Ending the plastic age

Grocers are big contributors of plastic waste, but efforts are underway to curb it

It doesn’t matter if it’s a small independent or a major banner, a neighbourhood market or a sprawling supercentre—single-use plastic products are ubiquitous in the modern grocery shopping experience.

From the flimsy clear bags that hold our apples to the plastic containers for everything from shampoo to ketchup, to the plastic bags we use to carry purchases home, grocery stores are a big contributor to the plastic waste that fills our oceans and landfills.

Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy and senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, says plastics have become “enemy No. 1” in recent years, and grocers are struggling to find quick fixes to the problem.

The good news is the grocery industry has begun rolling out programs specifically intended to curb plastic waste:

• Last year, U.S. grocery chain Kroger announced plans to phase out single-use plastic bags by 2020. The country’s largest grocery chain is said to hand out as many as 100 billion plastic bags each year.
• The U.K. chain Morrisons has banned single-use plastic bags and allows customers to bring reusable containers for meat and fish.
• Trader Joe’s is attempting to eliminate one million pounds of plastic waste from its network of stores by eliminating single-use plastic bags, reducing the amount of produce sold in plastic packaging, and replacing single-use Styrofoam packaging with recyclable packaging.
• Iceland, a U.K. chain, is giving customers a voucher (worth about 18 cents) for each plastic bottle deposited in one of its reverse vending machines. According to reports, about 310,000 bottles were deposited at four stores in the program’s first six months, leading it to extend the program for another half-year.

Similar initiatives are underway in Canada. Last month, Metro announced it would allow customers at its Quebec stores to use refillable containers at its deli, ready-to-eat meals, fish/seafood and pastry counters, part of a company-wide effort to reduce plastic waste.

Walmart Canada, too, has pledged to reduce plastic waste through a new charter introduced earlier this year that includes reducing plastic bags by 50% by 2025 (a move that would take approximately one billion bags out of circulation); eliminating single-use plastic straws; and achieving 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging for all of its private-label products by 2025.

Ted Ferguson, president of the consultancy Delphi Group, says Canadian grocers have been “very progressive” in their attempts to curb plastic waste, which has led to changes in customer behaviour. He points to the growing use of reusable shopping bags as one example. “It’s really changed something that was a huge convenience,” says Ferguson. “We have proven that retailers can take a leadership role and change behaviour without alienating their customers.”

But despite their efforts, Ferguson says grocers are still at the mercy of suppliers when it comes to the abundance of single-use plastics. “It’s going to get more complicated for retailers to go to the next level, because it’s going to require collaboration with the companies they’re selling the products for,” he says. “It’s out of their control in some sense, but they’re selling the product, so they have to assume some responsibility.”

Some big manufacturers are tackling the problem head-on. Earlier this year, companies including P&G and Unilever announced they had joined a new e-commerce program developed by recycling leader TerraCycle called Loop, where customers receive products such as ice cream, mayonnaise, laundry detergent and shampoo in reusable containers. Introducing the program, Unilever described it as a 21st-century reboot of the 1950s milk man.

READ: Toronto retailer to test waste-free shopping system

Smaller chains such as Organic Garage are also working to reduce single-use plastics. President Matt Lurie says the company has eliminated all bagged apples with the exception of royal gala, as well as a long list of bagged produce items including lemons, oranges, clementines, garlic and ginger.

The chain has also stopped putting celery in plastic bags, and is considering discontinuing grape tomatoes in clam-shell containers, instead selling them loose. “The changes we have made are definitely more proactive,” says Lurie, “because we believe in our role as environmental leaders and will continue to demonstrate to our customers the highest regard for sustainability.”

Sarah Dobec, marketing manager for The Big Carrot in Toronto, says her stores are currently tackling the “low-hanging fruit” when it comes to single-use plastics, such as phasing out clear plastic bags in the produce department.

One of the bigger challenges, she says, is addressing single-use plastic in its growing grab-and-go business. The Big Carrot has incorporated both recycled plastic and a compostable material called PLA in its grab-and-go containers.

Consumer awareness of plastic waste has also led to a recent rise in zero-waste stores, but Dobec says it’s difficult for established entities like The Big Carrot to completely change the way they operate. The Big Carrot tried to implement a strict no-bag policy, for example, but discovered the move was “too much of a leap” for many customers.

Charlebois says real change will require customers to sacrifice some of the convenience afforded by single-use plastic products. “We have been spoiled by convenience for many years, and only time will tell if many of us are willing to let go of our quest for the easy fixes plastics provide,” he says.

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer's May issue.

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds