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Finnish grocery giants cautious about plastic-free food packaging

A pioneering supermarket in Amsterdam has unveiled a 700-product section that is completely plastic-free, but Finland's major retailers are hesitant to commit to a similar strategy and are stressing plastic reduction rather than replacement.

Elintarvikemuovipakkauksia pöydällä
Image: Toni Pitkänen / Yle

Finland’s largest food retailers have expressed scepticism over a move by a Dutch food chain to dedicate an entire section of its supermarkets to plastic-free products.

Starting Wednesday, customers shopping at the Ekoplaza store are now able to purchase products such as meat, rice, milk and yoghurt as well as fruit and vegetables that are not packaged in plastic but in other materials such as glass, metals, cardboard or biodegradable substitutes.

All of the chain’s 74 stores will feature a plastic-free zone. A statement by the company said that they are a test environment and a step towards "a brighter future in food and drink".

Although the move by the Dutch chain has prompted admiring reportage globally from news organisations such as The Guardian, The Washington Post and The Telegraph, Finnish food retailers have expressed reservations about making similar commitments.

The Kesko group, which commands a 38 percent share of the grocery market said that while the company continues to reduce the use of plastic, it doesn’t believe that it will be able to entirely eliminate the use of products with micro-plastic.

“As far as I know, we are not able to completely get rid of plastic in food packaging. We can minimise and rationalise its use,” said Matti Kalervo, Kesko’s corporate responsibility VP.

Finnish food retailers: Reducing plastics more realistic

Kesko has justified its use of plastic by pointing to food safety, noting that food packaging must often be air- and water-tight.

“The environmental impact multiples if food goes bad and is not eaten,” Kalervo pointed out. Both the Kesko Group and its main competitor, market leader SOK (46 percent) said they are committed to reducing the use of plastic.

According to SOK it would be more realistic to recycle plastic and cut down on the amount of “virgin plastic” used. “In terms of the absolute absence of plastic we have a long way to go,” said Senja Forsman, responsibility chief at S Group’s retail division.

By offering the option of a biodegradable bag, the S Group has been able to reduce the use of plastic bags for fruit and vegetables by one-fifth. However customers still use more than 200 million small plastic bags every year. According to Forsman the use of plastic shopping bags fell by 60 percent across department and hardware stores when customers were asked to pay for them.

“Suppliers want to find different packaging options to help replace or reduce the use of plastic,” she added.

Both chains said that they are experimenting with wood fibre-based packaging for transporting fresh fish products. Kesko’s K-Group said that corrugated cardboard fish boxes also help reduce carbon emissions in the production chain.

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