In an Amsterdam supermarket, a new “plastic-free” aisle is a microcosm of the entire store. It’s possible to buy around 700 items–meat, sauces, produce, yogurt, snacks, cereal, drinks, enough for a week’s worth of groceries–but nothing is packaged in conventional plastic. Any package that looks like regular plastic is bio-based and compostable; everything else is packaged in a material, like aluminum or glass, that is easily recyclable.
The aisle, which opened last week and is the first of its kind, raises a question: What would it take for mainstream supermarkets to shift completely away from standard plastic packaging?
A handful of small zero-waste grocery stores already exist. At Original Unverpakt (“unpacked”) in Berlin, for example, customers can buy beans and rice from bulk bins, dispense olive oil into their own containers, and buy chewable toothpaste that doesn’t come in a tube. But at a standard grocery store, where plastic is ubiquitous, wrapped around everything from pre-made sandwiches and steak to, in some cases, individual potatoes or bell peppers (and found in less obvious places, like the lining of a carton of soy milk), a shift to no packaging at all seems unlikely in the near future.
“We’re not talking packaging-free–packaging-free is not convenient, and it won’t be adopted at scale by supermarkets and it really won’t be appreciated by the customer, because we’re so addicted to convenience now,” says Sian Sutherland, cofounder of A Plastic Planet, the U.K.-based grassroots organization that helped the Amsterdam supermarket add the new plastic-free aisle. “What’s important for us is that everything on our aisle gives the consumer that same level of convenience, it gives the supermarket something they can scale up, and it’s viable for the supermarket and affordable for the customer.”
The nonprofit launched its “Plastic-Free Aisle” campaign a year ago, as awareness of the problems with plastic packaging and ocean pollution grew in the U.K., and the founders realized that even motivated consumers would struggle to avoid buying plastic packages. “Even once your eyes are open and you know what we’re doing and you want to change, you then go to your local supermarket and of course it’s impossible to change,” Sutherland says. “Because everything is wrapped in plastic.”
Six months ago, the activists met Erik Does, the chief executive of Ekoplaza, a chain with 74 locations in the Netherlands, who decided to take on the challenge of creating the first plastic-free aisle. Following the first location in Amsterdam, Does plans to add similar aisles to each of his stores by the end of the year.
While the shift isn’t easy for a store, there’s no reason it isn’t technically possible now. The need to package some foods in typical plastic–for food safety, or to help food last longer and prevent food waste–can be satisfied with compostable materials made from things like plant starch, or even food waste itself.
New packaging also continues to come to market. A startup called Full Cycle Bioplastics, for example, uses bacteria to turn food or crop waste into a packaging material called PHA. The product is food-safe, compostable, and if it happens to end up in the ocean, it safely degrades to become fish food. The packaging will be no more expensive than standard plastic made from fossil fuels.
Sutherland calls this bio-based, compostable packaging “plastic-free,” though materials scientists, and the companies that make it, still call it plastic. The advocates want to clearly distinguish between the new materials and oil-based plastic, along with other plant-based plastics–like the plastic produced from sugarcane-based ethylene in Coke’s PlantBottle–that can’t actually be composted because it’s chemically identical to regular PET.
In the U.K., support for new alternative packaging has been quickly growing. Prime Minister Teresa May endorsed the Plastic-Free Aisle campaign in a national address that called for eliminating avoidable plastic waste in the U.K. within 25 years. A discount supermarket chain, Iceland, made a commitment in January to eliminate plastic from all of its store-branded products within five years. Sutherland is helping them with this effort but argues that supermarkets could make the shift–at least in a single aisle–more quickly.
A larger shift, to a store with no conventional plastic packaging, may also be possible, if the brands that supply stores feel the same pressure from consumers. In 2017, Unilever committed to making all of its plastic packaging recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025. But even if every plastic package in a store could be composted, there’s still a challenge: the packaging has to be processed in industrial composting facilities, and those aren’t yet widespread. If people can’t easily compost the packages, they’ll still end up in the trash. (Recyclable plastic faces the same challenge, especially as China cracks down on taking foreign waste from countries like the U.K. and the U.S.) Some bio-based, compostable materials can’t degrade in the ocean, so they also pose similar pollution problems to regular plastic.
Sutherland is in talks with the U.K. government to urge for more composting infrastructure. But some activists believe that the lack of infrastructure is a reason to take a different approach. “Instead of going to a different form of disposable, we’re really pushing how you go to a reusable infrastructure,” says Jane Patton, managing director of the U.S.-based Plastic Pollution Coalition. The group has partnered with an app called Anew to run a campaign to crowdsource ideas for how businesses could reduce demand for plastic packaging. Some companies are already experimenting with novel approaches, like Pepsi’s new reusable bottle that comes with a system of small flavor pods.
“Social norms are constantly changing,” she says, arguing that since corporations played a role in originally marketing plastic as convenient, they could also market the idea that reusable containers make more sense in the larger context of pollution and climate change. She also believes that in cases where packaging can’t be as easily reduced, it should be recycled in closed loops. Evian, for example, recently committed to make all of its bottles from 100% recycled plastic and to increase recycling rates. The company is working with a manufacturer that can recycle plastic without reducing the quality of the material. Nestle is also introducing a 100% recycled plastic bottle. The challenge, as with composting, is both changing habits and infrastructure: To use plastic bottles in closed loops, people would have to actually recycle them–Americans recycle less than 30% of them–and the bottles would have to get to a type of facility that can recycle them without “downcycling” the material.
In the U.K. and the rest of Europe, the move away from conventional plastic to compostable materials, along with materials like glass and aluminum, is likely to continue as long as strong public support does. “This is a consumer-led campaign,” says Sutherland. “We’re a grassroots organization. So obviously we’re working with industry, and we’re working with the government, but most importantly, we represent the public. And it’s down to the public now to prove that we want to buy plastic-free . . . We want packaging, we just don’t want the plastic. I think, as the public, if we can prove that when supermarkets give us the choice, that we make it the success it deserves to be, then it will spread like wildfire.”