Guy’s news: Packaging; trying to be less bad

In 2005 we spent two years working with Exeter University looking at Riverford’s environmental footprint; in keeping with the thinking of the time we focused on climate change. The conclusions (many of which were counterintuitive) were published, none have been challenged and, though it is time for a review, they remain true today. Transport creates the biggest impact, but packaging is a significant, if confusing issue. The key findings include:

• Recycling does not make packaging OK, just marginally less bad. Never forget the mantra reduce, re-use, recycle in that order. With China’s recent threat to effectively ban the import of plastic waste, the packaging and recycling industry will need to change very quickly. We now have a team, headed by Robyn, who are devoted to questioning every bit of our packaging. As a result, we are confident you will see big reductions in the next year, particularly of plastic.

• Our cardboard veg boxes, despite being made from 100% recycled materials, being re-used several times and being recyclable, still contribute four times the CO2 footprint of all the plastic we use, and almost as much as our lorries. The most effective thing you can do to reduce the environmental impact of your veg is still to leave the box out for collection. I hope that we will one day move to a deposit-carrying, reusable tray that will do hundreds of trips; a substantial obstacle is customer acceptance of plastic, while the £3m cost is another.

• Perhaps most contentiously, on CO2 emissions alone, plastic bags are normally better for the environment than paper. Much as most of us loathe plastic, it should not be condemned out of hand as a lot of its impact depends on how it is disposed of. If your local authority does not recycle plastic bags, please leave ours in your folded-down veg box and we will sort and recycle.

Climate change is not everything; society has underestimated plastic as a source of marine pollution and must work harder to reduce its use, though I still question moving to paper. For onion netting we just switched from plastic to a net made from sustainably managed beech wood; read Robyn’s blog about it online. We intend for this to be just the beginning of a change in the tide.

Guy Singh-Watson

23 responses to “Guy’s news: Packaging; trying to be less bad

  1. Vivien Cruickshank

    I’m sure that more could be done to dispose of plastic in a more sustainable way, but when you see the problems it has caused in the oceans, it is beyond tragic. There needs to be more information and education as well as facilities put in place so that plastic doesn’t end up in the oceans. We see the closure of recycling centres, as well as those remaining shutting off facilities to certain sectors of the population, resulting in fly-tipping. To a point, this is what is happening with plastic.

  2. I’m a bit shocked you last looked at this issue in 2005😱😱

    I hope everyone reuses the brown paper bag and the yoghurt pots, they are so useful.

  3. Along with the oceans, just a glimpse out of our car windows shows us the shocking state of the roadsides, with every imaginable piece of rubbish that people discard from their vehicles.
    Local council ‘recycling centres’ that do not now accept certain things or certain vehicles which is contributing to the worsening flytipping problem.
    It seems the packaging industry is in dire need of a thorough re-think. They seem to take no responsibility whatsoever. I have recently bought towels made from beech pulp, the material is called Modal I think and they are very good. Supermarkets also have a blind spot and a deaf ear around this subject as the responses I have received from my questions to them on this subject are worse than useless. just the usual corporate c**p. If I am forced to use a supermarket I take the WI lead and leave all the unnecessary packaging at the till. Someone has to do it!

  4. Shocked to see that paper bags have a greater CO2 impact than plastic ones; this must be in the manufacture rather than the disposal? I re-use those thick brown paper (potato and beetroot etc) bags as waste bags in the kitchen – they hold a lot of the bits that we can’t recycle and are strong enough to hold cat food leavings without leaking. I’m sure that as a child we used to wrap “rubbish” in old newspapers and put in in the dustbin, or even burn some. Everything these days is so over-packaged and inappropriately packaged – I bought a toothbrush recently in a hard plastic that sliced through my hand as I tried to open it!
    Keep up the good work, Riverford

    The reusable tray can be offered as a voluntary option to the customers.
    then providing a launch discount promotion, with a seasonal roll out might help.

    I’m a Riverford customer that instantly empties on receipt and hands it to the driver before he leaves its a great process for us because I’m so proud of my decision to stick to the process and say thank you for a great service.

    It just takes seconds.

    You never praise your loyal customers or give us viable options All this research and the outcome is bearly positive. You need to provide a more positive, prouder and happier service; leaving the frontline staff in a real awkward position is failing to be more resourceful.

    I’m not going to define how and why that’s for you to really understand by including them more.
    Some may disagree but hey I like a believe in positive dialogue.

    Have a wonderful time during the festival period
    Thank you for reading my comments

  6. At least you’re trying to do the right thing. Its working out what is ‘right’ that is difficult. I just wish there was a way to stop the littering – humans seem to be so short sighted and selfish, filling landfill, dumping at sea etc. I walk daily and see the remains of people’s picnics in the park – don’t get how they go there because it’s beautiful and then help destroy that beauty and endanger wild life by leaving all their rubbish behind. Sigh. Just try to do our bit, I suppose. Thanks for offering to recycle the plastic bags btw – I usually have to trek to Waitrose to recycle ours.

  7. I hope you continue to use the brown paper bags and mushroom cartons, rather than using plastic, personally – because they make great holders for my veggie/fruit scraps/peel -and the whole thing goes in my compost. i dont want to have to buy paper bags/cartons just to collect/dispose of my compost scraps, which would become necessary if you stopped using bags/cartons! I need something that can go into the compost, as my compost bins are at the allotment, not at my home!

  8. What about hessian bags ?
    They seem to last for ever, have handles for easy handling and can be stored flat when empty.

  9. Is it worth investigating something like bamboo to make the crates, rather than plastic ?

  10. I agree with Cathryn, bamboo is robust and reasonably lightweight. In the ‘60’s on a farm in Zimbabwe we would package our tomatoes in light wooden trays to be exported to the UK.

  11. Just like to back up sande waybill’s post. I too use my brown bags and cartons to collect compost and would have to choose between buying bags or not composting some of our food waste – wish my local authority collected food waste separately but they don’t. I know that in the end Riverford has to make its choices based on what the majority of customer do.

  12. Good to hear that your plastic bags can be sent back to you for recycling. The impression we got when we started using Riverford was that only the boxes could be sent back, so it might be good to include a note on recycling packaging materials with people’s first deliveries (and as a link, at the bottom of the order confirmation emails that go out)?

  13. Would be happy to pay for the permanent plastic delivery box. Make it optional for clients to decide to go that route. There do seem to be a lot of paper bags around items which I imagine could be reduced….why not try with a subset of your clients to see how it goes?

  14. You can’t please everyone,we all have an ‘opinion’ but you must take credit for trying to do what you think is right. We also must stop pointing fingers and saying ‘ it’s your fault’ some of us are sheer bone idle and can’t be bothered to walk to a bin to dispose of rubbish, some of us just don’t consider the environment a problem,(I’m all right Jack) but more importantly we have been misinformed in the past. It’s time we all worked together .

  15. I agree with not wasting and re-using where at all possible. I was not aware that you will take back plastic bags, I shall leave inside the cardboard box to be collected with my next delivery. I would prefer not to have a plastic tray for delivery of your produce as it would mean something else to have to store.
    I also compost kitchen waste, to this end I have a small compost bin in my kitchen and a large compost in the garden

  16. Plastic better for the environment is counter-intuitive, but hey.ho. Some veg could be left loose in boxes – broccoli heads, cauli, peppers, potatoes – rather than placed in plastic or paper bags. We always send back boxes, paper and plastic bags. The debate about littering and not giving a toss about the environment (local or otherwise) will continue until such time as people can either be persuaded that their behaviour needs to change or, failing that, financial penalties and enforcement might help – look what the charge for plastic bags has done.
    Keep up the good work Guy, thought provoking as ever given the number of comments this week! And as for customer service – second to none 0ver the 12 years we’ve been with Riverford.

  17. I have always thought you package far too much – why are so many things in paper bags when they could go straight into the box? yes the bags can be used in the compost bin and I do do that but they still have to be manufactured in the first place and as you point out they are high on the carbon footprint scale.

  18. Ideally, there would be a current or new waste product from the farm or nearby business or council that could easily and cheaply be turned into packaging. Why is doing right often so hard?

    I would happily do without the ice sack used to chill dairy products.

  19. The health of all creatures and our beautiful earth should be the main reason to ditch all plastics for good.

  20. I particularly appreciate the card and pulp containers your lovely mushrooms and tomatoes arrive in. They last longer than the supermarket offerings that are tightly squeezed into plastic containers and film wrapped – sweaty and unappetising to use. I hope that use of this type of container will be continued and developed. In Finland where I used to live, there are companies developing pulp products that have many applications – degradable use in as fruit trays, and in gardening, forestry and manufacturing for example. More could be done in the UK and caring companies like Riverford could be our trailbazers!
    Regards, Serena

    Where I live all “fly away” plastic – most things that food arrive in apparently – cannot be recycled and has to go into the bin. Anything that can be done to reduce the amount of plastic is to be appreciated. We also seem to be pretty much alone in Europe where it comes to recycling glass and plastic bottles easily. Consumers certainly have a part to play – throwing rubbish into the hedgerows etc is not acceptable – but also supermarkets and manufacturers could do more to avoid using it.

  21. Deborah Davenport

    I am not always at home when our box arrives, so can’t unpack and immediately return it. If I know I’m not going to be around, I make sure I put the empty box out for collection. I agree that a plastic box which couldn’t be folded don would create a bit of a storage problem.
    I return the plastic bags with my box, but also use the brown paper bags for my compost – and as my compost bin is on our allotment, I need something that will last a couple of days! The small boxes I try to re-use to bring small things back from the allotment, or eventually compost them.
    I suspect the issue with loose veg is one of quantity (i.e. making sure everyone gets the right weight) and also your own storage – presumably you make the bags and boxes up (at least in part) the day before delivery?
    Overall, we just have to keep thinking and amending our behaviour as new guidance comes available. Plastic in the oceans is clearly tragic and I’m sure we would all support ways in which to stop this happening.

  22. I agree totally that we should be reducing our use of all packaging, but I question the statement that plastic bags are normally better for the environment than paper. Plastic degrades to form microplastics – tiny particles which persist in the environment and enter the food chain. Their potential harm to human health is only just beginning to be acknowledged and studied. The devastating harm to seabirds and other marine life by plastic waste which ends up in oceans and seas, is well documented. As Guy says climate change is not everything and we need to focus on all areas of pollution.

  23. Richard Jennings

    This IS a really complex issue! I hate plastic bags, and the issue of Ocean pollution desperately pressing. But there have been many studies which all show that the overall impact of plastic vs paper is not in papers immediate favour. Best solution , NO Bag best! If plastic is used, it’s disposal is of vital importance, and getting a bag with my salad in saying “not currently recyclable” very worrying.

    The U.K. Environment Agency did a life cycle assessment comparing the environmental impacts of conventional plastic grocery bags (High Density Polyethylene- HDPE) with a number of other supermarket carry bags including paper, longer-life bags (cotton, non-woven polypropylene), plastic bags-for-life (low density polyethylene), and a starch polyester blend bag.

    The study found that:

    “The conventional plastic shopping bag (HDPE) outperformed all alternatives, even reusables, on environmental performance.

    Conventional plastic bags have a much lower global warming potential.

    The environmental impact of all types of carry bags is dominated by the resource use and production stages. Transport, secondary packaging and end-of-life management generally have minimal influence on their performance.

    Heavier, sturdier bags of all materials have a higher global warming potential. For example, the production of cotton with its heavy pesticide and water use has a negative impact on the environmental benefit of cotton bags.

    Whatever type of bag is used, the key to reducing the impacts is to reuse it as many times as possible.

    The reuse of conventional HDPE and other lightweight carrier bags for shopping and/or as bin-liners is pivotal to their environmental performance, and reuse of bags as kitchen catchers produces greater benefits than recycling bags. The study identified that 40.3% of plastic bags were reused as bin liners in the UK.


    Paper bags would have to be used three times to lower their global warming potential to match that of a conventional HDPE plastic shopping bag being used just once.

    LDPE bags (thicker polyethylene bags for life) would have to be used four times; non-woven polypropylene bags 11 times; and cotton bags 131 times.

    Starch-polyester blend bags have a higher global warming potential and abiotic depletion than conventional polymer bags, due both to the increased weight of material in the bag and its higher material production impacts.

    The number of times each bag would have to be reused to match the environmental performance of conventional (HDPE) plastic carrier bags is shown in the table below (with and without secondary reuse of the conventional plastic bag).

    For example, a cotton reusable bag has to be reused 131 times to be as good environmentally as a plastic shopping bag used just one.”

    Oh boy, it’s a complicated issue, which we all need to be aware of and active in our personal behaviours.

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