Aside from the somewhat recent addition of "natural" sections, aisle layouts have changed little since the advent of the supermarket. Shoppers are largely creatures of habit and store owners, looking to maximize profits by any means possible, are careful not to disorient loyal customers too much. When alterations are made, they're usually subtle and a bit sneaky.
Dutch supermarket chain EkoPlaza, however, is shaking up the staid state of grocery store aisles in a big way by introducing an entirely new category to the mix: the "plastic-free" aisle. The new aisle, which recently debuted at an EkoPlaza LAB concept store in Amsterdam's Oud-West neighborhood, features only comestibles that have been liberated from extraneous plastic packaging. Stocked with more than 700 products including cereals, snack foods, fresh produce, meat and all-important dairy items, the plastic-eschewing supermarket aisle is being touted by EkoPlza as the first of its kind in the world.
To be fair, EkoPlaza, which operates 74 stores spread across the Netherlands, is a dedicated organic grocer. It already boasts aisles that might be a bit differently organized and arranged than conventional supermarkets. In turn, eco-conscious EkoPlaza shoppers will likely be less confused when they stumble across this curious and potentially game-changing new aisle organized not by what type of food it contains but by what type of packaging it lacks.
And this isn't to say that EkoPlaza's new aisle won't be devoid of packaging of any sort. In fact, there will be plenty of it — and all of the compostable, biodegradable or easily reusable/recyclable variety. This includes glass and various examples of bio-based plastic (biofilm) packaging that looks like the real deal (read: petrochemical-based) but easily breaks down in the environment instead of clogging landfills and polluting the environment for eons.
"We know that our customers are sick to death of products laden in layer after layer of thick plastic packaging," Erik Does, EkoPlaza chief executive, tells the Guardian. "Plastic-free aisles are a really innovative way of testing the compostable biomaterials that offer a more environmentally friendly alternative to plastic packaging."
EkoPlaza, which plans to unveil plastic-free sections in all of its stores by the end of the year, worked alongside British advocacy group A Plastic Planet to bring the initiative to life. A Plastic Planet co-founder Sian Sutherland calls the launch of the world's first plastic packaging-free grocery store aisle "a landmark moment for the global fight against plastic pollution."
"For decades shoppers have been sold the lie that we can't live without plastic in food and drink," Sutherland explains. "A plastic-free aisle dispels all that. Finally we can see a future where the public have a choice about whether to buy plastic or plastic free."
Abiding by a directive established by the European Union, the Netherlands put the kibosh on free single-use plastic shopping bags in 2016. As reported by the New York Times, the pragmatic, pancake-flat nation of about 17 million people consumed about 3 billion throwaway plastic bags annually before the ban took effect.
To drive the point home, EkoPlaza isn't only stocking the shelves of this new aisle exclusively with plastic-free edible merchandise brandishing a Plastic Free Mark, a new labeling system introduced by A Plastic Planet. (Looking at the EkoPlaza LAB website, just some of the 700 offerings include pomegranate kombucha to chocolate custard to baby leaf lettuce.) The plastic-free theme will also carry over to the fixtures and shelving itself. As the Telegraph explains, plastic light fittings have been replaced with reclaimed lampshades, the shelving is made from metal and wood and the signage is all rendered in cardboard.
While plastic-free supermarket aisles may be a Dutch-only phenomenon for now, British Prime Minister Theresa May has also mentioned a similar concept for grocery stores in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as part of a larger plan to banish all plastic waste from the U.K. by 2042.
"There is absolutely no logic in wrapping something as fleeting as food in something as indestructible as plastic," says Sutherlands.
American supermarket chains: you listening?