Retail Week Columns

Let’s consign plastic packaging to history

Malcolm Walker explains Iceland’s pledge to remove plastic packaging from its own label ranges by 2023, and non-recyclable trays from its frozen meals by the end of the year.

February 23, 2018

For a small food retailer on a Brexiting island off Europe, Iceland has racked up more than its fair share of world firsts.

Setting up a shop selling loose frozen food in 1970 wasn’t one of them – though there’s no shame in pinching someone else’s idea if you can make a better job of it than they do.

But right from the start Iceland had some firm principles: always trying to do the right thing, and giving customers a choice. And believing that choice shouldn’t be restricted to those who can afford to pay a bit more for it.

Those beliefs often put us ahead of our competitors. Back in the mid-1980s, I got really concerned about the number of additives going into the food we eat, so I decided to take them out wherever possible.

Artificial colours, flavourings and non-essential preservatives were banned from Iceland’s own brand 20 years before many of our rivals got around to doing the same thing.

In 1996 we started to roll out a free home delivery service, and three years later we were the first food retailer in the world to launch a nationwide online shopping service. If only more of our customers had owned computers!

Just before that, in 1998, my own growing concerns about genetic modification led us to become the world’s first national food retailer to ban GM ingredients from our own brand. Experts lined up to tell me that it was a totally mad idea that simply couldn’t be done.

But we did it, and soon all our competitors copied us, because that is what British consumers demanded.

I really hope history will repeat itself with plastic. Well before Blue Planet II made it the centre of our national conversation, we’d started working out how we could remove plastic packaging from our own brand.

We did it because my son Richard is a keen surfer, and saw with his own eyes the damage that plastic was doing to the oceans.

It’s light, it’s convenient, it’s cheap. It displays and protects food well. But it is also damn nigh indestructible, and not being recycled in anything like the quantities required.

We’d have to be insane to keep producing stuff from finite reserves of fossil fuel that we use for a minute then chuck away – but which lasts for half a millennium before starting to degrade.

So last month we announced another global first: the aim to take plastic packaging out of our own label ranges by 2023. It’s a huge task, but we’re already on our way, with our first two new meal ranges in paper-based trays – rather than black plastic ones – hitting our stores this week.

We’re planning to eliminate non-recyclable black plastic trays from Iceland frozen meals completely by the end of the year, taking 100 million of them out of circulation.

I’m genuinely delighted to see competitors from Waitrose to Asda following suit. It’s great to see Parliament, The Queen and the BBC coming on board, too.

I’ve written to all the country’s other food retail chief executives urging them to join us, because by working together we can ensure the delivery of developing technologies that will consign the excessive use of plastic to history.

Frozen meal trays are quite easy to replace. Areas like modified atmosphere packs for chilled food and milk bottles present more of a challenge. But if the collective will is there I am sure we can resolve them.

Currently we’re working on how to replace the plastic bags in which we sell frozen fruit and veg. It’s been suggested we could just sell them loose. Now there’s an idea!






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