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.