The packaging we specify is important for a number of reasons, it obviously must protect produce, it serves a communication function and it has an environmental impact both in its production and disposal.
In the UK 25% of household rubbish (i.e. going to landfill) is retail packaging; this is reflected in public perception of packaging as being an important issue that companies should deal with.
Like most environmentally motivated questions there is no straight answer to which packaging materials are ‘best’. Studies known as life cycle assessments (LCA) can be carried out to determine which is best. What impacts are measured varies widely with different studies however. Whether or not disposal or just production impacts are measured also varies depending on the context, how much time there is to spend carrying out an assessment and, often, who is funding the study. Unsurprisingly, studies funded by paper bag manufacturers often conclude that paper bags are better for the environment than plastic, and vice versa.
We have reviewed research into the different types of plastics available and the environmental impacts that come with them, based on this work we have decided to switch from the current degradable bags to conventional plastic which we will collect from our customers and recycle.
The plastic bags Riverford use at the moment are a conventional plastic (LDPE or polythene) with an additive that causes them to break down under exposure to sunlight, air and stress. This is called an oxo-degradable plastic.
The energy used to make these bags is pretty similar to that for a normal polythene bag, so the environmental impact is pretty similar. There is no impact during the life of the bag, except a bit of transport and this will be the same for all types of plastic bags.
The difference is what happens once the bags have been used.
Our current bags cannot be composted at home or industrially. Even if they could, composters are not keen to take bags that look just like normal plastic as they would have to check each one. The bags can’t be recycled either as they would damage whatever was made from the recycled plastic by breaking down.
This means once our customers are finished with the bags they have only one choice; sending them to landfill. Once in a landfill site the bags will begin to break down, generating greenhouse gasses carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). Methane is 23 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas and so in many landfill sites it is captured and used to generate energy, however in some it still simply leaks into the atmosphere contributing to global warming.
Normally a plastic bag would go in the bin, to a landfill site, and then sit there for hundreds of years, slowly breaking down. So even this is doing less damage than what we are doing at the moment.
Biodegradable plastic bags are available that could be composted. These, however, take similar energy to make to a conventional bag (sometimes much more) and cannot be recycled. All the energy that goes in to making bags in the first place is then lost, whereas recycling reclaims some of that energy by not having to extract new materials.
A better system would be to use normal plastic bags, taking them back and recycling them, meaning less non-renewable resources are needed and less energy is used in producing plastics (less is needed to recycle than to extract from crude oil). Most plastic bags don’t get recycled as it is not financially viable to do so. We, however, are in a position to do this: our weekly deliveries and well established transport system (and our environmentally motivated customers) make recycling viable.
This is exactly what we plan to do as of October 6th, asking our customers to send back the 27 tonnes of plastic bags we send out to them so we can take responsibility for recycling them. Based on recent government studies on recycling this would save up to 100 tonnes of CO2 a year, as well as significantly reducing landfill emissions. This is the same as taking about 30 cars off the road every year.
For more on our packaging generally click here.
For more on what we recycle and what to do with the packaging we send you click here.