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Sacrewell Farm
Upper Norton Farm
Stockley Farm

  Riverford sustainable development project



Packaging makes up a staggering 17% of our carbon footprint, and this only accounts for manufacturing the materials as this is the best data we can get at the moment.  


From the start, we have worked hard to come up with what we thought were environmentally-sensible solutions to packaging, so we were surprised to find that this formed such a large part of our carbon footprint.  Our research has led us to believe that some of our efforts and much of the publicity around less damaging packaging is mis-guided and actually obstructing real progress.


Despite the green proclamations of many of our supermarkets, to date they have excluded packaging from their carbon footprints.  Though this is perfectly acceptable under common carbon accounting methodologies I would certainly argue that they are morally responsible for this packaging, especially as it is supermarkets that have largely driven the move towards ever higher and more absurd levels of packaging.


recycling: a last resort solution

The important thing to remember with packaging is: reduce, re-use and recycle, in that order of priority.  Recycling is invariably expensive in terms of energy and is never a substitute for not using the stuff in the first place; recycling is however, usually less energy intensive than producing materials from new.  


Also remember that there is no point in something being recyclable if it is not actually recycled, whether this is because facilities are not readily accessible, consumers are confused or because it is too onerous in the effort required to separate waste streams.


Packaging can have the virtue of reducing food waste caused by dehydration and physical damage but there seems to be a conspiracy of silence around its true environmental cost.  Efforts to find sensible solutions are hampered by lack of leadership from a central government.  Well planned and coordinated long-term solutions will not be produced by consumer pressure and market forces; the issues are just too complex. It beggars belief that each local authority sets its own waste collection policy when the companies generating that waste (mainly large manufactures and retailers) operate on a national basis.


The figures for our packaging carbon footprint break down as follows

the uncomfortable truth about paper

85% of our packaging footprint is made up of paper and cardboard yet our customers are very happy with this packaging; virtually all negative comments on packaging relate to plastic punnets and bags which contribute only 8% to the footprint.  This type of mis-match between perception and reality can be a barrier to real improvements and means that we cannot rely on consumer pressure to drive positive change; our customers have the will to use their purchasing power to make the world a better place but do not have the time or the information to be able to use that power in the most effective way.   



Our boxes are designed to be re-used many times. Boxes account for 60% of our packaging footprint, or 10% of our overall carbon footprint.  Boxes account for a whopping 426 tonnes of CO2 per year; more than refrigeration and almost as much as distributing the boxes by lorry; a big surprise for us.


For many years we have encouraged customers to return boxes for re-use.  If they were all returned and only discarded when damaged we would get approximately 10 trips per box; we are currently only achieving four because so many are not returned.  Some get used for home storage.  Some for dogs to give birth in.  Where they are re-used we are happy.  If not we want them back, even if they are damaged, because they stand a much better chance of being recycled through us than through your local authority.  We could more than halve the impact of our boxes if they were all returned, saving 200 tonnes of CO2 per year.


The boxes are 98% made from recycled materials and are 100 % recyclable.  This is better than sending them to landfill and harvesting new wood to replace them but does not make them OK; a lot of energy is used in recycling (as a rough guide about half as much as making card from virgin material).  In the longer term we must move to a box which will carry a deposit to encourage return and perhaps even move to a plastic crate with much longer useful life.  Such a move will require change to our infra-structure, huge investment and persuasion of our customers that plastic is not always bad.  We also have local suppliers who have invested heavily in the machinery to make our boxes so we will not be changing without a thorough investigation.


paper bags are not always the answer

Our customers hate plastic with a vengeance; plastic bags in the boxes is one of the most common complaints and on the rare occasions when we use plastic punnets because, for example imported tomatoes arrive in them, we have a near rebellion.  Paper bags and our normal punnets made from recycled paper seem to be accepted without question.  Unfortunately paper bags, even if recycled and made from recycled paper, as ours are, normally have a substantially higher carbon footprint than the equivalent oil-based plastic bag.  For any product the exact situation will vary according to production techniques and the full life-cycle of the packaging but our research suggests that in most cases paper bags result in two to three times the level of emissions of the equivalent plastic bags.  Paper and cardboard manufacture, even if from recycled paper, uses huge amounts of energy.  We consider paper to be justifiable for potatoes because it excludes light and reduces greening and hence waste.  We and our customers like paper and it is often the best material for storing unwashed root veg, but from an energy and CO2 point it is far from benign and is certainly no substitute for genuine reduction and re-use of packaging. 


There are some issues that cannot be resolved by a carbon balance 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.

our Punnets: the jury is out

It has taken many years to develop our recycled paper punnets in co-operation with a company in South Wales. They break down fairly fast on a domestic compost heap or can be recycled (or used to grow seeds in, we are told).  Our customers love them but we are still unsure whether they are genuinely better for the environment than the plastic punnets used by the rest of the industry. We have reduced the thickness, the manufacturer has changed the manufacturing technique to save energy and simplest of all we often don’t bother with a lid, all of which have reduced associated emissions; even so I am still not sure they are genuinely better than plastic.  It is also possible to make punnets from various cellulose based natural products like sugar cane or palm husk waste. No one has been able to give us energy consumption figures for these but they normally come from the Far East so in addition to manufacture there is also transport to consider. We need to do more research to come up with the best solution but will continue using our current recycled paper punnets and working with the suppliers to reduce energy use until we are sure that something else is better.     


degradable plastic: don’t be conned

These are normally simply conventional oil based plastic with the addition of an additive which helps them to break down faster under certain conditions. In the belief that they would be better for the environment we were bamboozled by a good salesman into buying a large supply without doing the proper research. The claimed environmental benefits have turned out to be far from the truth because they cannot be recycled; indeed if even a small amount of these bags contaminate a load of normal plastic it will mean that the end product of recycling is unstable. These plastics are a disaster for the environment and should be banned as government policy but salesmen are still out there promoting them and a few multiple retailers are still promoting their use.


starch based, compostable plastics: questionable credentials

One would think that if we must use plastic this must surely be the answer; they will not cause lasting pollution (actually they can) and use renewable resources rather than oil as a raw material. Unfortunately it takes a huge amount of energy to extract the starch and convert it to 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 after accounting for the oil used as a raw material. Additionally, if the oil based plastic is recycled about half the embedded energy can be reclaimed. Starch crops like maize and potatoes require land to grow them and often involve the use of GM crops.


There is the additional problem that if compostable plastic gets mixed with other plastic it renders all of them unrecyclable for the same reasons as other degradable bags; the end product will be unstable. As starch based plastics often look like normal plastics it is highly likely that they will become mixed in with domestic recycling. One might argue that they cause less of a litter problem but in our view this is not enough to outweigh their potential to degrade the recycled plastic and their inherent higher energy cost. This has lead us to conclude that starch based, compostable plastics generally have little to offer in reducing the environmental impact of packaging and we will not be using them. I am a little bemused that some supermarkets seem so keen on this packaging; with their resources they must have done the research to question the credentials of starch based plastic.  I suspect this is yet another area where policy is driven more by the need to appease public opinion rather than by a desire to achieve genuine environmental gains.


so what are we doing about it?


We have moved back to thinner, conventional, oil based bags and wish customers to send them back in the returned boxes for recycling.  More detail here.  We will continue to use paper bags for potatoes for produce quality reasons, and the jury is out on punnets.


Our plan over the next 12 months is

  • work to increase the return rate of our existing boxes.
  • use the information we have acquired to question whether each use of packaging is justifiable.

In the longer term

  • we expect to move to a more durable deposit carrying box.

Combining all of these it should be possible to halve the packaging impact of each box within five years.


See reduce and re-use sections for more info.