One Grocer Wanted to Give Up Plastic. It Got Rotting Bananas.

Iceland Foods, a well-known supermarket chain in the U.K., is discovering just how difficult it is to eliminate plastic from its shelves. ‘We’re not going to go from A to Z like a flip of a switch.’


By Saabira Chaudhuri, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ)

June 17, 2022


When one of the best-known supermarket chains in the U.K. decided to remove plastic from its products, it hadn’t anticipated a spike in shoplifting.


Yet that is what happened when Iceland Foods Ltd. started selling steak in recyclable paper trays. Some customers bent the pliable containers in half and stuffed them down their trousers, executives said. Such theft wasn’t as easy when the steaks came wrapped in more rigid plastic packaging.


Iceland, a frozen-food-focused grocer that has roughly 1,000 stores across the U.K., is grappling with a number of unexpected challenges as it races to meet a self-imposed target of scrapping single-use plastic for its hundreds of store-brand products by the end of next year. So far it has cut or eliminated plastic on dozens of products—from fish and chicken to apples and berries—but executives say they may not achieve the target in time.


Disentangling plastic packaging from food can be exceptionally hard in the best of times. A surge in demand for plastic-wrapped food during the pandemic and recent supply-chain disruptions caused by the war in Ukraine are making this objective even harder. More-expensive paper packaging is proving to be a liability at a time of rampant inflation, particularly because Iceland typically caters to more price-sensitive consumers.


The zero-plastic drive also produced a series of unintended consequences that demonstrate how difficult it is for any company to shed plastic packaging entirely. When Iceland wrapped bananas in paper bands instead of plastic bags, the fruit rotted more quickly or snapped off. When it packed bread in opaque paper bags, sales fell as shoppers balked at buying something they couldn’t see. When it punched holes in paper bags filled with potatoes to make the contents more visible, the bags ripped.


“You walk into our stores, it’s still a wall of plastic and that’s frustrating as hell,” said Iceland’s managing director, Richard Walker, the son of the company’s co-founder. “We’re not going to go from A to Z like a flip of a switch.”


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