Thanks in part to The Blue Planet, Sir David Attenborough’s groundbreaking documentary, the UK has a heightened awareness of the damage plastics are doing to the environment and especially marine animals.
Many initiatives have been undertaken to reduce plastic use and a supermarket in London has taken this to a new level. The Thornton’s Budgens store in north London converted more than 1,700 products to non-plastic packaging in just 10 weeks. The products are displayed in “Plastic-Free Zones” and there are plans for all goods sold to be “virtually plastic-free” in the next three years. 1
The store has been creative in finding replacements to regular plastic packaging. Alternatives include cellulose bags, wax packaging, transparent non-plastic wrapping, beechwood nets, paper, glass, and carton board. Andrew Thornton, company founder said, “Our aim is to show the big supermarkets that it is not as difficult to go plastic-free as they think. If we with our limited resources in 10 weeks can introduce more than a thousand plastic-free products just imagine what the major chains could achieve.” 2
Currently, the giant stores are participating in a voluntary “UK Plastics Pact,” which promises to avoid waste by ensuring plastic packaging can be reused, recycled or composted by 2025. There is a growing public backlash against plastic waste in the UK and many people voice skepticism that the voluntary pledge will make a meaningful difference because there is no enforcement mechanism built into the pact.3
A Plastic Planet (APP), an advocacy group that aims to reduce single-use plastic in the food industry, partnered with Thornton’s Budgens to help with the transition and give the store’s shoppers a choice to reduce their plastic footprints. APP sees the supermarket to be “a living working lab openly trying new materials to package food and drink; open sourcing all solutions including the ones that don’t work.” 4
“We need a new future of food retailing that is multi-sensory, scalable, commercially viable, safe and totally convenient. We need a seismic change in how our food is wrapped. And let’s remember plastic-free does not mean packaging-free. We still want convenience. It means accelerating towards an exciting new generation of natural, food safe materials. —A Plastic Planet4
APP previously worked with a Dutch company to launch the world’s first plastic-free aisle. Ekoplaza, an organic market chain in Amsterdam made the move in early 2018. Testing the concept in one of its stores, over 700 plastic-free products were offered that included chocolate, rice, fresh fruit, and vegetables. The chain plans to continue converting an aisle in each of its 74 stores in the Netherlands over the next year. APP’s co-founder Sian Sutherland said at the time, “There is absolutely no logic in wrapping something as fleeting as food in something as indestructible as plastic. Plastic food and drink packaging remain useful for a matter of days yet remain a destructive presence on the Earth for centuries afterward.” 5
On another front, the UK has made some impact on reducing the overall use of plastic bags through the introduction of a bag charge imposed at stores employing a staff of 250 or more. The number of single-use plastic bags used decreased to 500 million in the first six months of the new 5 pence/bag charge in 2015 compared to 7 billion used in the same period in 2014. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland had previously implemented the same bag charge.6
Let’s hope these efforts continue to gain momentum. According to the United Nations, eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean each year. The waste, that includes bottles and packaging, kills marine life and enters the human food chain. Sian Sutherland summed it up this way, “We all know the damage our addiction to plastic has caused, we want to do the right thing and buy plastic-free.” 7
Photo credit: Thornton Budgens
1Bodkin H. Britain’s first plastic-free supermarket zones open. The Telegraph. 7 November 2018.
2Qureshi W. Thornton’s Budgens store introduces plastic free zones. Packaging News. 8 November 2018.
3Laville S, Smithers R. UK supermarkets launch voluntary pledge to cut plastic packaging. The Guardian. 25 April 2018.
4A Plastic Planet. Media Room. 8 November 2018.
5Frangoul A. War on waste: Plastic-free shopping aisle opens in Amsterdam supermarket. 28 February 2018. CNBC.
6Smithers R. England’s plastic bag usage drops 85% since 5p charge introduced. The Guardian. 29 July 2016.
7Taylor L. First “plastic free” label to help shoppers curb pollution. 16 May 2018. Reuters.
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