the plastic crates debate

A few weeks back we asked you what you would think if we moved to a returnable plastic box. Thanks to everyone who responded – we had over 200 comments. The original blog post is here and to remind you:

  1. We get about four trips out of a box.
  2. Around half of the boxes are used for other things and the other half get too damaged or dirty.
  3. Although they’re made from 98% recycled materials, being reused four times and being recycled at the end of their lives, the boxes still make up 10% of our carbon footprint.
  4. Our research suggests that a re-usable plastic box would result in a reduction in emissions of about 70%.


  • 33% say it sounds like to right thing to do.
  • 28% would leave it up to us to do what is best.
  • 24% really don’t like the idea but would accept it.
  • 13% were not convinced by the CO2 argument and are against the idea of plastic boxes.

A lot of you mentioned that the boxes need to fold down to save on space, which would be a bit more expensive but would be worth it. Some of you worried about what would happen to the plastic crates at the end of their lives. We could get them made from most if not all recycled material and if they were returned to us at the end of their lives they would be 100% recycled.

One more question

We would need to charge a deposit of between £5 and £10 which would be added to your account when we deliver and removed when you return a box. How would you feel about this?

43 responses to “the plastic crates debate

  1. No problem with the deposit. Problem is I vary my boxes considerably, from two boxes some weeks (usually small veg and a fruit box) to a mini box, or I make my own depending on my weeks plan. And I also want to make sure that they fit in my Riverford cold safe, which now has your herbs growing on top. Anyway I trust we will work something out.

  2. I think it’s a shame that you have to ask for a deposit in the first place. As someone who always returns my boxes, I find it’s an additional accounting complexity that shouldn’t be necessary.

    However, if it means an increase in the reuse and a decrease in new boxes then I’m happy to go with it.

  3. I agree with the move to plastic boxes, counter-intuitive though it seems at first. But I also agree that they could do with being compressible. If one forgets to leave the box out for return one week, then one could end up with two or three boxes for the next seven days.

  4. The deposit sounds like a bit of an admin headache for you guys. I’m all for reducing emissions though, even though I quite like the cardboard boxes. How come only four trips out of one box? Do people leave them out in the rain or fold them the wrong way? Most of my boxes arrive in pretty good, used condition, I never get any looking particularly old or battered which suggests that maybe they’re taken out of circulation too early.

  5. Not sure why people find it so difficult to return their boxes and am against using plastic when it’s clearly certain (not all) customers causing a problem. I only get deliveries on an irregular basis but still return my box. What would happen if you forgot to put your plastic crate out one week? Where would the delivery go? Also, I have my delivery brought to work and I put it
    into bags to carry it home so if I could do without having any box I’d rather do that than pay for a box I don’t need!

  6. I would be fine with the plastic ones but the problem is that our household gets all the food possible from Riverford which means 4-7 boxes / week. I think it would be a bit unfair if I would need to pay for those boxes every week even if we get the money back.

    I suggest that you would charge people if they don’t return their box/boxes. How does that sound?

  7. We always return the boxes, but often a few weeks worth at a time. I’m not sure that having a plastic box with a deposit would change our behaviour. If it didn’t collapse then we might remember to return them more frequently as we ran out of space in the shed for storing them.

  8. I’m taking it that this doesn’t mean that we would get exactly the same box each week, we alternate the size of our box? Having to have two boxes wouldn’t be a big issue though.

    I think they do need to be collapseable, even that does mean a larger deposit.

  9. [thinks] Not keen on the plastic boxes, but won’t divorce you over it. Have you factored in the cleaning? I return mine, but know people who use them for garden/animal related purposes. How about you give people the used up boxes if they ask? They won’t kidnap them, and you’ll have a smaller rubbish pile.

  10. The deposit does sound problematic as i am rarely in when my box is delivered and i can have 6-7 hanging about before i can return them so that could be an extra 70 on my account. That may then make me cancel a delivery.

  11. I think the whole plastic idea is environmentally unsound (carbon footprint is not the only factor when considering ones impact on the environment), and the deposit sounds really hard to arrange accounting-wise. I’m another who doesn’t throw out boxes, but I don’t always remember to leave them out before a delivery, so would be racking up a big deposit bill that would make it financially necessary for me to cancel, as much as I love my delivery.

  12. Whilst it’s a good idea in theory to have plastic boxes it wouldn’t always be suitable for me as regularly my delivery is brought in 2 boxes as I’ve ordered extra stuff. Plus when new drivers have started I’ve ended up with 5+ boxes as they haven’t taken them away even though I’ve left them out. Also how would the deposit thing work, would it be a one off payment or a payment every week?

  13. I’m another one who always returns boxes but not necessarily straight away (I have three in my kitchen at the moment). How about insisting on a credit card/debit card/direct debit from all customers and making a quarterly charge for non-returned boxes? If the return date was clearly indicated (e.g. by email or note in veg box) then we could make sure we got our boxes back to you in time. One other thing – you would need to have an arrangement for the final box to be collected in case of people moving house/giving up getting a veg box etc.

  14. would all the extras one orders also be in a crate ?
    I presume the delivery person would have to record how many crates have been left and how many collected – what happens if they forget to record this ?
    A high deposit taken when you sign up and then a refund if/when you have a break would be a better solution.

  15. Sophy Azzopardi

    I’m not against the plastic boxes as such, but I would object to all that money to-ing and fro-ing from my credit card…

    Plus, we once tried Able and Cole (sorry, but we had to try… and we did come back to you) and I really hated their polysteyrene boxes. It really did ruin the experience

  16. I’m sure you have, but have you considered (strong, non-plastic) bags? Foldable and won’t get used for pets etc.

    I wouldn’t mind paying a deposit. I’m another who tends to forget to leave my box out and then returns a few at a time, but I guess if they’re plastic then I could leave them out all week without worrrying they’d get rained on.

  17. I prefer the cardboard but don’t mind paying a deposit.
    I would pay a one off deposit, but like many people I have the issue that I often return more then box at a time.

    I would be happy to BUY a box off you with a lid that was water tight and leave that outside so that the delivery person could fill that up and take the box away again that my order was packaged into. Like your eco cool safe – only cheaper. I could source my own but I’d like one with the Riverford brand on it then I know that it would be exclusively used for that and not something else. – Exclusive discounts for first 100 customers – count me in.

    We use these folding crates a lot and they are reasonably hard wearing.

  18. I am happy to either
    1) pay a deposit whether plastic or cardboard, or
    2) if a box is not left out then the monies are deducted when payment is made that evening. The issue with the latter though is that you may run the risk of not knowing who ‘owes’ what in terms of boxes, particularly if a couple of weeks later extra boxes are left out. You’re then having to arrange a refund and manage that. Admin headache……

    Short of barcoding and tracking you’re better off with a one off one-size deposit, maybe irrelevant of size of the order/number of boxes used. I invariably order stuff that ends up in 2 boxes.

    Separately, the problem I have is that I leave boxes out and they are not always collected – it depends where the delivery gets left.

  19. Hi. We are running an organic fresh produce delivery in Panama, Latin America. We work with small farmers in the “interior” and deliver in the capital area.

    I follow your blog for ideas and inspiration for the work we do here.

    From the get go we implemented a system of returnable baskets made of a local woven material called “bejuco”.

    It is quite strong and durable, and so far after 10 deliveries it is still usable. It also offers added income to the local artisans we buy it from.
    We designed a rectangular shaped basket with a lid so we can stack them when making deliveries and storing.

    Not sure if you have a local sustainable material you can work with instead of plastic, but that might be an option to look into. Maybe wicker or willow?

    Just an idea 🙂

  20. As someone who always returns my boxes I would be offended to have to pay a deposit. It would be cheaper in the long run to go to the local farm shop.

  21. Hi,

    I have no issues with the crates, whatever is easiest for you and whatever you think is best for the environment. I recognise sometimes I dont always leave my cardboard boxes out so it would definitely help with this as I am much less likely to hang onto a plastic crate. Go with whatever you think is best – I trust your thinking on this. Am just so glad I can get yummy veg. Sheila

  22. The plastic versus any other material debate boils down to this:
    Is it better to burn oil in order to make ‘biodegradable’ containers or is it better to use the oil directly to make the container and use it for longer.
    I have not done the sums, but Riverford have and they say plastic is better. I believe them.
    The deposit thing really needs working out better though. Perhaps this would work:

    Charge no deposit upfront, but state in our agreement with you that the boxes will be charged at £20 each if not returned (make this a punitive cost, a real deterrent) .
    Give a two delivery grace period for folk with a regular order to return the boxes.
    If the boxes are not returned by two deliveries down the line, then invoice for the outstanding boxes.
    For those without a regular delivery, just use cardboard or charge an upfront fee.

    There probably also needs to be a method by which we can take ‘box return holidays’ by prior agreement, and also a method to report a stolen box, or a damaged box.

  23. Mind you, I’m looking at your figures and you say the boxes are 10% of your footprint and switching to plastic saves 70%, so that must be 70% of the 10% so not a great deal in fact. Is this the lowest hanging fruit? Could bigger savings be made in another area leaving this battle for another day?

  24. If plastic boxes do the job better for reuse and so have a lower environmental impact then we should make the switch. Folding would be better for space and leaving them out without being seen and nicked. But maybe folding boxes wont be so strong and long lasting and undermine how many times re-use is achieved. But if you can send them off for 100% recycling at the end that’s a bonus. As for deposits, we should all accept that sound investment in reusable longer lasting packaging costs money.

  25. Sophy Azzopardi

    This has been playing on my mind so I want to post again. I am actually not that happy about the deposit thing. We pay a lot extra for the luxury of having delicious organic food. We are also paying for the marvelous service. However, I am not happy to pay for these ‘extras’. I run a boarding kennels. We provide all dogs with beds, bowls etc. These often get chewed up. Sometimes customers sneak off with them. But all these things are factored into my pricing, so customers know exactly how much they will pay. A certain amount of loss is inevitable in all business and goodwill over it counts for a lot

  26. I like the idea of a standard sized plastic crate with a lid – it would keep the veg and packing dry when left outside and wouldn’t need to be folded then – it could sit outside the door with the recycling boxes. Extras could be piled on the lid to stop the ‘box’ contents getting squashed – a common problem for me, or we could leave out our own extras box.
    A ‘crate payment’ when you start ordering would be good and then if you stop you get it back – but you would need to barcode the crates to know who had what – an extra expense for handheld bar code scanner for every van.

  27. I prefer to stay with the cardboard boxes. We regularly are still working through one box when the next arrives and even when they are finished they are often not collected but the new box is put on top so would be most unhappy about a deposit scheme. We have an outside delivery box and the boxes stay out there so none ever go astray just are still in use or not picked up. Folding is a must for space reasons.

  28. Hi,

    Been Riverford customer for years. Sorry missed deadline on plastic box. If I can comment still: Please no plastic. We don’t need any more demand for oil. This stuff won’t degrade gracefully. We don’t need any more plastic in our lives and we all know it.

    There are huge debates, of course, around carbon footprints and much smoke and mirrors at play.

    But we must now that making more stuff out of plastic is not the way to do it.

    Forgive the absolute lack of imaginative alternatives but I do want to make the point here if poss that more and more and more plastic product does not signify progress I don’t think.



  29. I do not like the idea of the plastic crate.

    Will you have a one size fits all crate? As I, like alot of others, change between “boxes” week by week … varying size depending upon the contents (I supplement the resulting gap by using a “local food on the move” initiative in Exeter … a van that moves from place to place, and stops outside my children’s school on a Friday.

    I do not like the idea of a deposit and imagine it will put off new users. An extra cost, outlay.

    I understand the economics to a certain degree, but alot of the enjoyment of getting a box is exactly that … I enjoy getting a box full of vegetables. A plastic crate takes away from that. I understand this sounds crazy … but it would take away some of what I enjoy and mean I use the service less frequently.

    I would urge you to really consider this new scheme. 200 responses is a tiny amount of feedback and likely to be mainly from people fully aboard the Riverford wagon.

  30. Apologies for coming late to this. Please, please don’t switch to plastic boxes. When the cardboard boxes are no longer usable, they can biodegrade within a season. A broken plastic box will be with us for years and years. I know you said you would recycle any broken plastic boxes that are returned to you, but what about those that you don’t get back? And what about the carbon used in the recycling process?

    I would be happy to pay a deposit for my cardboard boxes. I think they should be considered more valuable than plastic ones.

  31. Rather like the idea of the woven boxes as mentioned by Eylon. Just as you have links with Africa, working closely with farmers there, maybe a similar scheme could be started with basket makers in Panama! Would take a while to set up, of course, but this would be a very interesting alternative.

  32. Eylon’s idea is the nicer than plastic, but it would be hard to do it here in the UK without the new basket being worth about £20? I think we’d need to pay that upfront, a deposit when we join.
    Currently, Somerset willow-farming isn’t using much of its product on wickerwork, a very much higher %age goes to charcoal-making for artists. But the SW’s culm grassland could be turned over to reviving the craft by planting some of it with willow, it doesn’t make profitable grazing. Hazel for the handles and alder trees for barbecue charcoal are useful too.

    Chestnut was grown to be split for punnet making and Sussex trugs come from that too. I would think the south of France is where you look to revive that craft.

  33. I too would rather pay a larger upfront deposit that is returned if and when I no longer wish to use the Riverford veggie box scheme. Deposits taken and given back repeatedly just feel a bit muddly to me. I am also an offender in keeping boxes for two or three weeks at a time but ALWAYS return them eventually.

  34. I trust you to make the right choice re plastic non plastic. I always return my boxes but occasionally I’m a week later. If it is windy and/or heavy rain and I know I’m going to be out when my box is delivered I won’t leave the return ones out that week. The empty boxes, having no weight, can blow away in windy weather. I have occasionally left my boxes out covered in a large plastic bag if it is just rain (and no wind). It seems unfair that I should be charged late return of a box when I have the boxes best interest at heart 😉 Also there are occasions when I cancel my box for a week or two due to trips away so another delay in box return. Could you perhaps do a once a month check and those who weren’t returning boxes could be charged?? That would probably result in less administration for you with constant charging and refunding. Alternatively could we be asked to provide our own flat pack boxes which we could add our customer number too. Those providing their own boxes would not incur the charges.

  35. Marguerite Saffery

    There seem to be too many variables in people`s lives to organise this efficiently and so far the efficiency of our deliveries has been exemplary. Returning the box each week has been simple. Here are a few thoughts though:

    The present boxes could be used more frequently.

    If plastic has to be used I like the idea of a one off payment the responsibility of caring for the box would be mine, also I could leave out an extras bag when necessary.

    I hate the idea of plastic bags.

    The idea of using other environmentally materials is very interesting. Is there any future in recycling old wine boxes or banana crates?

    We love the products from Riverford and receiving the newsletter. Keep up the good work and I am sure you will eventually be able to resolve this.

  36. Sorry to come late to the debate, but would like to add a comment because I am so impressed with the cardboard boxes used already. i agree with the argument that deposits may put off people coming to use the service for the first time, and they would miss out on a lot. The system also works – I return my boxes most weeks and really appreciate the fact that I can fold them for storage. Plastic crates would be a nightmare to store for a week to then give back. i also love the fact that the boxes are cardboard. It is true that most people using this service are looking to get away from the plastic norm of the supermarket way of things, as well as buy good quality produce.

  37. Have just been catching up with this subject. I’d be OK about a small deposit for a folding box but £10 seems steep! Like many others my boxes always go back -I may miss one week but send it back the next as I don’t have room to stockpile boxes.

  38. I return my boxes although not every week and would perfer the cardboard boxes to continue. I don’t mind getting a slightly tattier box if you can get more uses out of the box. For thse of us with one of your locakers, you could improve the design by addding a grid at the bottom to stop them geting soggy bottoms when they’re left on the floor of tbhe locker (despite the shelf being clear). Ialos wonder about the economics of running a system to record who has which boxes and which have or haven’t been retuned.

  39. Sorry to leave this so late. Please no plastic boxes. So far, boxes have all been pristine; I am quite happy to have tattier ones. I have varying boxes and often more than one box. The admin for a deposit scheme would be a real headache for all especially the delivery people; they know who is lax, and could put a friendly reminder leaflet in the box. Also, if the veg. in the boxes are part prepared and stored appropriately, the veg keep better and the boxes can be exchanged each week.

  40. I’m not sure if this has already been said, but why not design a more robust box made from wood ? A local veg box supplier here uses boxes made from stripped pine. I realise it would be a challenge to make wooden boxes that are collapsible, as well as strong, within budget -but if you can build your own yurt you would probably have some ideas! This would probably make them more appealing.

  41. I have a preference for cardboard boxes,mine are returned, although sometimes i miss the delivery person the boxes are the boxes are left for the next time she calls.

  42. Charlotte Foster

    It sounds like the right decision, but I wonder whether it wouldn’t be less of an admin headache to charge only if the box/boxes were not returned. This would then be refunded when they were returned.

    Whether you charge a deposit or not the driver still has to do some admin when dropping off/collecting the empty boxes.

    The only other thing I would say that perhaps in London these boxes might get nabbed by a passer-by who fancies a nice a box!?

  43. 100% recycled plastic trays or boxes are a great idea. A step in the right direction to ensure we bring down our carbon footprint.

    Alison Handling

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