How Thornton’s Budgens introduced plastic-free zones in 10 weeks

The independent retailer has introduced over 1,800 new plastic-free products and overhauled its own packaging.

9 November 2018

In a landmark move, Thornton’s Budgens has become the first supermarket in the UK to introduce plastic-free zones – in a project it started just 10 weeks ago.

Founder Andrew Thornton tells Food Spark he has proven going plastic-free can be done and is throwing down the gauntlet to the major retailers to implement a similar initiative.

He says Budgens aimed to bring in 1,500 plastic-free products and exceeded that target with 1,825 in its Belsize Park store.

Breaking the addiction

Thornton says he approached the issue in two ways: looking at what the store packaged themselves and looking at the items it buys.

“So we have food counters for fish and cheese, a bakery, a juice bar and sushi bar. All those things we have been working on, so with the bread, instead of putting it into cellophane plastic bags, now it gets wrapped in paper and compostable clear bags; with the fish, instead of wrapping it in paper and putting in a plastic bag, we are now putting it in waxed paper; the cheese we used to wrap ourselves with cling film and we are now using a mixture of wax or plant-based cellular film; and in the juice bar we are using plant-based compostable cups and straws,” he explains.

Some of Thornton’s favourite plastic hacks are the biomaterial meat trays made from sugar cane that are certified as fully compostable, which are packed with game meats like squirrel, and the use of beechwood netting to sell fruit in bulk.

However, the supermarket’s plastic-free zones showcase a wealth of innovative plastic-free materials, including pulp, paper, metal, glass, cellulose and carton board. For products, the plastic-free designation is for those that are at least 99% plastic-free.

Signage and shelf talkers tell shoppers about the packaging to help them make plastic-free selections – with plastic-free products stocked next to their plastic counterparts so consumers have a clear choice, says Thornton. “This means our customers will be able to do a comprehensive shop without the need to use any plastic packaging,” he comments.

He adds that he wants to break the addiction to plastic that currently plagues the industry. “I felt we could make a difference and show the big retailers that if we can do 1,800 products in 10 weeks, then look what Tesco and Sainsbury’s could do with the huge resources they have,” he says.

A new way to shop

Environmental group A Plastic Planet worked with Budgens to create the plastic-free zones and Thornton says it would have been impossible to achieve the results without them.

Sian Sutherland, A Plastic Planet co-founder, says Budgens are disrupting the market. She tells Food Spark a stand out change for her was the beechwood nets for fruit and veg, which is a first in a UK supermarket.

“Created from waste from beechwood mills, these simply disintegrate should they get into the environment – even into waterways. Then there is Curiosity Bacon – very smart packaging using cellulose and paper and the first pre-packed bacon. It’s also using QR codes to explain the provenance, hand curing and special smoking,” she comments.

“Percol Coffee is also the first coffee brand to carry our Plastic Free Consumer Trust Mark. They were the first to adopt the Fairtrade symbol too. The coffee bag has always been a packaging challenge and the current multi-laminated foil and plastic was hard to replace. But they have cracked it – now giving us plastic-free choice of capsules, bags, etc.”

Sutherland also admires the simplicity of wrapping cheese in waxed paper as it looks so fresh and real. “The overwhelming feedback from the launch was that everything non-plastic just looked so much more delicious, fresh and gustative. This is how we are meant to experience food shopping,” she says.

Sutherland adds that while big retailers claim it will take 10 years to create real plastic-free change, Budgens has shown that we can start to wean ourselves off plastic in just 10 weeks.

A Plastic Planet has also worked with Netherlands retailer Ekoplaza, who unveiled plastic-free aisles in April this year across 700 products in its stores, following a two-month pop-up trial.

Cracking the crisis

The biggest challenge of the plastic-free project was the time required to make it happen, says Thornton, but he has never seen his team so energised in the 12 years he has been in retail.

“It took a lot of time and a lot of people to source products and find them. We did experiments with the bread, and when we first packed them, we didn’t do it right and it went stale quickly and sales went down,” he explains. “We also had reorganise the whole store – and we have 14,000 lines in the shop, so it was monumental remerchandising that had to happen in a short period of time.”

Some products have also been delisted where manufacturers had failed to find plastic alternatives and Thornton has written to their chief executives to explain why. He is also happy to share his experiences with anyone who wants to make similar changes.

Now, Thornton has the ambitious goal of being virtually plastic-free within the next three years. Although he admits it will be almost impossible without the major retailers coming on board.

“We have to depend on the rest of the world to catch up, but without the big manufacturers shifting, it’s hard," he says. "We are a mainstream supermarket, not a quirky small shop; we sell a lot of the big brands like Coca Cola, Unilever and Nestlé, and the only way we can become plastic-free is if they embrace it. And the only way they can do it is if the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury’s put the pressure on them to do it.

"We are hoping to inspire the big retailers to inspire the manufacturers."

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