Dutch supermarkets have been testing their potential to go plastic-free.

Edition 19 April 2019, by Femke van Iperen

 A step in the right direction? Opinions vary.

As public concern around plastic and its devastating effects on our planet continues to grow, supermarkets in the Netherlands have been testing the potential for recyclable and plastic-free packaging, Dutch media have reported. In fact, supermarkets in the Netherlands seem to have big goals when it comes to finding alternatives to plastic waste, and these trials are to set their plans in motion. Albert Heijn (AH), for example, aims for its own-brand packaging to be 100% recyclable by 2025.

As part of these goals, Albert Heijn also intends to reduce the amount of own-brand packaging material by 25 percent by 2025, AD wrote in September 2018, and Aldi has committed to using only recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging for its own-brand products in all its stores by 2022. In February 2019 Jumbo publicised its plan to start recycling 27 million of its plastic drinking cups per year, and the supermarket chain also intends to start using only one type of material (mono material) in its packaging to make it easier to recycle.

To deal with the problem of plastic disposable products, all of the Lidl’s straws, cups, glasses, cutlery and cotton ear buds will be replaced by reusable materials such as bamboo or paper, Het Parool reported in July 2018. Lidl is also aiming for a 20% reduction in plastic use at its stores , as well as for all of its plastic packaging to be 100% recyclable by 2025.

Meanwhile, in July 2018, PLUS, which claims to be the most responsible supermarket chain of the Netherlands, disclosed some of what it called its concrete results, such as 2.8 million bottles of orange juice made from 50 percent recycled PET and a 50% reduction in all of its hard-to-recycle black plastic packaging by the end of 2018. The chain is trying to find alternatives to the use of disposable plastic and aims to replace its black plastic by renewable and recyclable packaging by the end of 2019.

Motivation

These goals are not just motivated by public opinion. According to the European Commission, there is a strong business case for ‘transforming the way products are designed, produced, used, and recycled in the EU,’ and finding alternative ways to plastic packaging may just make business sense to supermarkets. In addition, by law, all plastic packaging on the EU market will have to be ‘recyclable by 2030, the consumption of single-use plastics will have to be reduced and the intentional use of microplastics will have to be restricted.’

In January 2018 the EU adopted the Plastic Waste strategy ─ a pioneering, Europe-wide plan to ‘protect the planet, defend our citizens and empower our industries’, which forms part of the wider transition towards a more circular economy. The latter, rather than the ‘make, use and dispose’ policy of the traditional linear economy, is focussed on sufficient food, shelter and heating, as well as safe living and working conditions. The Dutch government, too, aims for its economy to be circular by 2050.

Meanwhile the CBL, the Dutch trade association for the supermarket sector and food service, has reached an agreement with Dutch supermarkets. Supermarkets are some of the largest suppliers of waste, and in particular of plastic waste, and this agreement aims at a reduction of 20% of packaging material in Dutch supermarkets by 2025. Packaging material will also consist of 50% recycled material; paper and cardboard will be 100% certified, and in addition, supermarkets will have to actively contribute to consumer awareness on recycling its products.

Supermarket schemes

In order to achieve these targets, what actual steps have been taken so far?

In March 2019 Albert Heijn in Hoofddorp started a test by selling hundreds of its single fruit and vegetables plastic-packaging free. Newspapers such as Het Parool also reported on the shelf-life-increasing method of dry misting in 150 AH stores, which may replace the use of plastic.

In September 2018 newspaper AD described how AH has replaced the lids on its soft fruit trays by a thin layer of plastic, which, it was claimed, saves 300,000 kilos of plastic per year. Plus, to help decrease the use of plastic bags used in the fruit and vegetable department ─ of which 170 million are being used every year by AH customers ─ AH is planning to offer customers an alternative at ten of its stores, the NOS reported in June 2018.

Anita Scholte op Reimer, responsible for packaging at AH, also told AD that the supermarket chain has started measuring how much of its packaging material can be saved by removing and replacing some parts, such as the plastic foil of tea boxes. This will help it keep track of results and steer any future decisions on the type of reusable or recyclable packaging. Currently, 78.4 million kilos of packaging material are used for its own-brand products.

In June 2018 Jumbo started using a new laser technique on some of its organic produce. By replacing packaging materials with a ‘natural label’ lasered onto the vegetable, everyone should be happy, as the smell, taste and shelf life remain unaffected. Customers at Lidl, meanwhile, will find an alternative to plastic bags in the fruit and vegetable isles.

But the initiative that reached the most international media was one by Ekoplaza. In February 2018, newspapers such as Het Parool described how the chain demonstrated the feasibility of a plastic-free supermarket in one of its Amsterdam branches. The store presented nearly 700 products without plastic packaging. Its experiment even caught the attention of international media such as BBC, Al Jazeera and CNN, for being the first supermarket in the world with plastic-free shelves. ‘Before the end of the year,’ wrote The Guardian in February 2018 with enthusiasm, ‘Ekoplaza plans to roll the plastic-free aisle out across all of its 74 stores.’

Opinions divided

Will supermarkets ever become plastic free? Opinions are divided. In the previously-mentioned AD article of September 2018, Anita Scholte op Reimer from AH said that the country is ‘nowhere near’ a packaging-free AH, and that since consumers often shop after work, they are unlikely to ‘drag bottles and jars with them,’ or take the time to pour fresh milk, wine or olive oil themselves. Rob Buurman, director of Recycling Netwerk Benelux, expressed disappointment with AH’s achievements so far in the same article, arguing the chain only works to adapt its own-brand products. Supermarkets have the power to steer the market when it comes to the type of packaging used. However, said Scholte op Reimer in the same article, “when it comes to our suppliers, we cannot put a gun to their heads. Some of them are very large companies, so it would make little sense.”

In any case, argued a Jumbo spokesperson in Dutch media, plastic packaging has a ‘protective function,’ and thus helps reduce waste and extend shelf life. “This may be the case particularly for produce which is sourced from far away, but supermarkets could also look for more local alternatives,” argued Niels van Marle, packaging expert at the Sustainable Packaging Knowledge Institute, in the AD article.

Meanwhile, the Ekoplaza initiative may have reached international news, but not everyone shared the optimism these reports were reflecting. Treehugger.nl for example claimed the bags Ekoplaza used as a replacement for plastic are not decomposable in a sea environment, and still pose a suffocation risk to wildlife.

Despite its good intentions, the sustainability media outlet wrote, initiatives such as those of Ekoplaza seem to miss the opportunity to positively challenge customers to ‘adopt a radically different and more effective shopping model,’ for example by taking refillable containers to the store, something that is already being done at some of the country’s new ‘zero waste’ and ‘bulk shops’.

“Supermarkets always use the same excuses about [protecting] taste and shelf life, while there are enough products that contain plastic without a need for it,” Meike Rijksen told De Volkskrant in September 2018. Rijksen, who runs a campaign against plastic disposables for Greenpeace, and whose petition for a ban on disposable plastic and surplus packaging in supermarkets reached almost 230,000 signatures, said: “We are witnessing a turning point in the Netherlands, under pressure from public opinion. People from all walks of life are fed up; they don’t want plastic streets and oceans.”

To find out more about where to shop packaging free:
hetzerowasteproject.nl/2015/01/supermarkten-zero-waste.html
www.hetzerowasteproject.nl/p/bulk-boodschappenadressen.html
www.bedrock.nl/zero-waste-winkels-nederland/
zonderzooi.com/2018/11/07/zero-waste-boodschappen-doen