The Problems With Amsterdam's Plastic-Free Grocery Aisle

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Earlier this winter, a supermarket in Amsterdam called Ekoplaza made headlines for having the first-ever plastic-free aisle. At the time, I wrote enthusiastically, "The aisle features more than 700 food items, including meats, sauces, yogurts, cereals, and chocolate; and, as unbelievable as it sounds, there's not a speck of plastic in sight -- only cardboard, glass, metal, and compostable materials."

My assessment was not entirely accurate, however, because there was plenty of plastic in sight; it just happened to be made of compostable materials, such as plant cellulose, wood pulp, algae, grass, cornstarch, shrimp shells, etc. It looks like plastic, but is considered different because it's not not made entirely from fossil fuels and is biodegradable. Some background via The Plastic Planet, which has partnered with Ekoplaza to create the aisle:

"Unlike conventional plastics, which will exist for centuries on our planet, biomaterials are designed to be composted - either in your home compost or in industrial composting facilities. They should be put in the same bin as your food waste, not your plastic recycling bin. All the biomaterial packaging in Ekoplaza Lab is certified as OK Home Compostable or BS EN13432, the key standard for industrial composting across Europe and the UK."

Not everyone is impressed by these efforts. Australian zero waste blogger Lindsay Miles is outraged by a plastic free aisle that's full of plastic lookalikes. She sees the biodegradable plastic solution as seriously lacking because there is so much it fails to address. In an excellent blog post on the topic, she lists the problems with Ekoplaza's approach. I've shared some of her thoughts below and added a few of mine.

1. The Language Is Confusing

A promo video refers to this biodegradable packaging as 'disappearing' within 12 weeks, but that is inaccurate: "That’s impossible science. Compost, degrade, dissolve, evaporate – call it what it is. Nothing disappears." Even the products themselves are confusing; for example, did you know that cellulose tube netting, used to sell oranges and pretty much identical to regular plastic netting, will degrade in a home composter? It's unlikely that the average shopper would know this, or even try it.

2. There Is No Resource Reduction

A tremendous amount of material is still required to make these biodegradable plastics. Miles writes:

"Growing huge amounts of food (sugar, corn, tapioca) with the sole purpose of synthesizing it into packets so that food items can be neatly displayed with predetermined portions in perfect rows in the supermarket? The land, energy and carbon footprint of that is huge."

One fact I was especially shocked to learn last year while reading "Life Without Plastic" (book) was that a so-called biodegradable bag only needs to contain 20 percent plant material in order to be labeled as such. The other 80 percent could be fossil fuel-based plastic resins and synthetic additives. This is considered 'residue.'

3. Compostable Is a Slippery Term

Many of the plant-based plastics in Ekoplaza are compostable in industrial facilities. These are not widely available, or even if they are, they might run for a cycle time that's shorter than what is needed to compost a particular item.

4. Compostable Plastics Do Not Biodegrade in the Ocean

Alarm over the ocean plastic problem has driven many of the efforts to go plastic-free and zero waste, and yet these so-called greener products act the same as conventional plastics in water. Miles writes:

"No compostable plastic to date has been shown to break down in the marine environment. As plastic packaging is lightweight, floats, blows in the wind and can be carried by animals, it ends up in the ocean."

5. This Packaging Still Generates Harmful Waste

No matter how a plastic bag has been made, it's just as capable of suffocating an animal, damaging a seagull's gut, snagging on a sea turtle. These products are impossible to contain, and unless they're in a proper industrial composting facility, the potential for littering and harm to animals is still there.

I am sure Ekoplaza and its partner, A Plastic Planet, have good intentions, but their approach falls short of what is really needed. It's too focused on maintaining the status quo, rather than challenging customers to adopt a radically different and more effective shopping model. I do understand the importance of convenience and how this is integral to people minimizing their planetary impact, but there comes a point where we're going to have to question the way we do things and become used to the idea of taking refillable containers to the store.

There are far better models for plastic-free shopping. From outdoor markets to bulk stores to farm share boxes and more, plastic-free does exist, free from greenwashing. You just need to know where to look and be willing to put in a little more effort.