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A Plastic-Free Future Starts With Your Groceries

Andrea Felsted

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- At a Waitrose grocery store in Oxford, England, shoppers are scooping up frozen fruit from dispensers like pick and mix candy. They are filling old plastic takeaway containers with everything from muesli to risotto rice. Welcome to Unpacked, the new store concept from Waitrose, which has freed more than 200 items from their packaging.

Environmental campaigners like Greenpeace have been demanding British supermarkets reduce their plastic footprint. But it’s trickier to strip wrappings from food than other products, such as toys, because it can go off. The packaging conundrum facing grocers only compounds another problem they’re grappling with: food waste.

But they are making strides to be green, from eliminating hard-to-recycle materials, such as PVC, to enabling customers to remove and recycle wrappings before products leave the store. Some are even offering reverse vending machines to recycle plastic bottles. Tesco Plc said recently that it could no longer stock items if they had too much packaging and is working with suppliers to help them find ways to use less.

It’s easier to design plastic-free packaging for products sold at room temperature. As well as dry goods, consumers can easily refill containers for household and personal care items like cleaning supplies or shampoo. Fresh food is much trickier. Meat, for example, will not last long if it isn’t wrapped to protect it from the air. Fresh fruit and vegetables are another challenge because they can be damaged during transport. Even so, Unpacked sells 160 types of loose fruit and vegetables. 

Seasonality presents another problem. For example, Wm Morrison Supermarkets Plc sources cucumbers from the U.K. in the summer. With the shorter supply chain, they don’t need any packaging. In cooler months, they come from Spain, so they need a thin recyclable film; Morrison makes it clear to customers that the cucumbers have their winter jackets on.

One way to extend shelf lives without plastic is to grow products even nearer to the end customer. Vertical farming, which uses stacked trays under LED lights to grow different kinds of food indoors, is one option. Ocado Group Plc, the online supermarket, recently made two investments in this space, including buying 58% of Jones Food Co., Europe’s largest operating vertical farm, based in Scunthorpe, England.

Jones primarily grows herbs, packing them in biodegradable and compostable materials within air that has had some of the elements removed. This tricks the plants into thinking that they haven’t been harvested, keeping them fresher for longer.

Vertical farms could be built next to supermarkets or online grocery distribution centers to shorten supply chains, reduce packaging and cut down on transportation and refrigeration.

Supermarkets are finding other products more difficult to make environmentally friendly. Surprisingly, one is ready meals. They contain liquids and must be kept fresh, while their packaging needs to be able to withstand cooking in both an oven and a microwave.

Waitrose has spent more than five years developing a fiber-based packaging that is compostable. It has also introduced trays made from recycled plastic. These come in different colors, depending on the material they’re made from, and don’t have the uniform look that customers are used to.

Indeed, while supermarkets must change their behavior to be more sustainable, so must shoppers: For example, a cucumber wrapped in plastic will last about 14 days. One without keeps for about half that time.

Morrison has introduced reusable paper carrier bags, but recently began trialing plastic alternatives costing 30 pence each — a higher price than usually charged — prompting complaints from some customers.

Waitrose has made sure it’s possible to do a full shop at its 25,000 square foot Unpacked store to help customers be more sustainable without disrupting their everyday lives. So far it’s working: Products without packaging are outselling those that still have it. Some 50% of customers using the refill stations for dry goods are bringing their own containers on a regular basis. 

All of the U.K. supermarkets are coming under pressure to be more sustainable. So far, 1.4 million people have signed Greenpeace’s petition calling on them to to ditch throwaway plastic packaging. They have more work to do. But so do Britain’s consumers.

To contact the author of this story: Andrea Felsted at afelsted@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephanie Baker at stebaker@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.

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