Iceland slashes plastics packaging by almost one-third in two years

Iceland has posted an update to its commitment to remove all plastics from own-label product packaging by 2023, revealing that it now uses 29% less plastics in these applications than it did in 2018.

Iceland slashes plastics packaging by almost one-third in two years

Iceland's MD Richard Walker (pictured) introduced the 100% plastic-free pledge in 2018 and has been a vocal advocate since. Image: Iceland

Posting the achievement today (10 March) to mark two years since the publication of its plastics-free pledge, Iceland said that it was on track to meet the overarching ambition.

Its progress to date, the retailer said in a statement, has focused on “significant wins across high-volume ranges”. For example, 74 frozen ready-meals have been moved from hard-to-recycle black plastics trays into cardboard alternatives; frozen pies and desserts have been shifted to cardboard boxes; and several fruit and vegetable lines are now only available loose, rather than in plastic-covered multipacks.

In order to facilitate these changes, Iceland has engaged almost 100 of its own-label suppliers, establishing working groups and disseminating frameworks for plastics removal across all lines. The supermarket has also provided warehouse, logistics and store staff with training and feedback forums to ensure that plastic removal does not result in unintended consequences such as food waste.

Several trials of new packaging formats, in addition to these above-mentioned permanent changes, are also underway at Iceland. A pilot of 38 plastic-free and low-plastic packaging for fruit and vegetable lines is currently underway at Iceland stores Greater London and the South East, for example, after several previous innovations – including paper bands for banana bunches – failed to deliver life-cycle benefits in trials. Other pilot projects being run by the retailer include in-store reverse vending machines for drinks bottles and a plastic-bag-free store.

All in all, Iceland claims it has reduced its annual plastics packaging use by 3,794 tonnes since making its headline commitment in 2018. Moreover, no other major UK supermarket has set a 100% plastic-free target for an equivalent or more ambitious deadline.

The driving force behind the initial commitment and progress against it is Iceland’s managing director Richard Walker, who has repeatedly said that he sees setting bold environmental targets, as a budget retailer, as “democratising sustainability”.

Commenting on the new plastics figures, Walker said: “The scale of the challenge we have taken on is huge, partly because of the lack of alternative solutions in some instances; the infrastructure in the manufacturing industry which in many cases is built around plastic usage; and, of course, the fact that we are the only retailer to have made a ‘totality’ commitment.

“We’re now looking ahead to the next phase of our journey whilst continuing to engage our customers by finding scalable and user-friendly solutions, truly democratising choice to make sustainable packaging options an affordable reality for everyone.”

Iceland is notably working with campaign group A Plastic Planet to communicate its plastics progress. A Plastic Planet’s “plastic-free trust mark” logo now features on several popular Iceland products and has also been adopted by the likes of tea brand Teapigs and Dutch supermarket chain Ekoplaza.  

Lifecycle thinking needed

The update from Iceland comes on the same day that Green Alliance published its latest policy analysis into plastics packaging – research with a headline conclusion that the UK Government’s ban on unnecessary single-use plastics could inadvertently triple the carbon emissions associated with packaging.

But, far from advocating for the continued over-use of plastic, the analysis calls on policymakers and businesses to use less material overall, improve energy efficiency across manufacturing and recycling facilities, and re-prioritise reuse over recycling in the first instance.

The Government has committed to “work towards” ensuring all plastic packaging placed on the market is recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025, as well as eliminating all “avoidable” plastic waste by 2042.

The Green Alliance report builds on previous analysis rom the organisation outlining how, in many applications, materials such as aluminium and cardboard can produce greater life-cycle emissions than some single-use or reusable plastic packaging formats.

But, responding to those findings at the time, A Plastic Planet co-founder Sian Sutherland highlighted how the methodology accounted purely for emissions and did not cover factors such as harm to wildlife or raw material extraction.

Sarah George

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