Editor’s spotlight: ECMA Congress 2018

Iceland plastic-free pledge: ‘For us the Circular Economy didn’t go far enough’

By Jenny Eagle contact

- Last updated on GMT

Ian Schofield, own label and packaging manager, Iceland Foods, at the ECMA Congress in Riga.
Ian Schofield, own label and packaging manager, Iceland Foods, at the ECMA Congress in Riga.
Iceland hit the headlines earlier this year vowing to make all its own-brand products plastic-free by 2023.

Speaking at the ECMA (European Carton makers Association) Congress in Riga, Latvia, (September 20-21) Ian Schofield, own label and packaging manager, Iceland Foods, told how the idea was born​ and what challenges it has faced over the last nine months. 

Plastic-free pre-packed bananas

The company currently has 1,000 stores in the UK and sells its products in 41 countries worldwide as well as just launching curries and pizzas in India, opening its first store in Norway and launching plastic-free pre-packed bananas this month.

In January this year we decided we had to do something. We never declared a war on plastics as most media reported, we said we had to ‘turn the tap down’ on plastics because nothing was happening​,” said Schofield. 

Everything you do in your business today is managing conflicts, sustainability is massive because it touches every part of your business from your vehicles, to your warehouses, to what you put down the drains, and nobody wants to pay any more for it.​ 

Iceland discovered only 9% of all plastics in the UK is being recycled we cannot carry on like this and 67% of food waste is done in the home. Food waste is a big issue we haven’t yet resolved. People are changing their shopping habits because of what we are doing​. 

We did this (made the Plastic-free pledge) because it had to be done. We just happened to be the first because we were quick. For us the Circular Economy didn’t go far enough in its 74-page document. But do we need it. Absolutely.​” 

According to Schofield we will have plastics around for a while and because only 9% is being recycled, Iceland went to the Government to try and influence the decision-makers, but he admitted it takes time to see results. 

Microplastic particles

The Government and EU rules won’t run quick enough but it does matter. I wasn’t even aware that we were sending all our rubbish to China. I thought it was going to our local tip, how ridiculous is that, and PEF (polyethylene-furanoate) still breaks down into microplastics​,” he said.  

PLA is already applied to some boards, oxo-biodegradeable unfortunately still breaks down into microplastics and we didn’t know there is still some palm oil in the processing of cardboard​.”  

Now nine months into the project of making all own-brand plastic free by 2023 at cost-neutral it is Schofield’s responsibility to get all ready/veg meals trays out of plastic into paperboard or sugar beet/bamboo; replace all lidding film; remove PP from garlic bread; get burgers and other flow wraps out of film straight into a box; vegetable/chicken nuggets and fish bags out of film, put eggs back in pulp containers and remove plastic from SRPs. 

I am inventing ways of how we can drive change and efficiency and to remain cost neutral because we cannot put the price up​,” added Schofield. 

He said by the end of the year the company will be very close to having all its ready meals in paperboard but it is looking for more board suppliers because there are not many manufacturers that make them.  

It has now produced a guideline for all its suppliers about what they can and cannot use in its packaging to qualify as suitable for Iceland. 

Guideline tests

We had to check all the materials supplied to us and we found 70% of those materials did not pass our new guideline tests​,” said Schofield. 

Plastic manufacturers have turned it round a bit by looking at end use alternatives, which can go into recycling, and fully bio-degradeable/compostable packaging are options which is a new thing which is coming along​. 

We sell 125 million ready meals in the UK, we have nearly 40% of the frozen ready meal market in the UK including the Slimming World brand. Board at the moment is our preferred route but if that gets expensive other materials are going to come into play and the others are not that far behind​.”  

Schofield said carton and sleeve manufacturers need to start thinking about their materials at the beginning of their packaging development, because these are the challenges it is now throwing at its supplier base to re-engineer what they’ve got, and that is starting to happen.  

For example, he said with the Royal Wedding in April this year it decided to launch a Royal Wedding cake, four weeks before the event. 

It worked with its supplier Graphic Packaging to come up with something that was plastic free. 

We did 70,000 packs which sold out in one week. This sends a message to all our suppliers that with a ‘speedboat mentally’ given the four-week timeframe that we can do it​,” he added. 

Now I have the challenge of getting rid of all plastic packaging across our ice cream brands within two years. I’ve got two years to crack ice cream all across Europe. Next we will be looking at our milk category. Milk is a massive opportunity for board manufacturers and one of my biggest areas. Chilled products represent one of the biggest plastic segments at Iceland even though the supermarket is known for its frozen food.​  

Talking about the company’s view on taxation he said in the UK it pays a packaging recovery note to the Government of approximately £600k a year.  

If the treasury comes up with something to get recycling going we need that money to go to those causes. In the long term I think plastics will get taxed and the retailers will have to pay for it. A plastic tax will come; we’ve already seen the charge of plastic bags, and in France plastic retail bags have already been banned​.  

We might change our mind on some of these materials in the future as it is evolving. It is going to continually change. We say yes to PLA if it’s not from GMO​.”  

Speaking about the pledge earlier this year, Schofield said Iceland didn’t make the announcement as a marketing ploy to get more customers. 

Ice cream packaging

We didn’t know what effect it would have. Business is good, the packaging industries are having a good time from a money perspective but that is going to get squeezed again. We spend £50m a year on energy we are trying to get this down 1%-2%. We are doing okay, but we are only okay as last week’s results,​” he added.  

From a profile perspective customers love what we are doing although many low income families continue to shop in budget supermarkets​.”  

Talking about the future, Schofield said he has got 16,000 tons of plastic packaging to eradicate. 

Two thousand tons has gone but I’ve got a long way to go. I need another 14,000 tons to get rid of. It’s going in the right direction,​” he said.  

In terms of replacement of PE coated board, we started with water based coating but our ready meals with ingredients like saffron attack the coatings so it hasn’t worked for us. Now, we have a blown film that is very thin that will go onto the board, we are testing it at the moment and it breaks down in water.​” 

Related topics: Business, Market Trends, Sustainability

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