From plastic to paper and beyond: Iceland’s head of sustainable packaging unwraps his secrets

The supermarket is pushing suppliers to provide solutions, including ready-meal makers – and they’re not the only retailers applying pressure.

12 February 2018
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Before Blue Planet dramatically increased consumer awareness on the devastation that plastic was wreaking on the environment, Iceland had been quietly working on a plan to introduce alternative packaging into its supermarket.

People in the business, some of whom are surfers, had seen the devastation and pollution in the seas, and the company wanted to cut the source of the problem, rather than relying on recycling.

Here, Richard Parker, head of sustainable packaging at Iceland, talks to Food Spark about bringing food manufacturers on the journey and other innovations happening in packaging.

What led you down the path to eliminate plastic packaging for all your own-brand products by 2023?

Plastic is a great material – it’s very light, cheap and quite functional – but that’s actually one of the problems, because there is a lot of it, people don’t care about it. I think we felt we had to do something about it before the planet rebels against it.

We are starting to move out of the black trays and are moving into paper-based trays, so there’s a new Hungry Heroes range for children and a Mumbai street range, and there will be others to follow. Over time we will then migrate to other things. So instead of plastic bags we may put vegetables back into cartons for example, or we are even looking at loose selling into paper bags so that you can carry it out of store.

Everywhere we look around the store we can think of a potential solution where plastic can be replaced, and initially, yes, we will still have some plastic around for the next few years, but hopefully we will find an economic solution for all things.

Have you talked to your suppliers and food manufacturers about the problem?

We had a massive conference with over 100 suppliers in Chester, where we said, this is the outline of the plan, here are some suggestions on how we want to move forward, but actually we need everyone’s help to solve the problems.

Following on from that, we had all our ready-meal suppliers in St Davids and we talked to them directly about how we can move out of the black plastic trays and into new substrates. So they have all gone away now to look at harmonising the range, reducing the numbers and achieving our target, which is getting rid of the black plastic trays out of the system as fast as possible.

We will do the same with other suppliers. We give them all a briefing document when they come to see us in the kitchen, so if they are proposing new food ranges, they are asked to provide solutions which are not in plastic, and some have some innovative suggestions already.

We know from talking to other suppliers that all the other retailers have ramped up their discussions, even if they haven’t announced the same thing that we have. So we think this is going to be a general trend not just for retailers, but also for the major manufactures that are supplying goods into the market.

Have you seen interesting ideas from other companies around plastic packaging?

We don’t want to rule out other things like glass and aluminium, as they can easily be collected and recycled, but the innovation in paper technology – and the coatings that can be used so it can be easily recovered – is quite high at the moment. And we will need to do some testing to get it perfected.

New materials derived from bamboo and sugar beet, so using the waste and making the packaging out of it, is quite a trend in the market.

There is also cellulose space materials, an old material that was around way before the plastic industry, and it may start to come back because it’s potentially compostable. But if we go into that it’s another story in terms of how do you collect it, make sure it goes back into the right places and is composted properly.

There are a few others things like compounds that break down plastics and other materials very quickly, but we are not convinced about it at this stage, partly as they may end up with micro particles – and that’s actually the real cause of the problem in the ocean.

What are the challenges of eliminating plastic from production?

Availability is one thing, because obviously we are going to make a big shift from one form of packaging into another one. And the time it takes to put new tooling down and new machines and equipment.

Most of the consumers like to see products through film, so if you look at some of the packaging on the market, it’s actually vacuum packed with a skin film on top, so it really looks nice. But actually it’s almost impossible to do that without using plastic.

So there could be areas of concern where people say, ‘I’d rather see the food that I’m going to buy,’ and we are going to say, ‘Well, actually, if you want to make the journey into non-plastic, then you will have to rely on us and believe it’s good quality food in there, but you won’t be able to see it as easily as you did before.’ That’s something that we might have to communicate to consumers – it’s something different and it’s the right thing to do – but it’s a bit early days to get proper consumer feedback on it.

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