Plastic-free private label: UK retailer Iceland praised for packaging target - but will others follow?

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock/GAnnison
© iStock/GAnnison

Related tags Waste Recycling

Iceland has pledged to remove plastic packaging from all its own brand products by 2023. Will other food industry players follow its lead?

The new food packaging will be rolled out progressively between now and 2023. The frozen food retailer said paper-based food trays have been under development for the past 12 months and would be launched in early 2018.

Iceland, which has 900 stores around the UK, will swap plastic for paper and pulp trays and paper bags that are fully recyclable, either through local domestic waste collection or in-store recycling points.

Director of corporate affairs Keith Hann said any extra costs would not be passed onto consumers.

"We have committed to making these changes cost neutral for our customers. At present we envisage that there will be additional costs to be borne by Iceland, phased over the next five years, though these may well come down as technology develops.

"We consider that the investment we do make will be fully justified to safeguard the environment, give consumers a choice and create a more sustainable business for the future."

A statement released by the retailer suggested it may be expecting to see increased sales as a result. It cited the results of a 5000-strong survey conducted by OnePoll last year, in which 91% of respondents said they would be more likely to encourage friends and family to shop at a supermarket that had taken a plastic-free stance.

“The onus is on retailers, as leading contributors to plastic packaging pollution and waste, to take a stand and deliver meaningful change. Other supermarkets, and the retail industry as a whole, should follow suit and offer similar commitments during 2018. This is a time for collaboration," ​said managing director Richard Walker.

“There really is no excuse any more for excessive packaging that creates needless waste and damages our environment. The technologies and practicalities to create less environmentally harmful alternatives exist.”

Greenpeace, which estimates that more than 12 million tonnes of plastic enters the world’s oceans every year, praised the retailer’s announcement. Executive director John Sauven called it “a bold pledge”.

Will other brands follow?

Mintel research firm chose eco-friendly packaging and sustainable ingredient sourcing as one of the top defining trends of 2018​ that will impact all fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) brands.

It praised pioneering brands that were already taking action and warned: “Perceived polluters will be forced to follow”.

Global packaging insights director at Mintel Benjamin Punchard told FoodNavigator he would be surprised if other retailers and brand owners were not already developing solutions.

Iceland’s pledge comes amid a growing environmental consciousness that has also given rise to government policy –  China’s plastic import ban, the EU’s plastic strategy announced yesterday​ or the UK government’s pledge to cut avoidable plastic waste by 2042, for instance.

“Hopefully they will be considering what they can actually deliver on rather than rush into making pronouncements that they then cannot deliver to,” ​Punchard said.

Adidas is making one million shoes from recycled ocean plastic and Proctor & Gamble will introduce 25% recycled plastic in some 500 million shampoo bottles sold annually while Coca-Cola has raised its 2020 recycling target to 50%.

“It is announcements like these, based on recyclability and recycled content, that I expect we will be seeing a lot more of,” ​he added. 

Recycling may be better than removing

In some cases, removing plastic from all packaging may not be the correct environmental solution.

“Brands will be well aware that if moving to a non-plastic pack type reduces shelf life for example this could massively increase food waste. So a better approach would be to identify where plastic is currently used, where a suitable alternative exists and target just these applications.

“Where plastic is the best pack type for a product the solution may be to increase recyclability and recycled content.”

Carbon black pigments used in plastic packaging trays, often used in ready meals, cannot be sorted by the optical sorting machines that are widely used in recycling plants. Removing this pigment

 “I think a big reduction in plastic packaging can be achieved by removing plastic where it currently offers no functional benefits. For example, toilet paper and kitchen paper is often packaged in flexible plastic when these can be packaged in paper with no loss of quality or shelf life of the product,” ​Punchard added.

Plastic pollution: A shared ​responsibility

In an article on Retail Week and published on Iceland’s website ​last year, Iceland's founder and CEO Malcolm Walker wrote: “An endemic lack of personal responsibility has led to a blame culture in Britain. It’s time to recognise who is really responsible for littering the streets and causing rising levels of obesity – and it isn’t retailers.

“The revelations about tons of plastic waste ending up on the remotest island in the Pacific rekindled my memory of a horrifying documentary on the ecological damage caused by plastic bottles being dumped into the oceans.

"Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé and other big drinks makers got most of the blame, but they weren’t the ones actually doing the dumping.”

Hann said Malcolm Walker "is and always has been fully behind our plastic initiative, work on which began well before [this] column".

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