Ikea Kicks Single-Use Plastics to the Curb

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Ikea has banned plastic bags and incandescent light bulbs. Now the affordable Scandinavian home furnishings giant is phasing out single-plastic items such as trash can liners. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Ikea, a retailer that has a famously complicated relationship with the word "disposable," has announced plans to phase-out the most egregiously expendable items that it currently sells.

By 2020, the Swedish home furnishings emporium will have purged its global inventory of all single-use plastic products — drinking straws, storage baggies, waste bin liners and so on — as part of a sweeping addendum to its ambitious People & Planet Positive environmental strategy, which was first published in 2012. Ikea also plans to do away with disposable plastic food service items such a cutlery, beverage stirrers, cups and straws — again with those dastardly straws — in all in-store restaurants and cafes within the next year and a half.

Other like-minded commitments added to People & Planet Positive include expanding the availability of home solar solutions to 29 global Ikea markets, not just five of them; achieving zero emission home deliveries; and adding vegetarian hot dogs to the menu at Ikea Bistro. What's more, Ikea, the world's largest furniture retailer, is further committing itself to abide by a circular design ethos in which every single product sold has a potential afterlife thanks to the dedicated use of recyclable and renewable materials.

All great stuff. But it's the banishing of single-use plastic items from all 363 retail outposts operated by Ikea Group, the company's largest franchisee, that's generating the most attention.

Ikea: Banning single-use plastics since way back when

Perhaps there's so much fuss over Ikea putting the kibosh on things like straws because the retailer is, after all, a plastic-banning trailblazer.

In October 2008, when plastic shopping bags still flowed freely and sans fees throughout the American retail landscape, Ikea said enough is enough and did something unheard of at the time: it stopped offering single-use bags to customers. One of the earliest and most aggressive plastic bag phase-outs to be launched by a major retailer with a stateside presence, Ikea's "Bag the Plastic Bag" initiative was a harbinger of much larger things to come. (For a year-in-a-half before that, Ikea shoppers had to fork over a nickel if they wanted the luxury of using a bag. All proceeds were donated to the nonprofit American Forests.)

Over the past decade, Ikea shoppers have had the option of buying an oversized reuseable carryall — the now iconic blue FRAKTA bag — at the register for 99 cents. Or, ideally, they've brought their own reuseable bags from home and filled them with typical Ikea loot that can't be strapped to the top of a car: wooden hangers, bath mats, picture frames and sacks of frozen meatballs.

"The global commitment to remove all single-use plastic products from our range by 2020 is part of the new Ikea sustainability strategy to become people and planet positive," Lena Pripp-Kovac, sustainability manager for Inter IKEA Group, tells MNN. "The problem of plastic pollution is complex, with no single solution. To drastically reduce plastic pollution, a range of actors, such as policymakers, politicians, other businesses and consumers, all need to contribute to the change. We are determined to play our part and take responsibility in the areas where we can make a difference."

It's also safe the say that Ikea's reputation as a plastic-banishing pioneer aside, single-use plastic bans are having a bit of moment. From college campus cafeterias to California beach towns to entire countries, the most ubiquitous and environmentally damaging forms of plastic waste are on their way out.

In recent months, both Buckingham Palace and British McDonald's locations have banned plastic drinking straws as a wave of anti-plastic sentiment grips the U.K. in the best way possible. David Attenborough's documentary "Blue Planet II," which portrays the dire impact that plastic waste has on the world's oceans, has played a significant role in prompting politicians and corporations alike in the U.K. to take action. The Marine Conservation Society estimates that Britons use and discard 8.5 billion plastic straws, one of the most prevalent types of beach litter, every year.

Closer to home, Alaska Airlines recently became the first U.S. airline to give plastic drink stirrers the boot (at the urging of a Girl Scout, nonetheless) while cocktail picks and margarita-sipping straws on cruises operated by Miami-based Royal Caribbean will soon be of the bamboo and paper variety, respectively.

Plastic kitchen stuff at ikea
Reuseable plastic products aren't going anywhere as Ikea pledges to use strictly recycled and renewable, bio-based materials by 2030. (Photo: akaitori/flickr)

No straws in Småland

Ikea jumping into the single-use plastic-banning fray while also simultaneously announcing a slew of other sustainability commitments makes perfect sense. After all, this is an area in which this budget-conscious Scandinavian brand has some experience.

But if you think about it, Ikea was never exactly a hotbed of cheap, disposable plastic items to begin with. The number of items that will be phased out over the next year-and-a half is decidedly minimal — and many aren't even available in U.S. stores.

One product that is widely available at U.S. Ikea stores are SODA drinking straws — sold in packs of 200 and garishly colored enough to make an '80s Valley Girl squeal. They'll be gone. So will a line of trash can liners as well as rolls of dog poop clean-up bags sold as part of LURVIG, Ikea's first dedicated collection for pets.

Some plastic items pass muster and will remain part of the Ikea range. Any plastic products that are reusable will not be impacted by the phase-out. The same goes for products made from bio-based plastics such as ISTAD plastic freezer bags, which are manufactured using leftovers from the sugarcane industry.

Ikea also pledges to also phase-out plastic-coated disposable paper products like cups by 2020. The company notes that "we don't have a good solution today" as far as sustainable alternatives go for this but "will do everything we can to find a better option before January 1, 2020."

Plastic packaging for home furnishings and for food products sold in Ikea cafes and bistros are not included in the commitment.

The new sustainability commitments were announced during Democratic Design Days, an annual international media shindig held at Ikea's global headquarters in Älmhult, Sweden, which primarily serves an opportunity for the retailer to reveal the most highly anticipated design collaborations and product lines set to drop over the next couple of years. This year's big announcements included collaborations with fellow Scandinavian powerhouse Lego, Adidas, Sonos and Little Sun, a humanitarian organization co-founded by famed Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson that brings off-grid solar lighting solutions to low-income communities that have been left in the dark.

Pripp-Kovac mentions a tap nozzle that saves "more than 90 percent of water used" and a line of special, in-development textiles that "will help purify the air in the home" as two things in the pipeline that will further enable Ikea shoppers to reduce their environmental impacts at home.

Remarks Inter IKEA Group CEO Torbjörn Lööf: "Through our size and reach we have the opportunity to inspire and enable more than one billion people to live better lives, within the limits of the planet."