Plastic packaging can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s usually deployed to protect food, preserve freshness, and prevent spoilage and waste, which are all good things. At the same time, supermarkets can’t seem to help themselves from overpackaging items to the point of perversion, like a single banana — which already comes in its own Mother Nature-approved wrapper — plated on a Styrofoam tray and shrink-wrapped in even more plastic. Other forms of plastic appear completely gratuitous. Do pasta boxes really need tiny film windows for previewing the noodles?
Supermarkets aren’t the only source of packaging waste, but they’re a major contributor. They’re also where most people interact with brands like Nestlé, which sells more than 1 billion products a day, 98 percent of which come in throwaway formats. When the Break Free from Plastic initiative audited more than 187,000 pieces of trash from 42 countries across six continents last October, the names that reared their heads most frequently were Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and — yes — Nestlé. Supermarkets have been promoting recycling as a way out of this morass, but it hasn’t been enough, according to environmentalists, who say that single-use plastic needs to be purged from the get-go. It’s a concept that a growing breed of “zero-waste” grocers are experimenting with, too.
“If your bathtub was overflowing, you wouldn’t reach for a mop to clean it up; you would turn it off at the source,” says David Pinsky, an anti-plastics campaigner at Greenpeace. “And that’s what we need to do on plastics.”
The fact of the matter is we’re not doing a good enough job of recapturing plastics, which are made from nonrenewable resources such as crude oil and natural gas and contribute to climate change throughout their life cycle. Less than 14 percent of the nearly 86 million tons of plastic packaging produced globally each year is recycled, and of that, only 2 percent goes into high-value applications. The rest is landfilled, incinerated, or buffeted into the environment, where it clogs up the seas, the beaches, and the digestive tracts of sea life.
Much of the trouble with recycling plastic is it’s “incredibly finicky,” says Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Different municipalities accept different types of plastic, and the little triangle with the number at the bottom of a plastic container — if you can even find it — refers to the type of resin and not if or how it can be recycled. Sometimes, despite a recycling facility’s best efforts, a plastics stream becomes contaminated, which impairs sellability. But even if a facility does get it right, there isn’t always a market to funnel all the different types of plastic.
“What’s been happening with China, in particular, is that it was America’s No. 1 buyer of plastic and paper, but now it’s saying that the stuff we send to them needs a much lower contamination rate, and we can’t do that,” Hoover says.
Complicating the matter is complex packaging such as Tetra Pak cartons — the type plant-based milks, soups, and broths come in — and Capri Sun-type juice pouches — which contain different layers of material fused together — are even more difficult to reclaim.
“So they’ve got aluminum and different types of plastic, then a bunch of glue that holds it all together,” Hoover says. “It’s very, very hard to separate out all those materials and figure out how to recycle any of them.”
The problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Plastic packaging is a booming industry with a powerful lobbying presence that can block lawmakers from enacting bans on plastic bags, Styrofoam containers, and other landfill fodder. Fueled by growing demand for flexible and functional food and beverage packaging, the global plastic packaging market is expected to soar from a value of $344 billion today to $412 billion in 2024. We throw away most single-use plastics within minutes of use, yet they can persist in the environment for 1,000 years.
“We do need to fundamentally rethink the way that we use plastics,” says Sara Wingstrand, project manager of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative, which has rallied more than 350 businesses, governments, and other organizations, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever, Walmart, and Target, in 2018 to support the elimination of unnecessary plastic packaging and transition the rest to reusable, recyclable, and compostable versions by 2025. “Recycling is a part of the solution, but it’s becoming evident that there is no way that we can recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis.”
One key hurdle is that supermarkets are often blissfully unaware of how much plastic they’re employing. The material is relatively cheap and it makes up a fraction of a business’s operating expenses, Wingstrand says. And the thing is, you can’t reduce what you haven’t measured.
Some supermarkets are trying, though.
In South Africa, the supermarket chain Pick and Pay is trialing packaging-free “nude zones,” where customers can bring their own containers for fruits and vegetables that are laser-etched with the supplier code and sell-by date in lieu of plastic stickers. Similar “food in the nude” campaigns are taking place at grocers in New Zealand, which banned single-use plastic bags in July. This past April, Metro, a supermarket chain in Quebec, became Canada’s first major grocer to allow its customers to fill up their own reusable containers with meat, seafood, pastries, and ready-to-eat meals.
The United Kingdom, where a “polluter’s tax” on any single-use packaging that doesn’t contain at least 30 percent recycled materials is poised to debut in April 2022, is also making strides. Its major supermarkets have committed to a UK Plastics Pact to design out “problematic or unnecessary” single-use packaging by 2025. Waitrose is piloting refill stations at select stores for pasta, wine and beer, and detergent, and Sainsbury’s plans to introduce refillable packaging “at scale.” As part of its pledge to use only reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging by 2025, Aldi has banned black plastic trays, which near-infrared sensors at recycling centers have trouble picking out from a sorting belt. Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket, has convened with its suppliers to examine solutions that may require a design or materials overhaul. It’s even mulling banishing brands that use “excessive or inappropriate” packaging.
It should come as no surprise that supermarkets in the US — bolstered by America’s corporate-friendly policies — have lagged behind.
“Europe is probably more favorably predisposed to regulation and restrictions,” says Neil Saunders, managing director of retail at GlobalData, an international data-analytics consultancy. (Case in point? The European Union has a roadmap for making all plastic on the European market recyclable by 2030.) “Whereas the US is much more focused on freedoms of companies and individuals, and government is probably a lot more reluctant to legislate on certain things.”
That isn’t to say there has been zero progress. Target is working on ditching expanded polystyrene foam packaging from its own-brand packaging by 2022. Select products in its Everspring line of home essentials are packaged in containers with up to 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic. Costco has eschewed PVC clamshell packaging, which is not recyclable and can leach toxic chemicals when it degrades, for recyclable PET or recycled PET made from water bottles. Straws and Styrofoam meat trays are now verboten at Whole Foods, which is also replacing its hard plastic rotisserie chicken containers with bags that use roughly 70 percent less plastic, a spokesperson says. Walmart, the world’s No.1 brick-and-mortar retailer, aims by 2025 to incorporate at least 20 percent post-consumer recycled content in its own-brand packaging, which will also be 100 percent recyclable, reusable, or industrially compostable. In terms of general merchandise packaging, Walmart says it will work with suppliers to nix PVC by 2020.
But a June report by Greenpeace, which rated 20 leading US supermarkets on their efforts to eliminate single-use plastic, found a universal failure to “adequately address the plastic pollution crisis they are contributing to.” In fact, no supermarket scored more than 35 out of a possible 100 points. Even the American iteration of Aldi, which rose to No. 1 for setting out a plastics reduction target and plan, needs to ramp up its ambitions, according to Pinsky. Since 90 percent of the products on its shelves are private label, rather than from name-brand suppliers, Aldi has a bigger say in its packaging decisions.
“Aldi’s only committed by 2025 to reduce its plastic footprint by 15 percent,” he says. “So while some supermarkets are starting to take small steps in the right direction, none are acting with the urgency or the ambition that’s needed to truly tackle the plastic pollution crisis.”
Transparency, Pinsky says, is a sticking issue. No supermarket, for instance, publicly reports its plastic footprint, which makes it difficult for the public to evaluate progress year over year. Time-bound, comprehensive plans are still few and far between. And some grocers are merely substituting one single-use material for another, as in the case of Trader Joe’s, which drew plaudits earlier this year for plans to strip its stores of 1 million pounds of plastic by removing plastic bags from its checkout counters, switching to compostable produce bags, and replacing Styrofoam trays with recyclable alternatives. But plant-based bioplastics, which stores increasingly favor, can still contribute to microplastic pollution if released into the environment, Pinsky notes, and molded fiberboard could harbor cancer-causing chemicals.
“It’s clear that recycling or substituting materials is not going to solve this problem; we need to see a focused reduction of plastic production in the first place,” he adds. “We need to shift our culture back to more reuse systems.”
One result of the plastics backlash is the idea of the zero-waste supermarket. Brianne Miller, a marine biologist, was so sickened by the swaths of plastic that greeted her in different dive sites around the world — even the remote ones — that she left academia to co-found Nada, a zero-waste grocer that is not only the first of its kind in downtown Vancouver but in all of Canada.
At Nada, everything, including fruits, vegetables, meats, grains, cheeses, nut butters, and sauces, is sold loose. Customers can load up their own jars, containers, and drawstring bags, or pick up cleaned and sanitized ones that are available for sale. Depending on what they need, they can pick up a barrel of crackers or just a handful. But customers are just one piece of Nada’s master plan; the store also works with its suppliers to deliver their products free of disposable packaging.
“In many instances, suppliers are dropping off products every couple days or every week, so it’s quite easy, for example, to have things like coffee beans dropped off in a reusable Rubbermaid tote,” Miller says. “And then when the next shipment comes in, the container goes back to the supplier, and then it’s refilled and reused again, so we have this circular loop of containers that are coming and going from our store.” Nada sources as close to the store as possible, which helps with the minimalist approach, since products don’t have to be coddled across vast distances. “Instead of shipping cucumbers from across the country, we have the local farm, so that packaging isn’t necessary in the first place,” she says.
Zero-waste supermarkets, especially full-service ones like Nada, may seem like an answer to our plastic packaging problem, except they’re still a rarity. In.gredients, an East Austin business that billed itself as America’s first zero-waste grocery store, shuttered permanently in 2018. There is a smattering of others in London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Stockholm, and Hong Kong, but they are largely boutique outfits with narrow aisles and more hipster appeal than options. For the vast majority of people, single-use plastics are still an inescapable aspect of their shopping reality.
One other solution is a return to the old “milkman delivery” model of yore. The brainchild of TerraCycle, a New Jersey-based “waste solution development” firm, Loop offers popular products — think Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Hidden Valley ranch dressing, Tropicana orange juice, and Quaker Oats oatmeal — in durable glass and aluminum tubs designed to be returned, cleaned, and refilled. Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Danone are just some of the marquee names that have thrown in their support. Loop has also roped in a number of retail partners, including Kroger and Walgreens in the United States, Tesco in the United Kingdom, and Carrefour in France.
“It’s super important to us to meet consumers where they’re already shopping,” says Heather Crawford, Loop’s vice president of marketing and e-commerce. Unlike with bulk or zero-waste supermarkets, customers don’t have to sling their own containers or wash them, which could help adoption. “People want a better, more sustainable option with less waste, but they’re not always willing to change their behaviors to get there,” she says. “Loop removes all of the friction from the systems that exist in the current zero-waste solution.”
Tory Gundelach, vice president of retail insights at the consulting agency Kantar, sees a growing desire from customers for forward-thinking efforts such as Loop. “Younger shoppers, particularly, are becoming more attuned to the effect of their actions on the environment or society as a whole,” she says. “Shoppers increasingly want to see the retailers and brands they engage reflect their own personal values.” Nearly two-thirds of millennials and Gen Z-ers say they prefer “brands that have a point of view and stand for something,” Kantar’s research has found.
And therein lies supermarkets’ business proposition. Reducing packaging through resource-efficient design or losing it altogether can save money on raw materials and shipping costs — always a plus for the bottom line — but it can also win over a demographic that is only going to grow into its spending power.
“Shoppers are telling us, ‘I’m putting my dollars against the retailers and the brands that feel like they have values that line up with my values,’” Gundelach says. “And to do that, of course, brands and retailers have to put out what their values are that they stand for.”
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