What is it about Plastic that makes retailers paranoid?

Iceland, the frozen food giant not the country, has recently announced that they have reduced their use of plastic packaging by 350 tonnes and no one seems to be asking why?

They could have announced…

Iceland have just chosen to increase packaging waste by 1,000 tonnes per annum. This will unnecessarily use 24,000 fully grown trees and unnecessarily contaminate over 12 million litres of fresh water. They have also chosen to increase their CO2 emissions and thus add to global warming!!

Of course, they may argue that the trees are from sustainable forests and that the water is cleaned and recycled (producing nitrogen and phosphorous toxins in the process). But, what they won’t be making clear is what they think the environmental benefits of substituting paper and compostable board for plastic packaging actually are.

This is because they are well aware that multiple studies using life cycle analysis (LCA), both in Europe and America, have concluded that substituting paper for plastic has a negative impact on the environment. This is predominantly due to the paper and board packaging required being 3 to 4 times heavier than the plastic it replaces. The LCA concludes that there is a similar 3 to 4 times increase in CO2 emissions during its manufacture and use, including the additional vehicle movements required to transport the extra weight of packaging, both before and after use.

Unfortunately, compostable board has a similar negative environmental effect when compared to plastic, as compostable material is organic, requiring land, water, and fertilization for its growth. In addition, it requires the use of a significant amount of energy for its transformation from organic matter to compostable packaging. Interestingly, recent post-consumer research into domestic waste concluded that the majority of compostable packaging enters the normal domestic waste stream and is therefore treated like normal waste, rather than being composted.

But, is it fair to criticize Iceland if they are simply giving their customers what they want? Perhaps it is as Iceland know that most of the plastic being replaced is HDPE, which is one of the easiest and most common plastic polymers to be recycled. Surely, with a different approach, Iceland and their customers could become part of the solution to plastic pollution, rather than the perpetuating the myths that somehow the use of plastic packaging is environmentally bad.

They could, if they so wished, offer their customers a deposit return scheme (DRS) as the bulk of the 350 tonnes of plastic being replaced is in rigid trays and punnets. They could put a cover price of say 10p on every tray and punnet, to be repaid to the customer on the return of the packaging to the store. Iceland could then ensure the packaging was correctly recycled instead of (as claimed on their website) having the potential to join the 12 million tonnes of plastic which enters the world’s oceans every year. (This figure for ocean waste goes up every time its printed!)

It is most unfortunate, but Iceland’s current stance on plastic packaging is disingenuous. They obviously know that the science behind the Environmental case for using plastic for food packaging is for the most part indisputable, particularly in reducing food and domestic waste. Yet, they persist in perpetuating the public’s misconception that plastic is somehow unacceptable and should be replaced whatever the cost to our environment.

What seems equally unacceptable to me is that Iceland is forcing their suppliers to adopt their anti-plastic policy and simultaneously suggesting that other supermarket and food manufacturers, who fail to follow their lead, are somehow deliberately damaging both the environment and the planet. They know this simply is not true. They could, if they so wished, concentrate on reducing all their packaging whilst at the same time, leading the way in supermarket plastic packaging collection and recycling.

It would only take one peak hour programme, where the BBC chose to attack food waste and excess packaging, rather than plastic, to expose the current Iceland anti-plastic packaging strategy as being somewhat ill conceived. Meanwhile, it\’s great PR for Iceland, but bad news for the environment.