Reaction: Iceland to ban own-brand plastic packaging by 2023

‘The actions of one UK retailer are insignificant when more than 85% of plastic marine pollution comes from Asia and Africa’

By Jenny Eagle contact

- Last updated on GMT

Iceland to ban plastic packaging by 2023. Photo: Iceland YouTube.
Iceland to ban plastic packaging by 2023. Photo: Iceland YouTube.
Iceland has become the first major UK retailer to commit to eliminating plastic packaging for its own-brand products by 2023.

The frozen food specialist, which also sells fresh produce, has vowed to be plastic-free within five years​ to help end the “scourge” of plastic pollution. 

'Is it achievable?'

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Iceland MD Richard Walker

There is definite public support for the move: the supermarket recently carried out a survey in which 80% of the 5,000 people asked said they would back the move, but not everyone within the industry is convinced.

Chris Smith, AMI (Applied Market Information) market research company, said it’s a complex issue and the actions of one UK retailer are ‘pretty insignificant’ when you realize that more than 85% of plastic marine pollution is attributed to Asia and Africa.

The announcement by UK retailer Iceland that it intends to be plastic-free across its own brand products by 2023 has made headlines but whether it makes sense – or is even achievable – is a different matter​,” he said.

Promises to eliminate plastics packaging in favor, in Iceland’s case, of paper and card ignore that plastics packaging is ubiquitous for sound reasons. Plastics provide high levels of protection at low cost and weight, allowing food to be transported long distances with minimal wastage. That matters because food waste carries a big environmental cost – a recent Wrap report estimated food waste accounts for 7% of global carbon emissions​.

If society’s goal is to be sustainable then the aim should surely not be to pledge to eliminate plastic packaging but to ensure any packaging used – whatever its material type – performs its protective role with minimal environmental harm. That means better design, collection and recycling​.

Iceland’s managing director Richard Walker makes one very important point in his announcement – he says the onus is on retailers to deliver meaningful change. Retailers occupy a critical place in the packaging value chain. They have control of the materials used in their own-brand products and hold maximum influence on brand owner packaging decisions. They could be the key to turning “recyclable” packaging into recycled packaging​.

Whether Iceland’s plastic-free pledge will do that is questionable.  The company says its initial focus will be its own brand frozen products, many which are already packaged in cardboard. Beyond that it claims to have a number of “potential alternatives” but is expecting suppliers to come up with feasible solutions. It’s not very convincing​.”

According to Iceland all current plastic packaging would be replaced with paper and pulp trays and paper bags, which would be recyclable through domestic waste collections or in-store recycling facilities – all replaced by 2023 at the latest.

'Bold target'

It will also support initiatives such as a plastic bottle deposit return scheme.

There really is no excuse any more for excessive packaging that creates needless waste and damages our environment… as it is technologically and practically possible to create less environmentally harmful alternatives​,” said Iceland’s managing director Richard Walker.

Alastair Bearman, sales and marketing director, Clondalkin Flexible Packaging Bury, agrees with Smith in that it is ‘an extremely bold target’.

But, he added: “It is an extremely bold target that is probably unrealizable without compromising product protection and shelf life; generating food wastage. However, it is initiatives such as this which will spearhead real change in the choices of materials used, driving growth in films which are recyclable, biodegradeable, or formulated using recycled content.”

Hugo Fisher, group communications director, DS Smith, added: “On its own, Iceland’s commitment won’t make a difference, but it is a positive step in the right direction and we’d encourage all retailers as well as government to support and promote recyclable packaging.”

GEA recently held a Circular Packaging Event in Weert, The Netherlands, with companies Bobst, Borealis, Erema and Henkel to discuss alternative developments in plastic packaging including a Full PE Laminate by Borealis and Borouge.

It is based on Borstar Bimodal Polyethylene (PE) technology in combination with Machine Direction Oriented (MDO) processing technology, serving as 100% substitutes for multi-material film in pouches and packs.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), 14% of plastic packaging used globally makes its way to recycling plants, while 40% ends up in landfill and 1/3 in ecosystems. By 2050, it is estimated there will be more plastic than fish in the world's oceans.

Mira Arts, manager, product marketing, Food Processing and Packaging, GEA, said the event was held to talk about the developments in fully recyclable PE- film and to present a new barrier technology for fully recyclable monomaterial, suitable for flexible food packaging, which is not yet available on the market.

She added as sustainable and recyclable packaging becomes an increasingly important topic in the market for flexible packaging for brand owners and end users, the plastics and packaging industries are looking for ways to ultimately move to a monomaterial structure to make recycling easier.

Current packaging structures

Current structures cannot be recycled because of the use of mixed polymers, such as barrier or printed substrates/films typically involving PET laminated to sealant substrates consisting of PE, OPP or CPP depending on the application.

To deliver a full PE barrier laminate structure is not easy as the mechanical properties of PE are not optimized for web transportation, stability and conversion and the heat sensitivity of the film creates challenges when using vacuum-deposited barrier layers.

Another company tackling the problem of recyclability is Sirane, which claims its Sira-Flex Resolve is a breathable bag/film for packaging fresh produce made from a natural biopolymer, which is 100% compostable.

Sira-Flex Resolve is a breathable film which is the perfect packaging for fresh produce. If Iceland, or any other retailer, wants to move away from plastics, this is the sort of packaging that would work​,” said Simon Balderson, MD, Sirane.

Not only does the film extend the shelf-life of the produce – so helps with food waste reduction targets – but it is 100% sustainable and 100% compostable​.”

Only this month, the EU Commission released its long-expected Plastics Strategy​ which includes an announcement that the Commission has started the process to ban both intentionally added microplastics and oxo-degradable plastics.

Both these bans will be implemented as Restrictions under the EU’s main chemicals law REACH.

Dr Michael Warhurst, executive director, CHEM Trust, said it supports these restrictions, and last year supported a statement​ with over 150 other organizations calling for a ban on oxo-degradable plastic packaging.

The strategy also announces actions to reduce single-use plastics. It is interesting to note that Iceland, a UK supermarket, has committed to eliminate or drastically reduce plastic packaging of all its Iceland products by the end of 2023,​” he said.

Reducing plastic single-use packaging is an important policy priority. However, a shift from plastic to paper food packaging highlights the poor state of the EU’s regulation of chemicals in food contact paper and card. The Commission’s DG Health is starting a long-awaited review of these laws this year, and they must accelerate action in this neglected area of regulation.”

Extended Producer Responsibility

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Pack2Go Europe, the association of manufacturers of single use glasses, cups, trays and other containers made of plastics, paper or a combination of materials, is encouraged by the focus on more and better collection, recovery and recycling of used plastics packaging contained in the EU Plastics Strategy.

The packaging we make is filled at the point of sale or just before serving and is designed first and foremost to guarantee food hygiene, protect public health and help ensure consumer safety in a world where people regularly eat and drink out-of-home or on-the-go,​” said Mike Turner, president, Pack2Go Europe.

As these packs are fully recyclable, Pack2Go Europe wants access to recycling in place for our products by the end of 2025 all across Europe. We are going to play a role in achieving that end-game.​”

EUROPEN also welcomes the EU’s Plastics Strategy as an important contribution towards achieving the objectives of a Circular Economy and tackling (marine) littering. 

“EU minimum requirements for EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) will increase accountability for all private and public stakeholders,” ​said Hans Van Bochove, Coca-Cola, and EUROPEN chairman.

“If implemented well, EPR and modulated EPR fees play an important role in creating incentives for producers’ packaging design choices and boost innovation in the packaging supply chain.”

Virginia Janssens, MD, EUROPEN, added, the end-of-life phase of packaging is intrinsically connected with the functionality of the different packaging materials, as part of a packaged product. A life-cycle and evidence-based approach is well captured in the Strategy and will remain fundamental in its ensuing actions.

Six European organizations from the plastics value chain have committed, in cooperation with the European Commission, to launch Circularity Platforms aiming to reach 50% plastics waste recycling by 2040.

Plastics Recyclers Europe (PRE), Petcore Europe, the European Carpet and Rug Association (ECRA), the Polyolefin Circularity Platform (PCEP Europe), European Plastics Converters (EuPC) and VinylPlus have adopted a framework of voluntary commitments to continue and expand existing plastics recycling activities and create additional circularity platforms inspired by the example set by VinylPlus and Petcore Europe.

The aim of the Circularity Platforms is to develop common goals and actions for a sector as large and fragmented as the European plastics industry, representing more than 60,000 companies (mainly SMEs).

It claims ‘the extremely ambitious goal to reach 50% recycling and reuse of plastics waste as well as 70% recycling and reuse of plastic packaging can only be reached through platforms involving the entire value chain: from raw material producers, designers, converters, collectors and recyclers to brand owners and specifiers’.

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