The packaging diaries

Frozen food specialist Iceland grabbed headlines recently when its MD Richard Walker called for all supermarkets to publish their plastic packaging data. Iceland’s own report placed plastic packaging into three categories: primary (food and non-packaging); secondary (shrink wrap etc); and tertiary (pallet wrap). It was then split into ‘branded’ and ‘own label’ products, and data was displayed in two metrics: tonnes and number of items.

For example, in the UK, Iceland used 9,206 tonnes (708,296,776 items) of plastic to package its own products last year. These are numbers the media loves: big ones that are on page two of a four-page document, and supplemented with a soundbite. “In the single year 2019 we generated more than 1.8bn items using primary plastic, and over 100m items of secondary and tertiary plastic,” Walker wrote in an accompanying blog. 

This is “terrifying”, he said. So is Iceland’s single-minded approach to the issue. There was no data on whether those items were recyclable, for example – but that wouldn’t have played to this corporate’s tune of ‘plastic is bad, ergo anything else is good’. “It’s ultimately shallow without the supporting detail,” Simon Gandy, an associate director at Ricardo, told me. “And I’d like to know what they’re using instead of plastic, and how they know it’s not worse.” 

Determining what’s worse or better is difficult. Researchers at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership assessed different drinks packaging materials against metrics such as carbon emissions, water use and recycled content, concluding that “not one material came out clearly as having the lowest relative impact in the areas examined”. How can brands expect to cut through with such nuance when the likes of Iceland are pushing simple and seductive messages around plastic elimination? 

“I’d like to know what they’re using instead of plastic, and how they know it’s not worse”

Companies have every right to choose the values important to them – “We won’t be guided by the single-issue approach of carbon,” Iceland’s head of packaging told me last year – but that doesn’t mean others will, or should, take the same approach. This is my other bugbear with Iceland: it embraces certain issues, then points the finger at those who don’t sign up, too. The same has happened with palm oil, which the retailer also banned. There are huge challenges in producing sustainable palm oil, but shunning it – for alternatives that could be worse on certain metrics – is no solution. On food waste reporting, mind you, Iceland has a point: supermarkets and foodservice firms should publish data.

They should on plastic, too – but it needs to be more detailed. Iceland has cut its plastic footprint from 13,000 tonnes to 9,206 tonnes. Some of the 3,794 tonnes that have gone will have been unnecessary, but how much? What is being used instead, and is it more readily recyclable? 

That footprint should also be published alongside those for cardboard, compostables, glass and aluminium, as these materials require more scrutiny. Why there is a Plastics Pact rather than a Packaging Pact? Wrap, which leads the initiative, has argued that it was set up on “in recognition of not just the devastation of plastics in the environment, but also the particular challenges in achieving circularity (recycling) that plastic has relative to many other materials”. This is true in some cases, but not all. 

Wrap isn’t anti-plastic, but it is feeding the idea that non-plastic is best (regulations focused on plastic in the UK and EU do the same). Some plastics have a poor recycling record, but Wrap’s own data shows there are problems elsewhere, too. For example, almost as many aluminium cans end up in bin bags as in recycling bins (40,206 tonnes versus 58,403 tonnes). In October, the single-use plastic straw ban also came into force – but how many of the paper replacements will be recycled, or come from sustainably managed forests? 

David Burrows is a researcher and freelance writer.

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