Just Say No: IKEA to Phase Out Plastic Packaging By 2028

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Swedish retailer IKEA has announced it will phase out most plastic packaging by 2028 for existing products, and 2025, for new ones.

If that seems to be  a lackluster commitment, with a slow deadline, it’s not. Currently, only 10% of existing IKEA packaging is made of plastic. So, the company has already implemented several steps to reduce the volume of plastics waste it generates, according to Treehugger, IKEA Assembles a Future Without Plastic Packaging:

“Phasing out plastic in consumer packaging is the next big step on our journey to make packaging solutions more sustainable and support the overall commitment to reduce plastic pollution and develop packaging from renewable and recycled materials,” IKEA Packaging & Identification Manager Erik Olsen said in a press release. “The shift will happen progressively over the coming years, and mainly be focusing on paper as it is both recyclable, renewable, and widely recycled across the world.”

IKEA, which every year spends over $1 billion on approximately 920,000 tons of packaging material, already has significantly decreased the amount of plastic used in its packaging. As of today, less than 10% of its packaging is made of plastic. To eliminate plastic completely, the company says, it will have to partner with product development teams and suppliers around the world. It might even have to engineer entirely new solutions.

“Ingenuity is part of the IKEA heritage, and packaging is by no means an exception in that regard,” said IKEA Packaging Development Leader Maja Kjellberg. “Shifting away from plastic in our consumer packaging solutions will doubtlessly be a challenging task in the coming years. With this movement we aim to spur packaging innovation and use our size and reach to have a positive impact on the wider industry beyond our supply chain.”

Recycling Fairy

Ikea’s proactive source to eliminate plastic packaging is a welcome step, an implicit acknowledgement that relying on the recycling fairy to wave a magic wand and make waste magically disappear after it’s generated, isn’t working. Nonetheless, pending federal legislation continues to place undue reliance on such an approach.

There’s been some policy innovation at the state level, with both Maine and Oregon passing laws that place the onus on manufacturers to get rid of plastic packaging waste, according to the Conversation, Packaging generates a lot of waste – now Maine and Oregon want manufacturers to foot the bill for getting rid of it, by enacting statutes that establish extended produce responsibility (EPR) for waste disposal:

Most consumers don’t pay much attention to the packaging that their purchases come in, unless it’s hard to open or the item is really over-wrapped. But packaging accounts for about 28% of U.S. municipal solid waste. Only some 53% of it ends up in recycling bins, and even less is actually recycled: According to trade associations, at least 25% of materials collected for recycling in the U.S. are rejected and incinerated or sent to landfills instead.

Local governments across the U.S. handle waste management, funding it through taxes and user fees. Until 2018 the U.S. exported huge quantities of recyclable materials, primarily to China. Then China banned most foreign scrap imports. Other recipient countries like Vietnam followed suit, triggering waste disposal crises in wealthy nations.

Some U.S. states have laws that make manufacturers responsible for particularly hard-to-manage products, such as electronic waste, car batteries, mattresses and tires, when those goods reach the end of their useful lives.

Now, Maine and Oregon have enacted the first state laws making companies that create consumer packaging, such as cardboard cartons, plastic wrap and food containers, responsible for the recycling and disposal of those products, too. Maine’s law takes effect in mid-2024, and Oregon’s follows in mid-2025.

These measures shift waste management costs from customers and local municipalities to producers. As researchers who study waste and ways to reduce it, we are excited to see states moving to engage stakeholders, shift responsibility, spur innovation and challenge existing extractive practices.

This shift to dunning producers for creating plastic waste is welcome. Yet I think they still place undue reliance on recycling solutions, as a way to prod producers to be less wasteful:

Producers don’t always literally take back their goods under EPR schemes. Instead, they often make payments to an intermediary organization or agency, which uses the money to help cover the products’ recycling and disposal costs. Making producers cover these costs is intended to give them an incentive to redesign their products to be less wasteful.

Indeed, there remains considerable debate about how effective EPR statutes will be. Per Treehugger:

Whether EPR laws actually work is a subject of much debate. Going forward, however, a mix of voluntary and regulatory measures might be the best way to incentivize a low-waste economy.

Exactly. Even better would be strong regulatory measures that just say no to generating plastics in the first instance. Backed up by meaningful monitoring, not token schemes that can be captured and defanged by the industry. The Conversation article cautioned about such a problem with EPR schemes:

Critics argue that these [EPR] programs need strong regulation and monitoring to ensure that corporations take their responsibilities seriously – and especially to prevent them from passing costs on to consumers, which requires enforceable accountability measures. Observers also argue that producers can have too much influence within stewardship organizations, which they warn may undermine enforcement or the credibility of the law.

By pledging to phase out plastics packaging entirely, IKEA is demonstrating that our current use of plastics packaging is simply not necessary. IKEA’s effort helps refocus the plastics waste management debate away from how plastics producers have framed it: as a problem That can be solved by recycling. But that’s simply not true. And the recycling approach was already showing itself to be inadequate long before China closed its borders to plastics waste imports and the pandemic shuttered (or at minimum, temporarily suspended) many municipal recycling efforts.

Yet plastics pushers continue to tout recycling for a couple of reasons. Emphasizing recycling acknowledges the plastics problem, but absolves plastics makers from responsibility for the clean-up. Instead, it shifts that burden to you and me, who must sort through our rubbish to separate out material before it reaches our landfills. It’s a form of waste management theater – similar to the security theater that takes place at airports – making us feel we’re doing something.  Rather than thinking hard about what the best policy would be.

A far, far better solution would be not to generate so much plastic in the first instance. Then we wouldn’t have to worry about disposing of the waste. Or mull the consequences of microplastics finding their way to formerly pristine environments and other places no sane person would want them to be.

Further, creating plastic isn’t a cost-free process nor is it by any means carbon-neutral.  One recent report highlighted that plastics are currently on track to contribute more climate change emissions than coal plants by 2030, making them the new coal just as the world is getting around to slowing its reliance on the old coal (see my November post, The New Coal: Pushing Plastics Worsens Climate Change). Not making so much of the stuff altogether is the only way to reduce its overall carbon footprint.

Yes We Can

IKEA has a history of environmental responsibility. Treehugger reports:

The Swedish retailer has been a champion of the environment for years. In 2018, for instance, it announced plans to use only renewable and recycled materials in its products by 2030 and to complete all last-mile deliveries via electric vehicle by 2025. As of 2020, it no longer uses single-use plastics in its stores or restaurants. And earlier this year it pledged to sell solar panels and renewable energy to customers in all of its markets within the next four years.

If IKEA can see its way to eliminating all plastics packaging by 2028, other companies should be able to do so, too. And perhaps, if our Congresscritters and various state legislators were to get serious about curbing our plastics addiction, they could impose  more aggressive universal bans of low hanging fruit – single use plastics, for starters – followed by eliminating all plastics packaging – at least in its present, environmentally harmful form. At the same time, thinking about adopting circular economy principles for all products is a foreseeable next step – a path the European Union has already blazed. But I’ll leave further discussion of that concept to a future post.

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  1. Fazal Majid

    Agreed. Plastic recycling is a cynical greenwashing hand-waving scam to deflect attention from the plastic waste crisis. Plastic should be banned altogether from packaging on an industry by industry basis, and replaced with either paper products or aluminum, which at least is profitable to recycle (so much so an estimated 75% of all the aluminum ever produced is still in use thanks to recycling) and thus will actually be recycled.

    1. Synoia

      Recycling aluminum is very energy intensive. Better to eliminate packaging.

      I don’t recall much packaging from the 50 through the ’70s.

      1. Carla

        Me, either, Synoia. A particularly egregious and recent example of totally unnecessary plastic “packaging” is encasing fresh Christmas trees in plastic netting as soon as they are purchased. Does this netting make it slightly easier to tie the tree to the roof of your car? Perhaps. But we got along just fine without it until it began to be used way back in 2011! Now it’s standard procedure at most Christmas tree lots.

        Please “just say NO” to plastic netting if you’re purchasing a fresh holiday tree this year. And if you can find him or her, ask the proprietor of the lot to abandon the practice of pushing trees into plastic nets in the future.

      2. John Zelnicker

        December 6, 2021 at 12:42 pm

        Recycling aluminum is energy intensive, but it only uses about one-fifth of the energy necessary to smelt the original aluminum from bauxite.

        I’m not sure how much aluminum is used or could be used for packaging, but going back to packaging with paper/cardboard and rope (hemp, cotton, linen, etc.) for shipping purposes would help matters immensely.

        Plastic packaging of individual items just needs to be banned wherever possible.

        1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

          Another possibility is to use jute. which is produced in the Indian states of Assam, Bihar, and West Bengal, as well as in Bangladesh.

      3. drsteve0

        Much packaging could be eliminated, but aluminum recycling is one of the true victories of materials reuse. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but aluminum recycling only takes about 5% (one twentieth) of the energy of mining bauxite and smelting it. And that doesn’t even get into the massive reduction in CO2 produced and toxic chemicals used in the smelting. Packaging can’t be completely eliminated, especially for liquids, but it can be massively reduced (certainly plastic). I’d hate to have to go back to dragging my bucket, Hank Williams, Sr. style, down to the general store to get my beer. Glass is great too, but woefully, minimally recycled.

  2. Adam

    If that 10% of plastic packaging includes styrofoam (which by definition it should, but since the article doesn’t go into details on that, I wouldn’t take it as granted), that is quite an impressive shift since I recall cardboard and styrofoam being the majority of their packaging. If it doesn’t include styrofoam, then the number is effectively meaningless.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Thanks for raising this point. I’ve never shopped at IKEA, so I wasn’t aware of the company’s past use of styrofoam. Alas, I don’t now whether IKEA classes styrofoam as plastic or not.

      IKEA is certainly not the only company to use Styrofoam. Most small electric appliances are packaged in fitted styrofoam packaging and then placed in a cardboard box.

      I recently received a shipment of glass jars from Weck, the German manufacturer of canning jars. Good packaging. No plastic, no styrofoam. The glass jars were packaged in shredded cardboard and they arrived unbroken.

      1. Synoia

        The problem with packaging is that sorting waste is difficult and expensive. and it is cheaper to throw it into a landfill, or burn it.

        It might work if only one form of packaging was permitted, however that would leave the problem of sorting dirty and clean discarded packaging.

    2. fjallstrom

      Apparently they do include styrofoam.

      Here is what two minutes of searching popped out:

      IKEA Replaces Styrofoam With Mushroom Bioplastics

      By contrast, plant-based packaging can break down in a matter of weeks.

      Developed by product design company Ecovative Design, the mycelium-based material is called Mushroom Packaging, or MycoComposite.

      The material is actually grown in a controlled environment in less than a week, providing a sustainable option for any packaging requirement that might arise.

      Mycelium works in conjunction with several other plant-based materials, including hemp, husk, oat hulls, and cotton burrs.

      The manufacturing of the new packaging material begins at the Ecovative Design foundry based in Green Island, New York, where the company has already partnered with several local farmers.

      Then how good the bioplastics are can of course be discussed.

  3. Susan the other

    Thank you JL. This is good news. Of course Sweden has lotsa trees to mfg. paper packaging. And the production of paper products is pretty nasty as well. But not as bad as plastic and micro plastic. It almost pushes my thinking from the package to the handler. Transportation could be designed to transport things without breaking them – just look at a truck carrying large panes of glass, like 3×5 panes – they have figured out the correct angle for such a fragile item and padded racks, etc. Just imagining better transportation. Also it was nice to see some opinion on EPR – I kinda think that recycling hasn’t been ineffective theater but rather pretty effective in the end, forcing producers to have to stand up and take responsibility for the piles and piles of unbelievable garbage choking the planet. Also the EU concept (the doc I saw was from Denmark) about circular manufacturing – with a graphic showing adjacent buildings sharing resources with little waste.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      I didn’t mean to seem to dismiss the circular economy concept and indeed promised to revisit this subject, as it’s been a while since I last posted about the topic. But as for EPR, when I was researching this post, I got the vague feeling that policymakers are looking for simple solutions, and have opted to replace one slogan – Recycle! – with another – EPR! – when what we really must do is to stop producing so much plastic, particularly for one-off purposes, e.g., so-called single use plastic, and packaging.

    2. Maggie

      Sweden? How about strip mining the forests of central and eastern Europe and Asia?


      The bigger environmental crime, not mentioned is that IKEA “furniture” is single use only, that is, if you try to disassemble it or move it, you cannot, as the screws that hold it together are often one way tighten only and they are in holes made in compressed sawdust held together with glue that rips apart under strain.

      Try moving a large IKEA shelf or bookcase. Once it parallelograms, get out of square more than a few degrees, it’s garbage.

      Craigslist is full of ads from poor pathetics trying to resell their used Malm this or that, as though this invented name tacked onto it were some kind of prestige. IKEA is landfill from the moment you bring it home, the static equivalent of fast tissue-paper fashion.

      Real furniture lasts for generations and can be moved, refinished and repaired.

      For more on IKEA deforestation I recommend Netflix’s Broken a hard-hitting documentary series exploring—and exposing—corruption and unethical behavior in key consumer industries.

      1. Fazal Majid

        IKEA was also a pioneer at tax evasion by bogus payments of royalties for the IKEA brand to a shell corporation in the Caribbean, Inter IKEA Systems, long before the tech companies ever thought of it.

          1. bwilli123

            ..”We all know how simple IKEA’s instructions for assembling its flat-pack furniture are. At the other end of the scale of simplicity, in fact, at a level of preposterously complexity, is IKEA’s corporate structure. What appears at the other end is a structure that ingeniously exploits the quirks of different jurisdictions to create a charity, dedicated to a somewhat corny cause, that is not only the world’s richest foundation, but is at the moment also one of its least generous. The set-up of IKEA’s structure minimizes tax and disclosure, adequately rewards the founding Kamprad family and makes IKEA immune to takeovers. And if that seems too good to be true, it is: these measurements are almost impossible to undo.”


      2. Hayek's Heelbiter

        I had a Malm Ikea bed that I gave away as it used a proprietary assembling configuration that only my friend with his engineering degree was able to figure out.
        Now I’ve have four Billy bookcases that I got for nothing to use for storage. Once again, they use a bizarre proprietary shelf support system I have seen nowhere else. I was able to fix them for additional shelves with a power drill and generic shelf supports, but how many apartment dwellers have those lying around?
        And every night I when I go for a stroll, I am astonished at the amount of Ikea furniture discarded by the curb. (Disclaimer: I do live in a major cosmopolitan area). I could easily furnish an entire flat in a single evening with formica/particle board furniture.
        Hint to government agencies: If Ikea were truly sincere about being ecologically conscientious, they would have a place in every store to return unwanted furniture, in the same way computer stores now have areas to return unwanted kit.

  4. The Rev Kev

    This could get interesting. So suppose that the EU sees this and decides to do the same. In fact, they mandate that after a certain year, no more imports will be allowed into the EU that used plastic packaging. So what does the US and China do then? Europe is too big a market to ignore and this may mean changes to packaging in those two countries alone. Not so far out this scenario. The EU mandated changes to the metals and so forth that went into computer manufacture forcing changes and the use of alternate, less toxic materials in them. Those computer designers were shocked when they found that they could not get a “deferment” or an “exception” and simply carry on doing the same.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      I’m just glad to see the debate shifting away from regarding recycling as a viable solution to the plastics crisis. It’s well past time. We need drastic curbs on plastics production and after banning single-use plastics, plastics packaging – which is also single use – is the next thing that needs to go. Except for some medical uses.

      1. fjallstrom

        I agree that medical uses are the most important and hardest to replace use-case, but even there advances are being made.

        My local hospital is involved in a project to replace one time use plastics with bioplastics in packaging and aprons. Of course, the closer you get to implants and surgical uses, the higher the demands on the product, but I see no reason why we can’t get there to eventually. Starting with aprons and gloves and plastic bags makes sense but from how easy it is to replace and from a volume perspective.

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