Plastic, who needs it?

22 Nov 2017
plastic bag pollution

Plastics – the latest scandal of humanity (or one of them at least). If you're buying your groceries through a veg box scheme then typically you'll be using 80% less plastic than if you bought all your fresh produce plastic wrapped in a supermarket. We try to keep plastic poly bags to a mimumum but it's a very tricky area which we haven't found a complete solution for yet. Most things we don't package at all but some fruits and vegetables need a layer of protection to keep them fresh and intact.  We have to stop the produce from spoiling and ending up in landfill too! However, one of our principles is to run the business in the most sustainable and resource efficient way possible, and plastics are a thorn in our sustainable sides.

Can we live without it?

It's totally pervasive in our lives and thankfully we're starting to wake up, as a society, to the devastating impact it has on the environment, our health and the beautiful and vital living beings we share this planet with.

There are some plastics we can give up immediately with little to no immediate impact on our lives – ditch the straws, swap your toothbrush to a bamboo one, get a reusable aluminium water bottle, don't use disposable cutlery, for starters, but there are areas where plastic is so ubiquitous it's hard to immediately find a solution.

What are the alternitives?

The thing is, when you compare it to other non-plastic packaging options and you take into account the whole life cycle, including raw material extraction, manufacture, transportation and ultimate product disposal, plastic bags actually come on top for least impact on the environment.

Cotton tote bags bring with them huge environmental implications in the growing and processing of the cotton, and you'd need to use a cotton tote about 140 times before they offered any less of a strain on the environment than it's plastic equivalent (some motivation for you to return your cotton bags to us every week!) But plastic waste is becoming just as much of a threat to the planet as climate change and can't be ignored any longer.

We use minimal plastic in the packing of our fruit and veg bags but some is needed to keep greens fresh or protect soft fruits or tomatoes but we want to use even less and ultimately eradicate plastics entirely. We're talking to our suppliers about what alternatives are out there. Unfortunately, there’s currently no affordable substitute for plastic in terms of keeping greens fresh: paper bags actually absorb moisture from leafy greens and make them go limp more quickly. Compostable plastics can disintegrate if they get wet, which is very likely. Biodegradable plastics or corn starch alternatives are no more environmentally friendly in many respects than plastic. And there’s evidence to suggest that plastic packaging has a much lower carbon footprint than its paper or card equivalent. Riverford have done some very in-depth research into the environmental impacts of different kinds of packaging which is worth a read if you want to delve deeper.

The technical bit

Martin at Ripple Farm is constantly searching for alternatives to the plastic he uses to package his produce for us and has tried several recycled/ compostable/biodegardable products over the last 10 years with little success. He says “it seems to me that the packaging industry is either finding it technologically difficult or perharps not motivated enough to replace the plastic bag.”

One product we are researching is the biodegradable cling film BioWrap from a British company called Baco. If this is truly what they claim then it could be something we could use to wrap cut squash pieces. “Its seems its made from hydrocarbon based plastics mixed with a natural prodegradant, creating a "plastic recipe" that is edible to microorganisms and therefore fully compostable in 2 years.” Martin told us.

Regarding poly bags, the kind used to bag kales, spinach and salad, Martin's recently tried a wood starch "plastic" bag but have found it's unsuitable in size (too small), shape, strength, and its not perforated or mounted on a wicket.

We're also looking into punnets made from corn starch for tomatoes next year. It's something OrganicLea have been using successfully this year so we'll trial them next summer.

The cost

The price of all these alternatives is a lot higher – about 1000% more expensive, yes 1000%. This will have an impact on our pricing and while we want to keep costs down for our customers as much as possible the true cost of the current plastic bag is being paid by the environment and future residents of planet earth. Just as we choose to pay more for local, ethical and sustainable food, we may need to think about plastic alternatives in the same way – worth paying a bit extra for.

We shall keep looking for alternatives and pestering the farmers and packaging companies that we deal with as the message needs to get back to industry to find solutions.

What ever happens, we'll keep you updated on our quest to rid ourselves of plastic