Plastic has shaped our development as a society: it’s versatile, strong, flexible, heat resistant, handy, light, cheap… you name it. This unique set of properties has made it one of the most successful materials of the second half of the 20th century – even if you don’t see it, it’s everywhere and it has moulded our daily lives, from medicine to transportation, from smart packaging to electronics, from household objects to security. And that happened in only 70 years.
When it comes to food retail, is it fair to say that consumers have no alternatives to plastic beyond those they find on supermarket shelves? Maybe.
But if that is to be the case, what kind of food are consumers prepared to buy that isn’t covered in a transparent material? Are they willing to purchase a product that may have a more reduced life span but, in return, is plastic free?
For us food retailers, plastic is many times essential to make sure that our products are as safe as we need them to be and that they last as much time as we say they do. It provides us with quality control, maintenance of organoleptic characteristics and nutritional information. It is a material that we can’t simply give up on just like that.
Several lifecycle assessments have shown that replacing plastics in consumer goods and packaging with alternative materials such as glass and paper would, most of the times, increase environmental impacts due to energy inputs and others. Easy-to-make plastic and its lightweight nature beat the much larger quantities of alternative materials needed to fulfil the same purposes.
And speaking of lifecycle, it’s exactly at its end that plastic shifts from its bright side to a much gloomier one. Because we – humanity as a whole – haven’t been disposing of our plastic the way we should, we are now facing incredibly sad times when we watch 12.7 million tonnes of plastic pollution reaching our oceans, our fish, our lives every year. This is also aggravated by the increasing complexity of plastic packaging components that undermine their recyclability.
Our society’s growth and demands have made it obvious that a balance between convenience and minimalism is imperious: the problem started precisely when we decided to turn something made to last into something to be singly used. The decision to go for discardable items such as cups, plates and cutlery, for example, seems, indeed, an unreasonable waste of valuable resources most of the times.
Despite plastic’s numerous advantages there’s still a lot to be done. That is why we at Jerónimo Martins are continuously searching for ways to move to a more circular economy approach. Since this project started 7 years ago, over 57 tonnes of plastic have been removed from our products every year. We also have been offering our customers reusable solutions for bags and refillable water bottles.
One of the most impactful things we have been doing – since 2011 – is redesigning some of our products’ packaging, investing in the most efficient shapes and materials to obtain savings: on truck trips, material’s carbon footprint reductions and – just might as well say it – money.
We urgently need a mindful approach to plastic because the social and economic consequences of irrationally eliminating it cannot be ignored.
It’s never easy to change our ways, but a cultural move is undoubtedly here to stay and, as a retailer that serves 5 million customers and handles huge volumes of merchandise every day, we have a special responsibility in shaping the business towards a better future for all.
 Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey Centre for Business and Environment
This blogpost was written and contributed by:
Chief Corporate Communications and Responsibility Officer
Jerónimo Martins Group