 63 million bags in England from April 2016 to April 2017 but donated £2.6m to good causes.
By switching to biodegradable cotton buds, Waitrose estimates it has saved 21 tonnes of plastic.
Last July, the supermarket introduced a new sandwich wrapper, the plastic and cardboard of which can be more easily separated for recycling than other packaging.
It plans to make its own-label packaging widely recyclable, reusable or home compostable by 2025.
WHAT MORE CAN WE DO?
Louise Edge, senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, has said that while initiatives like these were good, “more radical and comprehensive policies” were needed to tackle the plastic waste crisis.
“We need to see supermarkets making firm commitments to move away from using disposable plastic packaging altogether, starting with going plastic free in their own brands.”
Businesses should be using “reusable containers wherever possible”, she said, and investment in research and development was “vital” to finding less problematic packaging materials.
Supermarkets also needed to avoid solving one problem by causing another, such as reducing the weight of packaging by replacing glass with plastic, she said.
But the most important step for retailers was to make an open commitment to reducing the use of resources and carbon emissions. “None of these processes will be reliable without significantly increased transparency,” she added.
Greenpeace UK suggests retailers should:
- Eliminate all non-recyclable plastics from own brand products
- Remove single-use plastic packaging for own brand products
- Trial dispensers and refillable containers for own brand items like shampoos, house cleaning products, beverages
- Push national brand suppliers to eliminate non-recyclable plastics and to stop using single use plastic packaging
- Install free water fountains in-store and water re-fill stations
- Support deposit return schemes in-store
- Trial reusable packaging and product refills via home deliveries
A spokesperson from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it was committed to stemming the damage caused by plastic waste and had made great progress in boosting recycling rates.
“We are encouraged by industry action to reduce plastic and packaging waste and look forward to seeing others following its lead,” it said.
Well done to Iceland taking the lead on this initiative. We hope that the other supermarkets will follow their lead and that government will follow with meaningful legislation. The supermarkets can only initially demand that their own brand products are plastic-free. It is up to YOU as the buying customer to show your preference for this so that the multi-national brands follow suit.
With thanks to BBC News and infographic by Joy Roxas.