In an Amsterdam supermarket, a new “plastic-free” aisle is a microcosm of the entire store. It’s possible to buy around 700 items–meat, sauces, produce, yogurt, snacks, cereal, drinks, enough for a week’s worth of groceries–but nothing is packaged in conventional plastic. Any package that looks like regular plastic is bio-based and compostable; everything else is packaged in a material, like aluminum or glass, that is easily recyclable.
The aisle, which opened last week and is the first of its kind, raises a question: What would it take for mainstream supermarkets to shift completely away from standard plastic packaging?
“We’re not talking packaging-free–packaging-free is not convenient, and it won’t be adopted at scale by supermarkets and it really won’t be appreciated by the customer, because we’re so addicted to convenience now,” says Sian Sutherland, cofounder of A Plastic Planet, the U.K.-based grassroots organization that helped the Amsterdam supermarket add the new plastic-free aisle. “What’s important for us is that everything on our aisle gives the consumer that same level of convenience, it gives the supermarket something they can scale up, and it’s viable for the supermarket and affordable for the customer.”
The nonprofit launched its “Plastic-Free Aisle” campaign a year ago, as awareness of the problems with plastic packaging and ocean pollution grew in the U.K., and the founders realized that even motivated consumers would struggle to avoid buying plastic packages. “Even once your eyes are open and you know what we’re doing and you want to change, you then go to your local supermarket and of course it’s impossible to change,” Sutherland says. “Because everything is wrapped in plastic.”
Six months ago, the activists met Erik Does, the chief executive of Ekoplaza, a chain with 74 locations in the Netherlands, who decided to take on the challenge of creating the first plastic-free aisle. Following the first location in Amsterdam, Does plans to add similar aisles to each of his stores by the end of the year.
While the shift isn’t easy for a store, there’s no reason it isn’t technically possible now. The need to package some foods in typical plastic–for food safety, or to help food last longer and prevent food waste–can be satisfied with compostable materials made from things like plant starch, or even food waste itself…