Dutch supermarket introduces plastic-free aisle

At Ekoplaza, shoppers can find groceries, snacks and other sundries - but not an ounce of plastic. The items are packaged in glass, metal or cardboard, as well as compostable material that looks similar to plastic.
At Ekoplaza, shoppers can find groceries, snacks and other sundries - but not an ounce of plastic. The items are packaged in glass, metal or cardboard, as well as compostable material that looks similar to plastic.PHOTO: EKOPLAZA

AMSTERDAM (NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST) - A supermarket in the Netherlands wants to make it easier on the planet and easier for its customers to avoid adding to the mountains of plastic waste generated every day.

On Wednesday (Feb 28), the supermarket, Ekoplaza, an upmarket chain, introduced what it billed as the world's first plastic-free aisle in a store in Amsterdam.

There, shoppers found groceries, snacks and other sundries - but not an ounce of plastic. The items are packaged in glass, metal or cardboard.

They also use compostable material that may look like plastic but is actually a biofilm, made of trees and plants, that will break down within 12 weeks in a home composter.

Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet, an advocacy group that has pushed the concept, said the initiative was "a landmark moment for the global fight against plastic pollution."

The plastic-free aisle contains about 700 items, including meats, sauces, cereals, yogurt and chocolate.

"It's not just a marketing trick, it's something we worked on for years," Erik Does, the chief executive of Ekoplaza, said in an interview.

The opening of the supermarket aisle comes as the idea of banning plastic, or at least making more of it recyclable, gains supporters around the world.

In January 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain called for plastic-free aisles in supermarkets in a speech outlining a 25-year environmental plan.

The same month, the European Union rolled out a plan to make all plastic on the European market recyclable by 2030.

"If we don't do anything about this, 50 years down the road, we will have more plastic than fish in the oceans," Frans Timmermans, the vice president of the European Commission, the European Union's executive body, told reporters in January.

Items in the European Union's cross hairs: drinking straws, plastic bottles, coffee cups and lids - none of which were available to shoppers browsing the new aisle in Amsterdam on Wednesday.

Plastic packaging has become so widespread as a result of its convenience and qualities of hygiene. But because of its light weight and ability to float, along with its increasing use in international garbage exports, plastic has become an ecological bane.

"One man's plastic food wrapper, is another man's problem," Sutherland said.

The proposals from the European Union and from Britain landed on the heels of a Chinese ban on all foreign plastic waste imports, which began in January.

Rwanda has also begun a campaign that threatened public shaming and even prison time to tackle the plastics problem, making it illegal to import, produce, use or sell plastic bags and plastic packaging except within specific industries like hospitals and pharmaceuticals.

The nation is one of more than 40 around the world that have banned, restricted or taxed the use of plastic bags, including France and Italy.

In a study published last year (2017), scientists estimated that 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced worldwide since the 1950s, when plastic began being mass produced. Of that, roughly 6.3 billion metric tons has been thrown away, 79 per cent of it in landfills or in other parts of the environment.

Only 9 per cent of the discarded plastic has been recycled, according to the study, whose lead author is Roland Geyer of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

In the Netherlands, free plastic bags were banned two years ago, after a European Union directive was passed in 2015 to phase them out. At the time, the country of about 17 million used around 3 billion bags each year, most of which ended up in the trash.

Ekoplaza has promised to expand the plastic-free idea to all of its 74 stores by the end of the year.

The next store to roll out the eco-friendly aisle is in The Hague, which is expected to debut in June.

Sutherland said, "There is absolutely no logic in wrapping something as fleeting as food in something as indestructible as plastic."

But Jessica Green, assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University, cautioned that "sustainable consumerism" has its limits, and said what is needed is government regulation.

"Sure, it's great to consume less plastic when you make decisions about what to consume at the supermarket," she said. "But that's not going to fix the problem."