UK’s first plastic-free supermarket zone opens: “Imagine what major chains can achieve,” says owner

UK’s first plastic-free supermarket zone opens: “Imagine what major chains can achieve,” says owner

14 Nov 2018 --- A London supermarket has become one of the first in the world to introduce a dedicated Plastic Free Zone. In collaboration with A Plastic Planet, Thornton’s Budgens store in Camden’s Belsize Park took only 10 weeks to accumulate more than 1,700 plastic-free products, ranging from fresh fruit and vegetables to wild game meat including squirrel and wild boar. A range of plastic-alternative materials including beechwood nets, pulp, paper, metal, glass, cellulose and carton board are being used to package the products. Plastic-free zones are designed to introduce consumers to the concept of a plastic-free lifestyle.

“We aim to double the number of products in six months and it’s our aim to be virtually plastic free in three years – but that will require the major multinational food companies to make some moves,” Founder and Owner, Andrew Thornton, tells PackagingInsights. “This means embracing plastic-free packaging and the use of non-plastic materials to package products.”

Along with squirrel meat, the zones are stocked with staples including fresh produce from meat and fish to bread, cheese, vegetables and fruit, as well as a range of packaged food and drink products.

“Disrupting the market”
Sian Sutherland, A Plastic Planet Co-Founder, says: “Plastic is totally nuts. Thornton’s Budgens are disrupting the market and showing that wrapping something as fleeting as food in something as long-lasting as plastic is the definition of madness.”

“While big retailers claim it will take 10 years to create real plastic-free change, Thornton’s Budgens has shown that we can start to wean ourselves off plastic in 10 weeks. There is no logical reason why retailers like Tesco, who have the financial clout to bring about change, cannot do the same.”

Thornton was eager to demonstrate that plastic-free packaging could be commercially viable after meeting A Plastic Planet – a non-profit organization which campaigns for a 100 percent discontinuation of plastics in food and beverage packaging – and watching the film A Plastic Ocean.

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Fresh bread at Thornton’s Budgens' plastic-free zone

“More and more consumers want to be able to use less plastic,” he says. “We collaborated with A Plastic Planet who have been working on this for over two years. We want to build on the learnings from Ekoplaza in the Netherlands.” Ekoplaza in Amsterdam opened the world’s first plastic-free aisle in March.

“The issue of plastic is one that can no longer be ignored so we’ve chosen to be the first mainstream supermarket in the UK to introduce Plastic Free Zones. This means our customers will be able to do a comprehensive shop without the need to use any plastic packaging.”

“Plastic Free Squirrels are one of 1,700 plastic-free products that our customers can now buy. Our aim is to show the big supermarkets that it is not as difficult to go plastic-free as they think. If we with our limited resources in 10 weeks can introduce more than a thousand plastic-free products just imagine what the major chains could achieve,” Thornton says.

Sutherland agrees, adding: “Supermarkets like Thornton’s Budgens are blazing a trail for the major brands to follow.”

Plastic Free Squirrels are packaged in certified compostable biomaterials. Both the meat tray and film wrapping are certified as compostable in line with EN-13432 standards.

Thornton’s Budgens’ plastic-free zone features “Cut Plastic Out” signs, created by London design studio, Made Thought. It is designed to provide the busy and eco-conscious consumer with a clear indication of packaging which is plastic-free while shopping.

“Trial and error”
Thornton describes that transitioning away from plastic packaging is not a smooth process for all products.

“On our first attempt to replace bread plastic overwraps with paper, the bread went stale, sales dropped and waste went up. In the end, we wrapped smaller loaves in paper and larger ones in a compostable film.”

Likewise, Thornton explains that cheese sales initially dipped because customers were deterred by not being able to see the product in the new packaging. To solve the issue, the supermarket instead used a transparent non-plastic wrapping.

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Fresh fruit and veg at Thornton’s Budgens' plastic-free zone

“We have only just begun”
“Our total focus is on working collaboratively with businesses worldwide to accelerate the pace of change,” Sutherland tells PackagingInsights. “The best way to ignite change is to show by example – so our Plastic Free Aisle in Amsterdam was the start. Thornton's Budgens is a great example of what can happen quickly where there is commitment and tremendous energy. We worked day and night to take almost 2000 product lines plastic free. It will double in 6 months.”

“It is easy for us to think that with so much media noise, plastic production must be slowing down. We couldn't be more wrong. Right now, without intervention and seismic change, plastic production is set to fivefold by 2050. Where on earth do we think all this plastic is going to go?”

“The Plastic Free Aisle was received extremely well by consumers around the world. It continues to gain international interest within the media across the globe, ranging from the Americas to Europe and as far as Asia,” Sutherland concludes.

A Plastic Planet has called for an urgent transformation of the UK’s approach to waste management, urging the government to use the new plastics tax to fund a national infrastructure that mandates both recycling and composting.

Sian Sutherland spoke in depth to PackagingInsights about “turning off the plastic tap” during the recent Packaging Innovations show in London. Watch the video here.

By Joshua Poole

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