Finnish shoppers are getting the message on plastic

Fewer plastic bags, more long-life, paper and fabric bags being used in the country's biggest two supermarket chains.

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File picture of plastic bags from Finnish supermarkets / Credit: News Now Finland

Finlands two biggest supermarket chains say that shoppers are getting the message about using fewer plastic bags, and bringing their own or buying alternatives in stores.

“On K Group level there’s a small, few percents, drop in sales of plastic bags. Sales of reusable bags has a 20% increase and paper bags 40% increase. Customers are increasingly using their own shopping bags while running their errands” says Matti Kalervo, Kesko’s Vice President for Corporate Responsibility.

At S-Group it’s a similar story.

“We can see from sales there is a decrease in the moment in plastic bags. It could indicate that people are bringing their own, as we can also see an increase in the sale of paper bags and reusable bags” says Senja Forsman, Senior Compliance Manager at S Group.

File picture of bags for sale at supermarket checkout / Credit: News Now Finland

Arabia supermarket experience

The switch to using fewer plastic bags is a rapid change that’s happened at Finnish stores only relatively recently.

At S-Supermarket in Helsinki’s Arabia neighbourhood, owner-entrepreneur Sasu Hamina has seen shoppers come round to the idea of being more aware of the amount of plastic bags they use.

In 2016 and 2017 the supermarket sold the same amount of plastic carrier bags both years, but this year there’s been a big drop.

“This year we have sold 15% less than last year. We have more customers than last year, customer growth is about 3 or 4% and I think there is about 18% more of these life-long bags being sold this year than last year. But people are bringing their own bags more and more” Hamina tells News Now Finland.

One initiative was to remove the clear plastic bags for fruit and vegetables freely available at checkouts. Before, they were giving away several hundred each week, but when they started charging a small fee for them the number dropped sharply. Now says Hamina, they’re only selling 10 bags each week.

“Customers realised what we are doing now because of the environment, and that we would like to have less plastic from our store” says Hamina.

S Group experience

Helping customers understand they need to change their habits has been something that S Group has taken the lead on, rather than waiting for shoppers to passively get the idea.

“We introduced biodegradable fruit and veggie bags to all our supermarkets, and we decided we don’t actively any more give the bags to customers. Those kind of actions have also had a big impact on the amount of fruit and veggie bags, down 20%” Senja Forsman tells News Now Finland.

That decrease in plastic bag use isn’t just happening at the corporation’s supermarkets. In the Sokos department stores staff can see how adding a small cost to plastic bags, which were free until 2017, can have a big impact on customer behaviour. Since the company introduced the fee, plastic bag use has fallen by 60%.

File picture of plastic waste floating in the water / Credit: iStock

Finding awareness in balance and actions

For some experts, just switching from plastic bags to long-life or fabric shopping bags doesn’t make much difference if shoppers are driving their cars to supermarkets, or not also watching food waste. There’s little positive impact on the environment unless a few different actions are combined.

“I think the awareness of these things has really grown, and also the shops are really actually putting a price on plastic bags, even shops that didn’t do it before. I think the message is reaching people” says Helena Suomela from Motiva, a consulting firm that provides the public sector and consumers with information that allows them to make sustainable choices.

She gives the example of sliced bread. It might be wrapped in plastic, but it will stay fresh for a whole week and most likely all of it will be consumed. Compare that to a more ecological choice of artisan bread wrapped in paper. It might only stay fresh for one or two days leading to food waste.

“I think in this plastic conversation it should be looked at in the bigger picture. If you go to the shop of course why not use your own bag and that’s a very good thing to do. But actually if you think about the whole, compared to climate change, the choices are how you go there and what you buy. Plastic is not the biggest part of that.

Government’s new initiative to chart change

At governmental level as well, there’s processes underway in Finland to help individuals understand and change their habits around sustainability and ecological living.

The new government website Sitoumus 2050 lets people calculate their carbon footprint and then choose different courses of action to reduce emissions.

Since it launched last week, the service has seen more than a thousand people commit to reducing their carbon footprint or make commitments to meet lower food waste goals.