Los innovadores limpian los pasillos de plástico de Gran Bretaña
Supermarket sweep: the innovators clearing Britain’s aisles of plastic
With the UK’s biggest supermarkets now committed to removing all unnecessary single-use plastic from their shelves by 2025, the search for sustainable alternatives is about to hit full swing.
Plastic waste has fast become beyond the pale. While the detritus of throwaway plastic has built up over decades, the backlash against it has been hastened by its tangibility – with horrifying images of clogged oceans and choking animals helping to shift attitudes among the public, politicians and corporations alike.
Supermarkets have inevitably found themselves at the centre of the revolt against plastic packaging. They are in a prime position to phase out its use and thereby alter our plastic consumption patterns. According to industry figures, packaging accounts for nearly 40% of total plastics consumption in Europe.
Last year, UK supermarkets including Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons, Asda, Aldi and Ocado, pledged to eliminate unnecessary and problematic single-use plastic packaging from their shelves by 2025, as part of a wide-ranging set of commitments enshrined in the UK Plastics Pact. The pact – which includes ensuring that all plastic packaging in the future is reusable, recyclable or compostable – was also signed by the UK arms of consumer goods giants Unilever and Procter & Gamble.
Meanwhile, the mandatory plastic bag levy introduced in 2015 – which requires supermarkets to charge 5p for all single-use bags – is proving a success. Official figures revealed that the seven major retailers for which there is comparable data issued around 83% fewer plastic bags (equivalent to more than 6bn bags) in the year to April 2017, compared with the calendar year 2014, the year before the ban came into force. In March last year, Morrisons completely removed 5p single-use carrier bags from sale, replacing them with reusable carriers, a move that led to a 25% reduction in bag sales.
When it comes to more sweeping efforts to tackle plastic pollution, some smaller supermarkets have been able to move even faster. In November 2018, London supermarket Thornton Budgens converted more than 1,700 product lines to non-plastic packaging, creating plastic-free zones in its store in Belsize Park.
Last year, Iceland started trialling reverse vending machines that enable customers to deposit empty plastic bottles in exchange for vouchers in four of its stores. “The customer response has been overwhelming,” says managing director Richard Walker. “The results further support the evidence that customers are engaged and ready for a deposit return scheme, already proved to work in Scandinavia.”
Promoting plastic-free shopping isn’t always easy, however. Ecover, which makes environmentally friendly cleaning products, launched its first in-store refill systems in health food shops in 1993 in the UK. The system originally comprised 25-litre drums with a pump. “Over the years we’ve experimented with different automated and manual refill systems,” says Tom Domen, the company’s global innovation lead. “It wasn’t always an easy journey, with litres of soap ending up on the shop floor or blocking refill machines across the country. But we pioneered and learned from our mistakes.”
Ecover’s refill systems for washing up liquids, fabric softeners and a variety of household cleaners are now available in about 500 UK health food stores in 15-litre and 5-litre dispensers. Domen says availability is one of the key barriers to refill adoption. “Our refills are difficult for people to find, due to limited availability, and this is often because they can take up a lot of valuable space in shops.”
Then there is the problem of changing consumer behaviour: “People aren’t used to considering refilling when they shop. How can we create the habit of bringing back the packaging to the store, parallel to what we have seen with the [levy on] single-use shopping bags?” Nonetheless, Ecover has seen a steady rise in the number of people asking where they can get product refills and the company is working on pushing retailers to think beyond recycling. “The industry has optimised the infrastructure for filling and delivering single-use packaging over decades, so there are large and systemic forces at work to maintain this model,” says Domen. “[But] give people the choice and the change will come.”
The Clean Kilo (TKC), a Birmingham-based zero-waste supermarket that was recently recognised by FedEx in its small business grant scheme, has a return and reuse scheme with more than 10 of its local suppliers. “We have even managed to get a long-established pasta producer in Italy to change from plastic bags to paper for the first time,” says Tom Pell, its co-founder. “Now, other zero-waste shops are contacting our supplier to get paper-packaged pasta themselves – it’s great to know that we are having a wider impact, not just to our own customers.”
He notes that larger supermarkets have the buying power to effect even bigger change. “If a small business can make the changes we have, there is no reason why large chain supermarkets can’t follow suit. We’re spending small money with suppliers and still managing to have an effect by requesting more sustainable packaging; if supermarkets were to do the same, they would be able to have an even greater impact.”
But while we await further initiatives from large supermarket groups, the problem of plastic packaging waste is one area that is ripe for innovation from new entrants and startups. Among those pioneering innovative alternatives to single-use plastic packaging is the Austrian company VPZ, which has developed compostable alternatives to the plastic nets that are typically used to pack citrus fruits and onions. VPZ’s cellulose netting is made from beechwood. Meanwhile, London-based Skipping Rocks Labs, which was in the Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge final in 2015, has created a compostable ketchup sachet made from seaweed that could potentially be used for the vinaigrette sachets included in ready-prepared supermarket salads. They have also created a seaweed-based edible water pouch.
It is hoped that further solutions will be put forward by some of the entrants for this year’s Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge, one of the world’s largest sustainable entrepreneurship competitions. “We hope this year’s longlist reflects the challenges the world is facing – for example, in the fields of plastic pollution, energy demand, food wastage and urbanisation,” says Laura Chow, chair of the British jury. The competition awards financial support to green startups to further develop their pioneering sustainable solutions to environmental problems. “For me it is really inspiring to see how the entrepreneurs think in terms of solutions rather than problems. They’re working on solutions for today’s reality.”
Are you working on an idea with the potential to contribute to a sustainable planet? The Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge is one of the world’s largest sustainable entrepreneurship competitions. This year’s contest is now open and looking for innovations with a viable business plan and the potential to scale. Find out more at greenchallenge.info. Deadline for entries: 1 May 2019.