When Is A Plastic-Free Aisle Not Plastic-Free?

When Is A Plastic-Free Aisle Not Plastic-Free?

A supermarket aisle in the Netherlands made headlines last month, because it was the “world’s first plastic-free aisle”. I saw the headline, but I didn’t bother to read much further, expecting to see the kind of thing so many times before – neatly laid out rows of bulk bins, where customers can use paper bags or fill their own containers and thus avoid plastic packaging.

It was only when a reader shared one of the articles with me and asked for my thoughts that I actually looked at what was behind the headlines.

What I saw was not what I thought I’d see.

This is what the “plastic-free aisle” looked like:

No. Not what I was expecting either.

If there’s one thing that makes me mad, it’s misleading claims and incorrect science. (Okay, that’s two things, but close enough.) Seeing this aisle set alarm bells ringing in my curious mind.

Let’s look at the details.

The PLASTIC FREE™ Aisle: What Does It Really Mean?

The “plastic-free aisle” is more correctly called the PLASTIC FREE™ aisle. Specifically, it is a collaboration between Dutch supermarket chain Ekoplaza (who own 74 organic supermarkets in the Netherlands) and an environmental campaign group called A Plastic Planet. The clever branding was designed by London graphic design studio Made Thought.

The PLASTIC FREE™ name is a figurative trademark, meaning the stylisation and graphic design of the logo are protected. There is no scientific meaning attached to the name or trademark; it’s more like a brand name.

On their website, A Plastic Planet describes the two groups of materials they call PLASTIC FREE™:

“Bio-Materials: Materials include wood pulp, plant cellulose, food waste, grass, algae, and mushrooms. These materials can be made into trays, punnets and clear, flexible films that look and behave like conventional plastic but can be composted into biomass. A Plastic Planet supports compostable plastics that comply with the necessary certification standards: EN 13432 or OK Home Compostable.”

“Other Materials: Metal, paper, carton board and glass are also plastic free.”

In short, the PLASTIC FREE™ logo does not include uncertified biodegradable plastic, but does include certified compostable plastic.

Often companies who use compostable plastics try to distance themselves from conventional plastics by referencing their plant-based origins (using terms like cornstarch or sugar-based). Or they describe themselves as plastic-like, rather than saying they are plastic. However, compostable plastic is classified as plastic #7 on the ASTM International Resin Identification Coding System (RIC), which is used to identify plastic resins.

Find out more about compostable plastics here.

The Issues That The PLASTIC FREE™ Aisle Doesn’t Address

Certified compostable plastic is different to fossil-fuel based plastic in some ways, but not all. It is not without issues, either.

1. The Language is Confusing (and Potentially Misleading)

The language of plastics, bioplastics and compostable plastics is confusing for many. A Plastic Planet do a good job of outlining what they mean and don’t mean by PLASTIC FREE™ on their website.

But most people glimpsing the headline or even heading to the store won’t be visiting the website.

Even on the website, there’s some confusing inormation. For example, they feature a video with a supplier holding a green meat tray and saying that in 12 weeks, the tray will disappear. That’s impossible science. Compost, degrade, dissolve, evaporate – call it what it is. Nothing disappears.

The stories about the first PLASTIC FREE™ aisle in the media are not always accurate, either, as different meanings and interpretations are made.

Some reporting claims that all the plastic packaging is 100% compostable. Technically, products certified to EN13432 and Ok Home Composting standards are required to break down by a minimum of 90%, not necessarily 100% (the remainder is “residue”).

This matters, because people believe we have a perfect solution, which is not the case.

2. Plant-Based Compostable Plastic Still Creates Litter

One of the big issues with certified compostable plastic is that it is certified compostable under composting conditions. That is not the same as out in the open environment.

Certified compostable packaging is just as capable of causing litter, blocking a drain, suffocating an animal or being mistaken for food as a regular plastic packaging.

3. Compostable Plastic Doesn’t Break Down in the Oceans

No compostable plastic to date has been shown to break down in the marine environment.

As plastic packaging is lightweight, floats, blows in the wind and can be carried by animals, it ends up in the ocean. Compostable plastic is no different to regular plastic in these properties.

4. Compostable Plastic Needs to Be Composted

Compostable plastic needs to be composted to break down, but consumers are often not aware of this. Landfills do not have composting conditions.

Additionally, some commercial composting facilities do not permit compostable plastics, because they do not run their cycles long enough to actually break down the plastic.

As an example, if a green meat tray takes 12 weeks to break down, but the composting cycle only runs for 10 days, the resulting compost will still have green meat tray plastic pieces throughout.

Unless there are systems in place for consumers to compost their own packaging, or companies to accept this packaging for commercial composting, there’s limited value in selling products in compostable plastic.

5. It Doesn’t Reduce Resource Consumption

Whatever it’s made from, single-use packaging is still single-use packaging. On this scale, single-use packaging is a huge waste of resources.

Growing huge amounts of food (sugar, corn, tapioca) with the sole purpose of synthesizing it into packets so that food items can be neatly displayed with predetermined portions in perfect rows in the supermarket? The land, energy and carbon footprint of that is huge.

When there’s so many people in the world who don’t have enough to eat, there’s also an ethical question around using land and food on this scale to create packaging.

What A Plastic-Free Aisle Should Really Look Like

The answer to the problems of too much packaging, plastic in the ocean, litter and carbon emissions isn’t a different type of single-use packaging.

The answer is moving away from single-use packaging.

The answer is in the return of return-and-refill schemes, container deposits, bulk stores… and just not wrapping every single thing in a package regardless of whether it is actually necessary.

Plastic-free aisles already exist. Bulk stores around the world are demonstrating that real plastic-free aisles are possible. Milk is being sold from dispensers and bottles refilled. Fruit and veg shops are stocking produce without plastic.

The Source Bulk Foods has pioneered the plastic-free aisle in Australia, with more than 40 stores, and have recently expanded into New Zealand and the UK.

Plenty of fruit and veg stores (such as my local Swansea St Markets) have shown that it’s perfectly possible to sell fruit and vegetables without needing to package them.

Even my local (Coles) supermarket has a bulk aisle. Okay, so they haven’t ditched the plastic bags just yet, but it’s progress.

The answer isn’t trying to tweak the current system. The answer is in changing the system. Recognising that single-use packaging in any form is a waste, and trying to find solutions that mean no packaging at all.

The question then, is how do we make bulk stores and return-and-refill systems more accessible (location, practicality, affordability) to the masses?

Solutions already exist. Real solutions that focus on rethinking, reducing and reusing.

That’s where the focus needs to be. The more that these kinds of stores and practices are supported, the more they will grow, the more people they will reach, and the more change will happen.

If we really want to tackle the plastic pollution problem, this is what we need to be working on.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What does a plastic-free aisle look like to you? How do you feel about compostable plastic packaging? Do you have access to commercial composting facilities in your area? Where would you like to see change? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts below!

40 Responses to When Is A Plastic-Free Aisle Not Plastic-Free?

  1. Very informative Lindsay, thank you! I have wondered about those plastic bags that claim to be vegetable based. There is always more information to be understood than it first appears.

    As much as I know supermarkets are always trying to find a quick fix and convincing their customers they’re saving the planet in some small way by shopping with their supermarket… which is clearly often not the case, I do feel a small bit of sympathy for those responsible for genuinely searching for a solution that their customers won’t be unimpressed by and end up shopping somewhere else.

    I heard Waitrose supermarket have decided to end plastic takeaway cups for their free coffee. They were asking on their website for customers to bring their own reusable cup. It’s not a bad idea of course, but a few people I know were a little alarmed at the thought of that! I can imagine some people really not liking that idea because of over the top fearful hygiene reasons and sheer inconvenience. So perhaps it’s not always the supermarket who is at fault as to why things don’t change much. Customers get very set in their ways and won’t admit that they do. To return to the way food used to be sold many years ago, we all need a serious education in changing our thinking, because when it comes to the reality of dropping food into a basket or trolley without some form of packaging over the food… many people don’t feel comfortable doing that. Silly, I know, but we’ve been taught that everything we purchase to eat (especially fruits and vegetables needs protecting!

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Suzy! I know what you mean about having sympathy, I don’t want to bag out the environmental campaign or the supermarket. Honestly I’m more cross with the media for printing misleading and incorrect information! That’s my biggest frustration – that people don’t read into the detail (or don’t understand it) and think this packaging will magically dissolve and so it’s all okay. Of course there’s lots of issues and the situation is complex. There is never a magic solution!

      I don’t think any of this is about ‘fault’. Everyone is trying to solve a problem – in my view though, this is solving the wrong problem. The problem as I see it isn’t that fossil fuel plastic is overused, it’s that resources generally are overused. And the bigger issues of plastic – like litter, environmental damage, harming wildlife – that’s no different with fossil fuel plastic or bioplastic. It’s tweaking the system when it really needs changing.

      I do agree we need to meet people where they are at. I think Waitrose are taking a great step forward and I hope they help pave the way and change the way of thinking for other retailers to follow suit. What I like about it is that it’s tangible. I’ve read of a lot of businesses declaring they will “do x by 2023” or “phase out y by 2021” or whatever. sounds great, grabs headlines, but where is the substance? This is a real step, starting now (well, now-ish).

      Of course some people won’t like it. But it’s the right thing to do. Not everyone liked it when slavery was abolished, or when women got the vote, or when CFCs were banned, but it was the right thing to do. Protecting our environment and the world we live in from this kind of pollution and damage is the right thing to do. Slowly people will adapt. Small steps! :)

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I worked in a healthfood store that switched to using compostable plastic bags. To my dismay all of a sudden people who wouldn’t normally accept a bag were taking them. In addition, countless customers would say how wonderful these bags are. When I would raise the issue of wasted resources and energy in the production of them, I would be looked at like I was a nit picking hippy. At the end of the day, it’s just another form of green washing that companies are seeking to make a profit from.

    • Hi Kerry! As someone who several years ago would have gone into your health food store and told you how wonderful the bags were, and now cringes at the thought, I can totally relate!

      That’s one of my biggest frustrations with this kind of packaging – it lulls people into a false sense of security and says “hey, this is okay!” when its not really solving the problem. Are they certified compostable? Or certified home compostable? Maybe when people say how great they are, you should ask them if they have access to a commercial composting facility… that might open up the conversation to explaining that they don’t just vanish or dissolve, and have their flaws… Just an idea!

  3. Thank you for spelling out the catch in this supposedly environmentally friendly consumer trap. In Sweden now the big supermarket chains have started up a collaboration to reduce plastic packaging and I assume it’s something like the above but at least they don’t call it plastic free, they use the word fossil free a very popular word in Sweden these days. I just wish they would use more local suppliers and ditch the packaging all together instead.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ulrika. Fossil free is so much better, at least it’s accurate. How anything that is classified as plastic #7 on the plastics identification resin code can be described as plastic-free is beyond me. (Admittedly 7 means “other”, but the fact it is graded is a clue. You don’t find actual non-plastic materials with a plastic resin identification code.)

      But as you say, if we really look into reusables, returnables, refillables and using local suppliers we can do away with so much packaging. That HAS to be the future!

  4. Thank you for this. Even the bulk stores seem to be using plastic bins to store food in, but I suppose its progress and hopefully will encourage us all to take our own containers to purchase food in.

    I was wondering about the effects of single use compostable plastic bags for those of us who do not eat grains or sugar, as they seem to be made from corn starch, sugars, soy etc and whether they contaminate food they contain. This would be a concern for people with food intolerances, or celiac for instance.

    • Jane, you’re right, some bulk stores do use plastic bins to store food in. But this isn’t the same as single-use plastic packaging. These bins will be reused for years! I’ve seen bulk stores use glass and metal bins also, I’ve seen wooden bins (with perspex lids) and I’ve seen products sold straight from the sacks. I guess it depends on the budget of the store, health and safety regulations, practicalities etc. Maybe one day all bulk stores will be stainless steel drums.

      That is a very interesting point Jane about the “ingredients” or raw materials of the bags. Especially when they are touted as being quick to break down – does that mean they start to break down on the shelf? Or on the food? Not something I’d be keen to try out!

  5. HI Lindsay!
    I can see that you have really looked into this – and your info is very interesting – I was not aware that compostable plastics don’t break down in the marine environment or even in typical landfill sites. Your most informative article yet – thanks!

    • Hi Bob! Well you know me, I do like to dig deep into these things! ;) A lot of people don’t realise that compostable plastics don’t break down in the marine environment. There are a number of test methods but they do not have pass or fail criteria, and are more like guidelines. As for landfill, well nothing really breaks down there at all. If you’ve never visited one I recommend it. Extremely interesting! ;)

      • Hi Lindsay! Thanks for your article, I personally have had many conversations with people who do not realize the reality of these “plastic free” options. In response to your landfill comment, I found these landfill biodegradable plastic products – https://www.biogone.com.au/ while not ideal by any means in a world where we need to rapidly wean ourselves off packaging itself, I found it an interesting technology….

  6. I know this may be controversial – but simply from a visual perspective, the aisles in The Source Bulk Foods are also full of plastic boxes with plastic lids. When you also look behind some of the boxes, you’ll see the large commercial plastic bags of remaining goods that they fill these tubs with too.

    A genuinely plastic free aisle would look like a farmers market – just food on trestle tables.

    Don’t get me wrong, I shop at The Source Bulk Foods too, and I get what you’re saying, but visually, plastic free aisles doesn’t include just the take home portion sections, it is end-to-end plastic free.

    • Not controversial at all York, it is something that is raised often – how come bulk stores have plastic containers?! To that I’d say that at least they enable their customers to buy packaging-free, and because they buy in bulk (and yes, often in plastic) they help individuals reduce their waste.There is still waste, but much less waste overall. Not perfect, but better.

      To your comment about farmers markets, I say YES! That would be a fabulous end goal. I think bulk stores are at the start of their journey. Once local suppliers get on board with returnable containers, once as a society we get more used to a different way of shopping, then the next steps will come.

      I wrote more about my thoughts on this here, if you’re interested: https://treadingmyownpath.com/2018/03/15/is-zero-waste-real/

      End to end plastic-free is the goal. This aisle is no way near it. Bulk stores like the Source are a couple of steps closer. There’s plenty more steps on the journey, I think we are making progress!

      • Thank you for a very informative article. I totally agree with what you are saying about end to end plastic free. It’s kind of a catch 22 situation with bulk food stores. They are trying their best to limit the plastic usage, but they are at a loss when it comes to them buying from their suppliers. Plastic has become the miracle item and it is so cheap to manufacture. It’s a slow process to educate people. So sad that the creatures of the sea are dying because of plastic waste.

    • Even fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t plastic or waste free on our world. I recently saw a picture of a vegetable shipment coming into a green grocer. It was a stack of wax boxes (that can’t be recycled) wrapped in that commercial glad wrapping and held together with plastic straps. So much hidden waste in our society.

  7. Thanks, much angst in Melbourne about bag ban, lots of boasting about hoarding bags to use in r/bin, also plans to buy bin liners(strange waste of money!). Many believe biodegradable and compostable bags are perfect, and I always lose the discussion when attempting to explain. They need to be banned to solve the problem!

  8. Thank you for bringing this up and writing such a great overview of the issue. You’re one of the first people I’ve seen who’s actually pointed out that the (so-called) plastic-free aisle is full of plastic.

    Where I live, compostable plastics are explicitly not accepted for composting because they can’t be distinguished optically from standard plastics, so they get filtered out as being in the wrong bin.

  9. Thank you Lindsay. This article is really helpful. I often struggle to understand what’s what when it comes to recycling, composting, plastic types, ‘plastic-free’ as there’s a lot of conflicting, incomplete or ‘vague’ information out there. Your article reminds me to be discerning when it comes to digesting and evaluating information that I come across. Keep up the good work!

  10. thank you for raising awareness! this post reveals facts that many don’t know. but we need to be aware IF we’re to reduce plastic waste! I could only wish my own country, USA, would catch up to you!

  11. Hi! This is an excellent article and a very important one. I didn’t know about compostable plastics anyway so I learnt that as well! I honestly think like you, that EVERYONE needs to make a full effort in order for things to change- not accepting info without checking it and actually refusing products with unacceptable single use materials. I was at the seaside today and I wanted some chips and EVERY place I asked, they said they were served in Polystyrene which I refuse to use. Finally, I asked in one place, if I could have a piece if paper which I.folded into a sturdy chip cone the way I used to serve them as a teenager. Ideally I’d have brought a container with me but at least it was better than nothing!

  12. Thanks so much for sharing this. We’re the bloggers behind the largest Dutch zero waste lifestyleblog ‘Het zero waste project’ (the zero waste project) and you can imagine that we got A LOT of questions about this Dutch ‘invention’. The collaboration partner, Plastic Soup Foundation, is also a Dutch company. We’re totally agreeing with all your remarks and actually already see that it confuses people. Journalists, but also people who have visited the stores and talk to us, had so many questions for us about this. Our recycling system in the Netherlands is pretty good, but when it comes to composting there’s a LOT to be done. Especially bioplastics are hardly ever collected/transported/recycled in the right way. It’s a complex system and therefore it will probably have errors somewhere in the entire process. I’m sharing your article on our Dutch facebook page so our readers will also know that we stand behind your opinion.

    Next to that; we feel so sorry for all the co-ops and startups that try to make zero waste supermarkets in the Netherlands work. We’ve had many of them who had to shut down because their costs were too high compared to their income. When the CEO of Ekoplaza than states in a report that ‘No one wants to bring their packaging to a supermarket’ and that ‘It’s time to approach the problem in a modern way’ I can imagine that must hurt so much for these entrepreneurs… Zero waste supermarkets already existed – and they were even better than this one!

  13. Good God. Not what I was expecting to see either. By the way, I still shop at Coles for some things as I don’t have a bulk store near me. If it helps anyone, I use the bulk thing and my own jars. This is how I do it:
    1. get 1 of their plastic bags (yes I know. Read on before you judge please)
    2. put your produce of choice in the bag
    3. weight the produce on their scales; get the ticket BUT DON’T STICK IT ON THE BAG
    4. place your sticker on your jar and tip the contents into the jar.
    5. use the same plastic bag to weigh your next choice and get ticket thingy.
    6. keep that poor plastic bag in your bring along shopping bags for next visit. It will get tatty but I keep going with one of these for months. Another option is to use one of their mushroom paperbags. Depends of the Coles you use if they are happy with this.
    7. comments at the checkout? When I explain what I’m trying to do, they all think it’s great. I suspect I’m known as the hippy yaya lady who uses rubbish (they are clean and shiny ex-curry simmer sauce jars) to carry her shopping in. Don’t care..

  14. Universal reusable packaging that is collected at your doorstep and company’s identify themselves and their product by the label. I.e all products come in the same bottles and jars that way they don’t need to be recycled into different shapes. They are just relabled and used again and again and again!

  15. What I should have started with is that I would like everyone in this world to be in a place where they care enough and have the capacity to bring their own containers shopping. But in reality I think we need a convinient system that minimises waste and is accessible by everyone.
    I think the only way forward is for councils not to have trash bins and for companies to be taxed on their packaging. An environmental tax if you like to represent the real cost of these choices.
    But for a shopping process to be taken on by the majority it has to be easy and supported by legislation
    That doesn’t meen that the few shouldn’t set the example of what is possible in the mean time!

  16. Yes, I cringed when I saw the picture. Bioplastics are plastics still… Thanks so much for this informative article that gives words to the instant aversion I felt.
    Like A New Zero, I also feel it upsets seriously green entrepreneurs and conscious individuals in the Netherlands who do seek solutions that challenge the system. I know it upset me!
    Anyway, I sincerely hope we’ll get more truly plastic free aisles and grocery stores here in the Netherlands soon :)

  17. Hi Lindsay, your blog is so so so great! Thank you for all those well researched informations. You inspire me to stick to a (almost) plastic free life and to learn always so much new stuff! Have a lovely and save trip to the UK and Spain.

  18. The main question that needs answering is why do we compost to being with? For me the answer is to use the compost to grow vegetables. In that case, how much nutrients would a bio fork and spoon add to the tomatoes and eggplants that you are growing? Right now we already have the problem of composts not being rich enough for our food, if we start adding bio forks and spoons I do not see how that would help at all in growing better vegetables in our gardens.

  19. I totally agree with you and I believe it was thanks to that London based media agency that this received worldwide news as the first “plastic free” supermarket in the world whereas there have been real plastic free bulk stores around the world for years and years… I hate false marketing claims…

    It’s like those companies of bamboo dinnerware sets which claim that their products are 100% bamboo, plastic-free and totally biodegradable while they use plastic resins & melamine to bind the product but they don’t tell customers! Again, false marketing!

  20. I whacked some of that apparently conpostable plastic in my compost bin. Over a year later, when i used that bin to make potting mix for my tomatoes, the composable plastic looked exactly the same. I suspect the compost conditions required my be very spcific and oftwn not met IRL.

  21. It’s the same in Ireland. Retailers are desperately trying to keep with the status quo and are pushing ‘biodegradable’ packaging and single use plastics endlessly. There is so much money wrapped (pardon the pun) up in packaging that we’ve created a huge lobby to make sure it doesn’t disappear. Plus we’ve lost the ability to feed ourselves and import a hell of a lot of food that needs to be protected on transit :-(

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