Day 6

'Wasted': U.K. food retailer vows to be the world's first to go plastic-free

In our fifth installment of 'Wasted,' we speak with a major grocer and frozen food producer in the U.K. that says it will stop using plastic packaging in its own-brand foods by 2023.
Richard Walker, Managing Director of Iceland Foods, holding new cardboard packaging on the right. The food retailer vows to end plastic packaging of its brands by 2023. (Iceland Foods)

Welcome to the fifth instalment of 'Wasted,' a Day 6 series about garbage and what we do with it. In this week's episode, we're taking a look at the plastic packaging on our food.

It began with banning plastic straws from their stores, but now U.K. food retailer Iceland Foods is vowing to ban all plastic packaging from their own-brand products by 2023.

Iceland Foods is the first global retailer vowing to go plastic-free.

We've all awoken to the scourge of plastics. It's a reality.- Richard Walker, managing director, Iceland Foods

The food chain made an announcement on Jan. 16 and will introduce its first new line of green packaging this spring, with the introduction of 20 new product lines of frozen foods. Cardboard trays will now replace the black plastic trays commonly used for microwavable meals.

Richard Walker is the managing director of Iceland Foods and as he tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, the time is ripe for getting rid of plastic packaging.

"We've all awoken to the scourge of plastics. It's a reality. It's a fact that every minute there is a truckload of plastic entering the ocean," says Walker. "So it's really a crisis for humanity."

Debris in Hanauma Bay, Hawaii, in 2008. (The Associated Press/NOAA)

Plastic in our oceans

Up to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste are washing into the world's oceans on an annual basis.

Plastics and other debris line the shore of the Thames Estuary on Jan. 2, 2018, in Cliffe, Kent, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
In the U.K. alone, the leading grocery retailers generate 800,000 tonnes of waste from plastic food packaging.

In December, the UN declared ocean plastics a "planetary crisis," urging governments, companies and individuals to take stronger actions to end plastic pollution.

For Walker, it's a problem that's getting worse and needs to be addressed.

"I'm a surfer and I've surfed all over the world, and I've become increasingly aware over the last couple of years of just how much plastic there is in the ocean," he says.

"That's also backed up by the fact that in the last 10 years there's been more plastic produced than the previous 100 years. So this problem is getting worse and worse. We have to do something."

The reason we can do something now is that I think the technologies are now becoming commercially available to make this aspiration a reality.- Richard Walker, managing director, Iceland Foods

Walker has been aware of the plastic problem, but says that research and development now make it the right time for change.

"The reason we can do something now is that I think the technologies are now becoming commercially available to make this aspiration a reality."

Iceland's plan is to end the plastic packaging of its own-brand products, such as the frozen foods that are the major part of their production line. The change will affect 1,400 product lines.

"That's a good first step. Because that's the element of our supply chain that we can control. The ultimate step would be to persuade our branded suppliers to follow suit as well," says Walker.

Cucumbers packaged in plastic are pictured at a branch of Asda in South London, on January 10, 2018. (Justin TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

The challenges in removing plastic from food packaging

For Iceland Foods, the first step in going plastic-free was banning plastic straws from its stores. Plastic straws will be replaced with environmentally friendly biodegradable straws by September 2018.

In March, Iceland Foods will release its new ready-made meal product lines, which will be the first line to be free of plastic packaging.

Iceland Foods storefront in Clapham, a district of London, England. (Iceland Foods)

"They are in a board tray made of paper pulp, as opposed to the black plastic tray that I'm sure is very common in Canada as well," explains Walker.

"Those black plastic trays are interesting. They're particularly bad because they're high-carbon to produce, they're single-use and they're not recyclable," says Walker.

"And we even though we're only two and a half percent of the market, we produce 100 million of these every year. So if we can get out of those by the end of this year that will be a major first step in our plastic elimination."

Bambury asks Walker how he feels, as a surfer, about the fact that his family company was selling 100 million of the non-recyclable black plastic trays a year.

"Yeah, I mean look, you know we all need to stand up and recognise our responsibility. And I'm a believer in sustainable capitalism," says Walker.

This is a world's first. So this isn't going to be easy or straightforward and we're fully aware of the challenges that we face that.- Richard Walker, managing director, Iceland Foods

"I suppose ... I believe in doing well in business and making a profit. You know, if we can do good for society and the environment along the way even better. So, you know, we all have to change what we do and re-look at how we do it."

Walker goes on to say that he doesn't think the change away from plastic was possible five years ago because the technology wasn't there.

"But now it is possible. We're going to do it. But this is a world's first. So this isn't going to be easy or straightforward and we're fully aware of the challenges that we face."

Walker also notes that the costs involved in going plastic-free will not be passed on to consumers.

"Why should the customer pay for it? Fortunately, being a private business we can take a long term view. We're not a publicly listed company that has to chase quarterly profits. So we believe in making the right long term decisions which ultimately we hope will mean good business."

Richard Walker of Iceland Foods holds the new cardboard packaging for its new line of ready-made meals, with the old black plastic packaging held to the left. (Iceland Foods)

The pressure on other retailers to go plastic-free

As Walker notes, this is a world's first. No other major global retailers are plastic-free. But he's hoping that will change.

"The pressure is growing, and growing because consumers are absolutely crying out for this. We undertook some consumer research which showed that 80 percent of people in the U.K. would support a move by a supermarket to go plastic free."

Canadians waste an estimated $31 billion in food every year, with consumers responsible for half of all food wasted, according to the Saskatchewan Waste Reduction Council, which is hosting a Feb. 5 event to help educate people on how to waste less. (Justin TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Because of that public desire for greener packaging, Walker expects other retailers to follow Iceland's lead.

"And you know what? I hope they do as well because this is a time for collaboration. We're doing this alone at the moment but it would be an awful lot easier if we do this as an industry which hopefully will make things happen quicker."

Also pushing retailers to change their ways is the effort by British Prime Minister Theresa May to ban all avoidable plastic within 25 years.

I hope the world is waking up to the fact that plastic straws, for example, are just not cool anymore.- Richard Walker, managing director, Iceland Foods

Walker hopes Iceland's plastic-free pledge will help aid in that effort.

"Obviously, you know, 25 years is a very long time," Walker says. "And hopefully our announcement will give a bit more tangibility [and] put a bit more meat on the bones to show that these things are possible quicker."

Iceland Foods has also created a social media hastag #toocoolforplastic, not specific to its store, that it hopes will encourage others to follow their green lead.

"We didn't actually want to make it too specific on Iceland in terms of naming ourselves," explains Walker.

"This is a crisis that we're all facing, and obviously there's the reference to being cool, because I hope the world is waking up to the fact that plastic straws, for example, are just not cool anymore. You can have the biodegradable paper straws now."

Walker goes on to say that he hopes single-use plastic packaging will be a thing of the past within his lifetime.

"I really hope that when my kids are my age they'll look back on single-use plastics like I now look back on smoking on the back of planes. It just seems crazy and I can't believe that people did it."



To hear the full interview with Richard Walker, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

Click here for Part OneTwoThree and Four of 'Wasted,' our series about trash — how we generate it, what happens to it, and how we can generally be better at dealing with garbage.