Next time you go to the beach, pick up a handful of sand and stare really closely at it. Or maybe don’t. Because once you see it, you can’t un-see it: glittering specks of tiny plastic particles mixed among the grains of sand. It is our generation’s gift to those who will inherit this precious planet for half a millennium after us.
Plastic is ubiquitous. Its wondrous convenience is such that we cannot seem to cope without using it to wrap, coat, seal, bag, carry and bottle just about everything.
We, as the grocery industry, need to recognise our responsibility. We have become lazy - addicted to the senseless and unquestioned use of plastic for all products in all instances.
And our response to fixing it has been lazy, too. For the past 20 years there has been a mis-focus on recycling as the answer to the problem. There still is.
If the government provides much-needed investment, recycling is good, and we should do more of it. That’s why we are supporters of DRS. But we are deluded if we think this will solve the root cause of the issue: too much plastic production. It’s commendable, for example, that Coca-Cola is supporting DRS, and last week it unveiled World Without Waste, a global recycling initiative. But Coke sells 110 billion single-use plastic bottles per year. What is it going to do to turn down the tap of plastic production?
Last week Iceland became the first major retailer in the world to aim to eliminate all plastic packaging from its own-label products. Our target is by 2023. The first plastic-free products will be in our shops next month. Over the next five years we will be very mindful of the alternatives we use to ensure they are truly sustainable. Greenpeace, which has been watching us every step of this journey, will make sure of that.
There have been a few doubters who have tried to argue that non-plastic alternatives may be heavier and therefore worse for the environment. But we do not envisage any increase in the weight of our average basket. Our critics also seem to be ignoring the damage wrought by extracting finite fossilised carbon out of the ground in the form of oil to create plastic.
Another thing that has riled me about this debate is the insinuation that the main sources of plastic pollution are elsewhere, and therefore we in the West cannot do anything useful anyway. Wrong! Let us lead by example, seek to solve this problem we created, and show others that change is possible.
A wide variety of alternatives to plastic packaging are now becoming commercially available, with the ability to protect and preserve products equally well. Significantly, increased demand for these alternatives will drive up investment and reduce costs, which in turn will speed up adoption. We may also need to go backwards to go forwards, embracing old technology like cellulose, card, paper, glass (p50), and aluminium cans, which have either been discarded or fallen out of fashion.
The reaction to our announcement last week has been overwhelming, and the public demand for less plastic from the grocery sector is unequivocal. It makes good business sense to listen to the customer, and I implore you all to start doing so. And to work with us at Iceland to help make the removal of plastic a reality.
Richard Walker, guest editor, The Grocer; director of sustainability, Iceland; managing director, The Food Warehouse