A supermarket in Amsterdam now features a dedicated aisle of almost 700 plastic-free, organic products – and there are plans for it to go national
“We can’t stand by, knowing what we know now,” says Sian Sutherland. “It’s simply too important.” Sian is the co-founder of A Plastic Planet, a UK-based environmental action group, and one of the driving forces behind the world’s first dedicated plastic-free supermarket aisle.
Following input from A Plastic Planet, the aisle opened in February at the Amsterdam branch of Dutch organic supermarket chain Ekoplaza. Standing in the supermarket, surrounded by goods packaged in compostable biomaterials made from plants and trees, Sutherland believes shoppers are increasingly seeing through the ‘lie’ that we cannot do without plastic packaging.
“When we began this two years ago, no one talked about the plastics problem. But if you don’t know what the problem is now, you must have been hiding in a cave for the past 12 months.”
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It’s true – plastic awareness has grown suddenly. Documentaries like the BBC’s Blue Planet series have shown the extent of the problem in all its ugly glory: floating plastic patches accumulating in the world’s oceans, grains of plastic crowding out sand on our beaches, and tangled knots of the stuff filling the stomachs of marine animals.
Campaigners say the grocery retail sector accounts for over 40 per cent of all plastic packaging. Recycling may be a way of assuaging our guilt, but over two-thirds of plastic packaging in the UK is unrecyclable. Now Sutherland is pressing for plastic-free aisles in UK supermarkets too. The government has expressed tentative support, while the public appetite for such projects is now huge. A recent poll by Populus showed that 91 per cent of Britons back the introduction of plastic-free aisles.
“People are ready for change. But at your local supermarket, there is no option. So, our campaign is simple – just give us a plastic-free aisle. We just don’t want to be part of the problem any more. We want choice,” says Sutherland.
Ekoplaza plans to roll out similar aisles in all of its 74 branches in the Netherlands by the end of the year. The testbed aisle – which includes meat, rice, dairy, cereals, yogurt, snacks, fresh fruit and vegetables – shows, says Sutherland, that plastic-free can be viable, scalable and highly convenient. “Remember that plastic-free does not mean packaging-free. We still want convenience. It means accelerating towards an exciting new generation of natural, food-safe materials.”
Could this yet be a passing fad? The latest trend in guilt to plague our conscience? “This is the smoking of our generation,” answers Sutherland, with conviction. “We look at those 1950s pro-smoking ads now and they seem farcical. That’s how future generations will view our plastic use.
“We don’t need to roll back the years, we need to think progressively and move forwards together, without blame, to end this plastic addiction.”
In photos: The world’s first plastic-free supermarket aisle
All images: Ewout Huibers