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

41 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

    • Hi Kristina, a very sensible idea but unfortunately with the drivers being as busy as they are, many would get missed/forgotten and it would also add time on for the drivers.
      Perhaps you can pass the recipes on to friends/family for them to try and perhaps even read Guy’s news?

  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?

    • Hi Hilary,

      Black trays are used because other meat packaging on the market don’t fit our criteria in terms of environmental impact to produce/ensuring the best quality of the meat.. Until a better option becomes available we have to stick to black.

      However, we do acknowledge that some meat items don’t need the trays and plan to remove them from items where possible.

  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!

    • Hi Joanna,
      A good point about the meat trays – we agree some of them we could do without and will be looking at all meat products and assessing this.

      In terms of milk cartons – aside from leaking issues, they were also not widely recyclable, whereas our new bottles are.

  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?

    • Hi Nigel, it is unlikely this would ever happen, and if it did we’re pretty confident there would be other sustainable options by this point.

      PEFC stands for Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification.

  21. Brilliant news , well done.Everything that is made out of plastic can be made out of biodegradable matter like hemp seaweed starches and no doubt a myriad of materials that we’ve never heard of. The science is out there. So go Riverford go. Lets lead the way!

  22. Jumping with happiness about this! Such a wonderful thing for the environment. From now on straight to the compost, no more time wasted in cutting the nets into mini bits to put them into the rubbish bin. Extremely happy customer, sure the wild life and the environment are too. You made my day.

  23. The plastic nets make good pan scrubs, so at least they can be reused.

  24. The people commenting about the packaging of meat, cheese and milk are obviously passionate about the environment, what about going vegan? The animal products inside the packaging are far more damaging to the environment than the container they come in. Get your nutrients where the animal did and eat plants. It’s better for you, the environment and the animals. There’s nothing as environmentally friendly as using nothing, I would rather netted products were loose if at all possible. I understand some products need protecting like soft fruits and mushrooms. I would be happy to see their containers returned and reused. It’s great your looking into it, don’t think you would find a supermarket doing such a thing!

  25. Good idea to leave out the middle animal! Farmed animals contribute more to environmental destruction and global warming than all the transport emissions of the world put together. Crazy when you think how we try to cut down on little things like taking showers for shorter durations, cycling to work, worrying about packaging (and yes, it all helps but not enough to make a big impact), etc. I’m pleased to be a customer of such high ethical standards but the meat and dairy is a bigger problem than plastic wrap or greaseproof paper. Reduce and reuse but not using at all is the best possible solution.

  26. It’s great that you’ve found an alternative to filling the environment with more plastic, but it sounds as if the creation of the greener nets is very energy intensive – and I can’t begin to imagine the energy used in importing them all the way from Australia!
    If we’re going to use a product made from wood, what’s wrong with the good old-fashioned paper bag? Is there really any need to re-invent the wheel?

    • Hi Bobbi, wherever possible we pack items loose, but do need packaging in some instances. We use paper bags but they are not suitable for everything, i.e citrus fruits because the paper draws the moisture/oils from the skin and dehydrates the fruit. These nets are great because they allow certain items to breathe and therefore not affect the quality.
      The nets are made in Austria rather than Australia.
      Hope this helps!

  27. We think it’s brilliant that Riverford is taking a lead on sustainable packaging.
    In the meantime we have been using and re-using the re-sealable herb bags for nine years. They are great for snacks and small lego pieces !

  28. Rosemary cunningham

    Well done for being such a diligent, caring company. I’m sure you’ll be leading with some more innovations soon.
    This is such a hot topic, luckily lots of people are hearing about the plastic crisis now.

    It’s opened my eyes to how so many things are individually wrapped.

  29. Great to hear about this netting. How about wooden boxes for meat next!

  30. I recently started buying some meats from a farm that sells meats I have not been able to buy from Riverford (like mutton and rabbit). The farm rears the animals outdoors and have good farming practices, as far as I am aware. The reason I mention this farm is because they use polystyrene to insulate the meat, which reminded me how good it is for keeping things cold or hot. I researched whether it can be recycled and according to the information I found; it can be melted down and reused. I’ve kept some to use when I defrost my freezer, as it will keep my frozen food frozen without me needing to use loads of old newspapers, which make a terrible mess. Have you at Riverford ever considered using polystyrene or do you think it is not very eco friendly?

  31. Just wondering whether you have any information on how long it takes the new nets to break down in the compost heap? I ask because a lot of products sold as biodegradable will really only break down in a very hot compost heap (an industrial scale one), not in your average back-garden heap, which isn’t large enough to generate the heat required. And obviously, accidentally putting netting on the garden in your compost would be worrying in case of entanglement. Apologies that this sounds very negative – on the whole I think any change from plastic to recyclable is fantastic, and even though Riverford is organic, I wouldn’t buy from you if your packaging was excessive and plastic based.

  32. And there i was thinking i might save the plastic ones and tie them together for netting to protect my crops on the allotment. What does Riverford do with used netting from the farms? Anything leftover that customers who grow their own fruit and veg can use?

  33. Christine Harford

    What dye is used for the red beechwood nets?

  34. Excellent to hear Riverford has made the switch to biodegradable nets, well done.

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