Making supermarkets plastic free

June 28, 2018

Richard Walker explains Iceland’s pledge to become the first major retailer to eliminate plastic packaging from all of its own brand products by 2023. 

On 16 January 2018 Iceland Foods made a revolutionary announcement. We would become the first major retailer anywhere in the world to eliminate plastic packaging from all our own label products by the end of 2023.

We made this pledge quite simply because we felt it was the right thing to do. As a retailer, and therefore a contributor to the growing global scourge of waste plastic packaging, we felt the onus was on us to take action.

It continued a long pioneering tradition. In the 1980s Iceland became the first UK retailer to remove artificial colours, flavours and non-essential preservatives from our own label products. Towards the end of the 1990s we were the first to decide to make our own label range GM-free.

We also have the big advantage of being a privately-owned, British family company that can take a long term view on doing the right thing, even if it costs us money in the short term.

My personal motivation was simple. I’m a keen surfer. I’ve seen plastic pollution in the oceans at first hand. I’m a long term supporter of Greenpeace. And as the father of young children, I want to do everything I can to ensure that they can enjoy this planet’s wondrous oceans when they grow up.

Our announcement had a massive impact. It raised plastics right to the top of the news and the social media agenda. We had an immediate letter of congratulations from Michael Gove, while Theresa May praised us at Prime Minister’s Questions, and urged other supermarkets to follow suit.

A number of our rivals have since followed us with announcements of plans to reduce their reliance on single-use plastics, or to ensure that all their packaging is fully reusable, recyclable or compostable .

Which is exactly what we wanted. Because to turn down the tap of single-use plastic production we will all need to collaborate in finding new technological solutions.

Pretty much all the media and public reaction to our announcement was supportive. The only real criticism we have received is from two completely opposing standpoints: why will it take so long, and is it really deliverable at all?

On the first point, five years really isn’t a long time to deliver the removal of plastic packaging from 1,400 product lines. We’re working closely with 300 different suppliers to set realistic timelines for each of them. In some cases this is going to mean changing our whole supply chain, investing in new machinery, and developing, trialling, testing and then implementing completely new technical solutions.

So far, many of the bioplastic and biodegradable plastics we have seen suffer from one of two key failings. They either replicate fossil fuel plastics so well that they will also still be around in 500 years or they don’t biodegrade properly (i.e. completely disappear) in a normal marine environment.

We’re very clear that there is no point in jumping out of the plastics frying pan into the bioplastics fire. But our minds are not closed. If technology does deliver a plastic that breaks down in water and leaves no residue, we will welcome it. In fact we will applaud and support any initiative that helps to achieve our ultimate goal of no waste plastic being dumped in the streets, landfill, rivers or oceans.

It’s a truly massive challenge – but, if we can do it in less than five years, we will.

Is it really deliverable? We made a start in February with the launch of two new frozen meal lines in paper-based trays rather than the usual black plastic ones.

By the end of 2018 we will have switched all our black CPET trays to paper-based or aluminium alternatives, removing 100 million of these non-recyclable trays from circulation and saving 2,000 tonnes of plastic every year.

This year we will also change all our egg trays to paper pulp, saving 600 tonnes of plastic.

We are working on plans for other plastic trays, bags and bottles that will reduce Iceland’s total plastic footprint by 16,000 tonnes a year by 2023. The elimination of plastics from our own label range can and will be done.

In May we announced that we would become the first UK retailer to adopt the Plastic Free Trust Mark developed by A Plastic Planet, to clearly signpost plastic-free lines to consumers, and in June we achieved another UK first with the installation of Reverse Vending Machines in four stores in England, Scotland and Wales. These give customers the opportunity to earn a 10p voucher for every plastic bottle purchased from Iceland that they deposit.

This six month trial will give us a much better understanding of how customers react to the technology, and insights into the best system the industry should adopt as it moves forward to what we very much hope will be a UK-wide Deposit Return Scheme.

The pressure from consumers for action on plastics is growing daily, and the need for it is urgent. We are keen to see all businesses join us in playing their part.

This is not about naïve utopianism, but about giving customers what they want by putting environmental policies at the core of Board-level decision-making. It’s about taking practical business actions to improve the planet for all of us here and now – and for the benefit of future generations and business’s future profits.

Every business that wants to stay in business should be thinking long and hard about adopting this approach.


Richard Walker is the Managing Director of Iceland Foods Group.