Iceland's plastic campaign makes big news at Scottish Resources Conference

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:
Iceland's #TooCoolForPlastic campaign created plenty of conversation at this year's conference

They say timing is everything. When food retailer Iceland announced earlier this year that it would put a freeze on plastics packaging, it was something of a game-changer.

Its #TooCoolForPlastic campaign went live just days after Prime Minister Theresa May publicly issued a government commitment to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by 2042.

By vowing to do this within just five years, Iceland won countless plaudits by upping the ante and being the first supermarket to confront this issue head-on. At this year’s Scottish Resources Conference, held in Edinburgh last month, the retailer’s own-label and packaging manager Ian Schofield recalled the morning “little old Iceland” broke the news.

“All the other retailers around me had a lot of indigestion at breakfast – they should have been first, not us,” he told delegates. “We only have 2.5% share of the market. We have made a huge impact; because we are entrepreneurial, we can do it. We are being different because we can.”

The #TooCoolForPlastic campaign pretty much hit every primetime TV and radio slot, generating 524 pieces of coverage including the front page of theDaily Mail. Iceland boss Richard Walker, a keen surfer and the main instigator of the campaign, even appeared on the BBC’sQuestion Time. Under pressure, rival supermarkets swiftly followed Iceland’s lead and issued their own plastic pledges.

Talking is one thing, action is another. Iceland now has a five-year plan to ditch plastic from all of its own-label products, which it sells in more than 900 stores. According to Schofield, that involves replacing packaging on 1,400 products and working with more than 250 suppliers.

The company knew it had to address some uncomfortable truths. “Recyclable materials are not a differentiator – we realised that early on,” Schofield said, explaining that consumers remain unwilling to pay extra for sustainable packaging on everyday goods, unless there is wider personal benefit. But he added: “The consumer will not forgive us if we don’t take responsibility.”

Given that innovation work can be costly, the retailer is taking a cost-neutral approach to source alternative solutions. One of the first tasks was to rank what product categories and items accounted for the highest tonnages. Chilled goods such as milk and eggs represent the biggest plastic segment, followed by frozen ready meals. Trays are the top-ranking plastic component, followed by bottles and films.

In total, 16,000 tonnes of plastic need to be addressed. So far, Iceland has removed 850 tonnes and hopes to displace a further 1,800 tonnes by year end. One early win was replacing ready-meal plastic trays with paper board. “It wasn’t plain sailing – there’s still some polyester in there to withstand high temperatures, but we are looking to replace this going forward,” Schofield said.

Iceland has also issued new packaging guidelines for suppliers based on a number of criteria. Schofield said materials such as glass, foil and metal will make a return for some products, but given that packaging now plays a key role in reducing food waste, navigating any trade-offs remains essential.

Scottish environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham

On the issue of food waste, Schofield said to some extent retailers had effectively passed the problem onto consumers: “Sixty-seven per cent of food waste occurs at home because we don’t want wastage at shelf level.”

He added that retailers could have a valuable role to play in influencing household behaviour when it comes to packaging and waste – which will be best achieved once there is collective clarity on what materials need to be targeted, with the necessary collection and recycling infrastructure in place.

One eco-packaging expert also speaking at event was Mark Shayler, founder of Ape. Speaking exclusively to RWW, he said while “plastigeddon” was proving to be a disruptive agenda for many, it was important not to lose sight of the bigger picture.

“I have been defending plastic more than attacking it recently because there are some applications where it is the best material,” he pointed out. “It’s not plastic’s fault that it ends up in the ocean – it’s people’s fault. So this is driving poor decision-making. Sometimes I think we lack balance because we’re rushing towards one emotive issue.”

According to Shayler, there is an elephant in the room that needs addressing – our addiction to buying more stuff. “We’re focusing on the thing that is easy and visible and we’re not focusing on our consumption. Plastic is one thing, the amount of materials we race through is another.”

Looking ahead, he predicted that concerns over plastics would be superseded by a far bigger threat. “Right now it’s a material issue, in the future it will be a climate change issue. We’ll begin to see sea level rises in places that we wouldn’t have expected, we’ll begin to see these extraordinary weather patterns that we’re seeing become destructive. How that’s going to impact the waste and resources sector, I don’t know … I suspect supply chains will be really disrupted.”

Some experts believe circular solutions that can close the loop on material flows will help build supply chain resilience and mitigate against these types of future risks. One workshop at the event looked to explore what role industrial biotechnology can play in helping to facilitate closed-loop solutions.

Some of the more innovative technologies in the biotech sector have still yet to be commercially proven at scale, and as such carry a degree of investment risk. However, the market opportunity is huge.

“We have a plan in Scotland to create a £900m industrial biotechnology industry by 2025,” said Roger Kilburn, CEO of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre. “Where industrial biotechnology has impacted the circular economy so far is in anaerobic digestion, but we think anaerobic digestion is a low-value option.”

Industrial biotechnology can be used to produce a variety of outputs. For example, plants can be processed to produce biofuels or plastics as an alternative to crude oil, algae strains can be used in cosmetics, while chemicals extracted from marine life can replace synthetics.

Dr Jonathan Hughes, CEO at Pennotec, described how his company specialises in valourising food processing waste such as prawn, scampi and mushroom by-products and converting them into functional products for use in food and aquaculture applications. Hughes described the nature of food waste materials as “complex composites” which needed further refinement. “We need to break them down into their component parts in a benign way for reuse.”

Another firm, Celtic Renewables,, is building a demonstrator plant in Grangemouth, Scotland that will produce over half a million litres of biofuel each year using residue from whisky distilleries. Company CEO Mark Simmers told delegates that there was an opportunity for these types of biorefineries to be co-located with more traditional waste treatment, effectively creating strategic resource hubs. “Anaerobic digestion plants could create the energy to power our processes,” he said.

Kilburn was keen to emphasise that the biotech industry hasn’t done enough outreach into the waste industry yet. He feels there are synergies between both sectors that could be utilised to create economies of scale, such as waste companies potentially being able to collate feedstock materials for supply into biotechnology facilities. “We’d like to generate some debate about how waste management can support this industry,” he told delegates.

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