Wooden nets & your thoughts about packaging

Hello, I’m Robyn – Riverford’s new(ish) packaging technologist. I’ve been working at Riverford HQ on the Devon farm for six months. Like everyone here, I’m passionate about food and the environment. Now that I’ve had some time to get to grips with the business and its ethos, I’m starting to review our existing packaging, making sure it reflects our ethics and looking at ways for us to improve.

Can’t live with it, can’t live without it
As much as people (ourselves included!) might wish that we could do without packaging entirely, it plays a huge part in ensuring product quality and enabling distribution through our whole supply chain – from the boxes that loop between our farm and your door, to the punnets that hold our mushrooms secure in transit. In general, our ethos is that less is more: if the product is robust enough to travel without being damaged, then there’s no need to add unnecessary packaging. Although we already look consciously at our packaging, my role has been created to really make sure that we’re doing the best we can.

Consistent customer feedback, as well as thoughts within Riverford, have lead me to rethink one item of our packaging first: plastic nets. We use these for items such as citrus and onions that are packaged in individual portions for people to add to their veg boxes or choose when building an individual order from scratch. My conundrum was this: we couldn’t get rid of nets entirely, as we rely on them to distribute equal-weight portions to every customer; and we couldn’t swap to another type of packaging without using even more material. I was stuck…. But then I came across a really exciting company in Austria that produces biodegradable net alternatives made from beech wood.

Wood, making a net?
It sounds strange, but actually works beautifully, and is very environmentally friendly. The wood is a by-product from the forestry industry: when the trees in PEFC-certified sustainable forests grow to a certain height, some are thinned out to give the remaining trees space and light to grow. The thinned-out trees would normally be burned; however, the net provides an alternative use. The wood is chipped and broken down further into pulp, spun into a string-like material, then knitted together into a net tube ready for our products.

Watch our video below to find out more about beech netting and how it’s made…

Needless to say, we decided to use the net – and in fact, have already started! We also have a large stock of plastic nets that we want to use up; you will still see some plastic nets in your boxes until we completely run out. We felt it would be wasteful to just throw away our existing stock, so as each plastic colour runs out we will replace it with the biodegradable version. Green and white biodegradable nets are already being used.

If you’re confused about what your net is made from, the feel will give it away: if it’s soft and natural feeling then you’ve got a biodegradable one. If it’s hard and plastic-y then it’s from the last of the plastic stock.

The way to dispose of your beech wood net is to cut off the metal clips (these aren’t biodegradable, though we are looking into alternatives) and put the net on your compost heap or in your council compost bin.

To find out more about our existing packaging and research with the University of Exeter, visit our packaging manifesto.

Share your thoughts on Riverford packaging
As part of my review of our existing packaging, I’m really keen to hear what customers think. If you have a few minutes to spare, please fill out the questionnaire below. I look forward to hearing your feedback, and will be personally reading the responses and bringing you more sustainable packaging changes in the future!

Click here to fill in the Riverford packaging survey

21 responses to “Wooden nets & your thoughts about packaging

  1. Wonderful to hear you’ve found an alternative to some of the plastic used by Riverford – very pleased! Now to find an alternative to plastic bags that has the same qualities for keeping food fresh 🙂

  2. Fantastic news, pioneers again. Hope the food industry takes notice. Sometimes small things can make a big difference

  3. Brilliant. The quicker all packaging can be environmentally friendly and biodegradable, and the less waste we have, the better.

  4. Good news – well done for going to the effort and added expense of taking this move. Please can you link to the supplier of these nets and/or the specific product spec you have gone for? this would mean that other producers who wish to follow your example can get on board too.

  5. The other month you sent me 275g of cheese wrapped in 1.75kg of that silvery/white ice-pack flexi packaging. Sent it back for reuse of course, but all that packaging weight you’re lugging round the country in your vans – must be a better way of doing it…?

  6. well done Riverford. yes i do care very much about the packaging. I love the sturdy paper bags that most things come in. we reuse those for all sorts and would be happy to return them to you for refilling if that would work?
    you do sometimes use plastic bags e.g. for celery. are these easily biodegradable?? i’m not sure, I’ve never looked at them in detail.
    anyway, go for the substitute for plastic netting! we are all for it. we only have to look at the plastic ‘islands’ and the harm done to aquatic life to see that even if biodegradable costs more we want to have that.

  7. I was actually going to contact you about the plastic nets and so it’s great to hear that you’ve already come up with a solution!

  8. Hi, just a comment about the leaflets. Might be worth keeping them out of the boxes and just popping one in for each customer as you deliver. This week for instance I had three boxes (juicing, fruit, and a recipe box) and received three lots of leaflets including the chunky Christmas one. cheers

  9. This is great news, please keep up the great work! I’m delighted that you are finding alternatives to the lemon packaging which seems unnecessary. Could we not have loose lemons? My other big beef (!) is that meat comes in black plastic trays which are not accepted by many recycling plants. Is there no way that meat could be packaged in clear trays. It’s great that we can return them, but do you actually re use them?

  10. Can you have a good hard look at the meat boxes, please? String instead of plastic to tie joints of meat; no need for the trays, just shrink wrap – less rubbish, less space in my freezer.

    So good to be a customer of a firm that thinks about this stuff, but the meat boxes are a priority. Also is there any way back to the waxed milk cartons? I really miss them, despite the occasional leaks!

  11. Great to hear someone’s thinking about it but there’s a lot of unknowns here that aren’t explained so I still feel frustrated. I understand they need to weigh out their onions and citrus for customers but why the need to then wrap them if they’re going in a box anyway! Plus that ecowrap is presumably flying half way round the world?!

    It sort of feels like riverford is focusing on something that could really be done without when there are much more serious plastic packaging issues to be confronted.

  12. Philippa Lay-Kishon

    Having just joined you…I am really impressed but I too don’t need the leaflets in every box and don’t really need the plastic on a whole lettuce and cucumber. I would very happily pay a deposit for a tray and drop scheme. Great idea!

  13. Love the idea of wooden nets; a very old technology brought up to date! Yet there are other ways to reduce the burden on the environment. Nettle string, Lime bast string, can be made into net bags.. Thin reeds can be woven easily into small baskets, Greaseproof paper is ideal for cheese and would also be good for mushrooms.
    There are compostible veg based plastics around nowadays too.
    Personally, I crochet shopping bags using cotton yarn. A small, drawstring version would be a possibility for smallish veg, washable too.

  14. It’s brilliant that you have found an alternative to the plastic nets. I am a little confused which plastic can be send back? From the comments above someone mentioned you take back the meat plastic trays? What about the plastic bags from salad, kale etc? Our LA will not recycle these. Also, why can you not re-use the veg punnets, egg boxes if they are in good condition? Or even the paper bags?

  15. Great news on the change to the wood based netting. In terms of the potential change from cardboard boxes to plastic reusable trays I would have thought a deposit based scheme would be widely accepted when customers are made aware of the enviromental impact of the 100% recycled material boxes. Just in case anyone missed it our “Veg boxes contribute four times the CO2 footprint of all the plastic we use, and almost as much as the lorries”. Keep up the great work.

  16. Good to hear about the nets, but why can’t we send them back to Riverford for re-use? It seems wrong (and wasteful) they they’re only used once.

    Same comment about cardboard punnets and paper bags – I think Riverford could re-use a lot more than just cardboard boxes, and could also work with suppliers so packaging can be returned to them (e.g. plastic bags used for watercress – you manage to get them from supplier to you to us, so why not back again for reuse?)

  17. This is great. Someone above mentioned bringing back the waxed milk cartons but our council doesn’t recycle them whereas the plastic bottles can be recycled. Your new job must be a minefield! We definitely don’t need cucumbers and celery in separate plastic bags. I don’t think they need any wrapping at all.

  18. It’s great to see the environmentally friendlier netting. Didn’t net bags used to be made of a sort of cotton rope before the big plastic take-over?
    I have good news about my local sports centre. They used to put their coffee in disposable, thin plastic cups that were not recyclable, but now they have started using cups that are recyclable and are not plastic. I would like to think I (and people like me) may have encouraged this change, as I asked about their recycling facilities and started saving their plastic spoons instead of getting a new one with each coffee. Every little step helps, I guess!

  19. I just had a look at the other comments and Jill Willmott’s suggestions reminded me about greaseproof paper. That’s a great idea to wrap cheese in. I found cling film seems to make cheese sweat and make it go mouldy very quickly. Waxed paper would be perfect for that. I also remember when bread in bakeries used to be wrapped in brown paper bags. I know it sometimes means cutting down our precious trees, but if the trees are from managed forests, it’s better than using plastic bags.

  20. At the moment demand for this biodegradable netting is not exceeding supply which is from thinning out trees which would otherwise be wasted(!); but what happens if/when demand grows dramatically? When trees are cut down at a faster rate than is sustainable we have another problem on our hands. Surely the best solution is to weigh them straight into a recyclable box and use any netting at all?

    Also, what is a PEFC-certified sustainable forest?

  21. At the moment demand for this biodegradable netting is not exceeding supply which is from thinning out trees which would otherwise be wasted(!); but what happens if/when demand grows dramatically? When trees are cut down at a faster rate than is sustainable we have another problem on our hands. Surely the best solution is to weigh them straight into a recyclable box and not use any netting at all?

    Also, what is a PEFC-certified sustainable forest?

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