To make our packaging as environmentally friendly as possible, we:
- Use only what is necessary to prevent food waste (and massively less than the supermarkets)
- Reuse as much as we can; if you all gave your veg boxes back to us, each one could do 10 trips! At the moment we only manage an average of 3-4 trips per box, because so many are not returned.
- Use recycled and recyclable materials
- Don’t use degradable or starch-based compostable plastics; although these sound good, they are not actually better for the environment.
- Undertake rigorous research to make sure we’re doing the right thing. Sometimes the results are surprising; for example, paper bags have a much higher carbon footprint than recyclable plastic ones.
That’s a short summary... for more details, read below.
For years, we did what we assumed was best for the planet when it came to our packaging, charging into several expensive projects without enough research. Intuitive assumptions and information from suppliers both turned out to be unreliable. The more questions we asked, the more we realised that the answers were far from obvious; so, we decided to ask some experts. We undertook a 2-year study with the University of Exeter called the Riverford Sustainable Development Project. They helped us to evaluate the environmental impacts of every aspect of our business. Here is what we found out about packaging, and how those insights have shaped all our subsequent choices.
Reduce first, re-use and recycle second
Packaging is a necessary evil. Moist, leafy veg such as lettuces and spinach wilt and lose quality quickly in contact with the air; without paper to shade them, potatoes turn green; and loose root veg (a system we tried many years ago) roll around and make a mess of both the clean produce and the boxes. We must always balance the environmental impact of the packaging against the impact of the food waste that would occur if we didn’t use it.
Although we can’t be rid of the stuff completely, we do try to use only what is necessary to preserve the quality of the produce. We leave a few more leaves on our cauliflower, most cabbages and many lettuces, and urge our customers not to judge quality by the outer leaves, which may be tattered and tired. Most accept this and are happy to do their own trimming to save a bag.
As well as reducing the amount of packaging that we use, we reuse or recycle as much of it as possible. Because we manage all our own distribution, don’t use couriers, work at a regional level, have close relationships with our suppliers and rely on repeat business with environmentally motivated customers, we are in a strong position to return our packaging to source for reuse or recycling.
Visit our packaging guide to learn what you can recycle, and what should be returned to us for reuse.
What’s ‘best’ for the environment?
Like most environmentally motivated questions, there is no straight answer to which packaging materials are ‘best’. Studies known as life cycle assessments (LCAs) can be carried out to try to answer this question; however, what impacts are measured varies widely with different studies – and, often, who is funding them. Unsurprisingly, bag manufacturers often conclude that paper bags are better for the environment than plastic, and vice versa.
Aside from the thorny issue of bias, working out what packaging material is best in each case is a tricky calculation. There are many complex factors to be balanced together: the environmental impact of both production and responsible disposal, the damage from irresponsible disposal, the potential for reuse or recycling, as well as the ability to protect the produce and communicate necessary information to consumers.
Another thing that can make it difficult to effect positive change in packaging is public misconceptions. Our customers have the will to use their purchasing power to make the world a better place, but do not always have the information to be able to use that power in the most effective way. For example, almost all the complaints we receive about our packaging relate to plastic punnets and bags. These contribute only 7% to our packaging carbon footprint; paper and cardboard, on the other hand, contribute 85% - and yet we receive no complaints about them! This type of mismatch between perception and reality can be a barrier to real improvements.
Paper vs. plastic
Our customers hate plastic with a vengeance. However, paper and cardboard packaging seems to be accepted without question. We understand this attitude; we like paper too, and it is the best material for storing unwashed root veg. However, from an energy and CO2 perspective, it is far from benign.
In most cases paper bags, even if recycled and made from unbleached paper (as ours are), have a substantially higher carbon footprint than the equivalent oil-based plastic bag. For any product, the exact figures will vary according to production techniques and the full life-cycle of the packaging, but our research suggests that paper bags usually result in several times the emissions of the equivalent plastic bag.
Nothing is perfect, however; plastic bags may have a lower carbon footprint, but they are further depleting non-renewable resources, and if not properly disposed of can linger on land and at sea.
Why does Riverford use normal, non-degradable plastic bags?
Degradable plastics aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. They are normally simply a conventional oil-based plastic, with an additive that helps them to break down faster under certain conditions. The claimed environmental benefits turn out to be far from the truth: the bags end up in landfill, where they break down and generate greenhouse gases. They cannot be recycled; in fact, if even a small amount of this plastic contaminates a load of normal plastic, it will mean that the end product of recycling is unstable and must go to waste. These plastics are a disaster for the environment.
Starch-based compostable plastics also have questionable environmental credentials. It takes a huge amount of energy to extract the starch and convert it into plastic, with the end result that a starch-based plastic bag will normally use significantly more energy and hence cause higher emissions than an oil-based one, even accounting for the oil used as a raw material. Like degradable bags, if compostable bags get mixed with other plastics it renders all of them non-recyclable.
What we’ve ended up with
Taking carbon footprint, reusability, recyclability and functionality into account, this is the packaging that we have ended up with.
- Virtually all UK produce arrives in re-usable wooden bins and plastic crates. Some of the farm crates are over ten years old and have done hundreds of trips to the field and back. The larger wooden bins typically last for seven years.
- Our cardboard boxes are made from 98% recycled materials, and 100% recyclable. They are designed to be re-used many times over. If all boxes were returned to us and only sent for recycling when damaged, we would get approximately ten trips from each box. This would more than halve their impact. At the moment we only manage an average of 3-4 trips per box, because so many are not returned.
- Our paper punnets took many years to develop. They break down fairly fast on a domestic compost heap, or can be recycled. We have reduced the thickness, the manufacturer has changed their techniques to save energy, and we often don’t bother with a lid; all of this reduces the associated emissions.
- We use as little plastic as we can, and massively less than most retailers. Our plastic bags are made of conventional LDPE or polythene. They are all recyclable.
- Very occasionally, we use plastic punnets; this is only when we do not have the right sized paper punnet, or an import arrives ready-punneted.
To find out how you can make sure that each of these items is reused or recycled, visit our guide.