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  Riverford sustainable development project


why has Riverford stopped using degradable plastic bags?

In short, degradable plastic cannot be recycled or composted sensibly in the UK at this time. The only option is landfill, where degradable bags may generate more greenhouse gasses than conventional plastics. The best option in terms of energy, resource conservation and climate change is to recycle them into new bags.


Don’t different sorts of plastic get sorted at recycling centres? Are you telling me I shouldn’t be looking out for bio-degradable or recyclable bags?

As far as we are aware, recycling centres are not yet able to differentiate between different sorts of plastic which look very similar. You only have to get a little non-recyclable plastic into a load of recycling and it renders it unstable, so basically the whole lot gets sent to landfill.


How did you come to be using the ‘wrong’ bags up till now?

Good intentions, bad advice. We based a decision on what we thought was the best information and advice available at the time. Theoretically the bags we currently use are great because they break down in sunlight or air. But they cannot be recycled, and they cannot be composted, so inevitably end up in landfill, generating greenhouse gases as they break down. We started using them with the best intentions but it was a bad decision, based on biased information from manufacturers. Our study with Exeter University now enables us to base the decision on disinterested information.


Why does Riverford use plastic bags in the first place?

We use as little as we can and massively less than most retailers. Plastic is used mainly to protect leafy vegetables with high moisture, such as lettuces and spinach, which lose quality quickly in contact with the air. . You really would notice the difference in culinary quality if we didn’t bag these.


If you are minimizing plastic, why are carrots in plastic bags?

Carrots keep their flavor better unwashed, and should be cleaned just before being eaten. So we often put carrots in bags to contain the mud rather than spreading it around the box. However the last couple of seasons of appalling weather have convinced us that we should wash off the worst of the mud of the carrots and give up bagging them (they will only be gently washed to get the worst off, not polished as they are for supermarkets). So plastic bags for carrots will cease in the forseeable future (starting with a trial at one farm)


Why is Riverford pursuing a different policy to lots of supermarkets?

Riverford is unusually well placed to recycle efficiently: many of our customers are aware and environmentally-motivated; we deliver weekly to customers and already take back boxes for re-use


And what about the plastic punnets that sprouts and tomatoes sometimes come in?

We are currently looking for a different solution for sprouts. Other produce will no longer come in plastic punnets. Is there a financial benefit to Riverford? Sadly not. The time it will take to sort the plastic will cost quite a bit more than what we can get from the recycling company. However this is a small price to pay for a clear conscience!


What should I do with the other packaging I get from Riverford?

Card punnets - these can be composted or put out with paper recycling. Also very handy for growing seedlings in.

Meat box packagaing Send back gel packs, boxes and liners for re-use. Inner packaging has to be thrown away – the Environmental Health Offier would have a fit if we offered to take it back

Nets In theory these can be recycled as they are LDPE (same as the bags) but the metal clips mean we cannot recycle them.

Paper Again, the bags can be composted or put out for recycling. Customers have pointed out that these bags fit very neatly into kitchen waste caddies. Others use them as lunch bags if they are not muddy.


Back to questions

why does Riverford import? why not use all home-grown produce?

In 2007, 78% (by weight) of the fruit and veg in our boxes was grown in the UK. (This was a bad year for home-grown crops – we aim for at least 80%). We use as much home-grown fruit and veg as we can and encourage customers to make the most of local and seasonal produce, without being so dogmatic that we drive them back to the supermarkets. The small percentage we import includes all the citrus and tropical fruit that won’t grow in this country. The proportion of imported vegetables is around 10%. We strive to make the most of what can be grown in the UK; extending the UK season, experimenting with less familiar veg, and encouraging customers to recognise the environmental cost of much imported produce. Enthusiasm for seasonal and local eating is growing, but very few people are satisfied with a UK-only box, particularly in the “hungry gap” of April and May. Some items – such as tomatoes – have become year round staples. We’ve discovered that the environmental cost of bringing them from Southern Europe is much lower than growing them under heated glass in the UK. Find out more

how does Riverford compare (environmentally) with going to the supermarket?

I am sure that many customers will want a categorical answer to this, but unfortunately it is very complicated to give one. However I am confident that unless you walk to your supermarket and buy only UK, unpackaged produce, your shopping trip will very rarely have a lower environmental impact than having a box delivered by us. Most of our customers tell us that shopping with Riverford has enabled them to substantially reduce the frequency of other shopping trips. If we can only reduce shopping trips by car by one a month we will have had a significant impact.

I think that we do better on most environmental issues; notably packaging, proportion of imports and local sourcing within the UK. (Supermarkets have been talking a lot of late about local sourcing straight into store. It is nigh on impossible to get hard data, but I would be astonished if even 1% of fresh produce was genuinely locally sourced and distributed). Our weakness would be if customers take a delivery from us without reducing their frequency of visits to a supermarket – in which case it could be argued that the delivery was an additional journey.

Most studies suggest that home shopping is usually better, but it is hard to compare like with like. Supermarket calculations of carbon footprint usually leave out packaging and their customers’ car trips to get the shopping home. The emissions associated with delivering a box to your door are about 1,055g CO2. This is the equivalent of driving an average car about 3 miles. However the fact that we do not deliver all the products in a typical supermarket shop would count against us. In our favour, our study is much more comprehensive and includes a more complete assessment.

why don’t you include farming in calculating your carbon footprint?

Two main reasons:

Studies have shown that for vegetables the greenhouse gas emissions associated with farming form a relatively small part of the total 'life cycle' emissions (this is not the case for other foods, particularly meat, dairy and poultry). Heated glass house production is a notable exception to other vegetable production methods and one that we find hard to justify

Calculating life cycle emissions is incredibly complex and, in our opinion, poorly understood, due to the interaction of man-made and natural, living systems. In particular, the ability of the soil to release or capture large amounts of carbon dioxide can dwarf the CO2emissions directly involved in vegetable growing. Given this we have not to date carried out any assessment of our farming CO2 emissions, however we do plan to do more work on this area of our business in the future.

should we all be vegetarians?

There is little doubt that in the developed world we eat more animal products than is good for our health, for the environment and for the wellbeing of the less affluent. Pigs, poultry and intensively produced (grain fed) cows compete with the world’s poor for grain produced on fertile arable land. In turn this increases the pressure for deforestation and intensification of production on existing land.

  • For forage eating ruminants (cows, sheep, goats and grass-fed cows) the argument is much more complex for several reasons:
  • They can graze on land that is unsuitable for growing crops for human consumption; as such it could be argued that they produce some food where there would have been none.
  • By eating grass and clover they are an important part of a balanced rotation, allowing fertility to be maintained without using energy-consuming fertilizers. On our land (and all but the very best land in this country) it would be very difficult to farm organically without growing forage legumes and using the manure from the livestock that eat them.
  • Ruminants belch and fart, releasing large quantities of methane (about 20%) of the world total. As methane is 21 times more potent as a green house gas than carbon dioxide it has been argued that ruminants contribute substantially to global warming. Indeed it has been calculated that a staggering 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions are the result of farm livestock, compared to 13% for transport, so this is obviously a huge issue. Furthermore it also seems to be true that extensive, grass fed animals (such as we like to promote, for reasons of health, animal welfare and flavour) cause higher emissions per litre of milk or kg of meat than intensive ones, though personally I think some of the calculations used to argue this are flawed.
  • The calculation is made even more complex by the fact that the cultivations (e.g ploughing) needed to grow arable crops promote the breakdown of organic matter in the soil, releasing CO2. Under grassland, carbon is normally sequestrated, locking up CO2 from the atmosphere as soil organic matter. It could therefore be argued that maintaining grassland for animals to graze has the effect of reducing global warming.

Confused? There are no simple or authoritative answers to this question. We certainly do not feel qualified to give a definitive answer but there seem to be a lot of reasons for eating fewer animal products, making sure that we use all the animal (offal and all) and treating them with the respect that they deserve, both when alive and in the kitchen, rather than just wanting them to be cheap.