A Life Less Plastic: Better Food’s journey
This is our founder Phil, photographed in about 1985, in his then shop on Gloucester Road, Real Food Supplies. If you look closely, you’ll notice something – there is no plastic.
Things have changed a lot since then. With a focus on increasing access to local, organic food, plastic packaging wasn’t a main priority for us until recently.
Better Food now has a keener eye than most when it comes to reducing our use of plastic, but there is plenty more we can do to be true custodians of this irreplaceable, animate earth.
The challenges in reducing plastic use
1. Working with hundreds of suppliers, each with their own sustainability criteria and processes
We are lucky to work with some amazing producers, manufacturers and wholesalers, each doing their bit to improve the lives of people and health of the planet. However, many were established before plastics were considered a problem and have chosen plastic as part of their packaging mix – either for transporting or storing goods. To change this they need to understand the variety of alternatives available to them and work out which is best for protecting their product while at the same time reducing environmental damage. For instance, Pukka are currently doing just that, by finding innovative ways to preserve the taste of their teas while removing unnecessary plastic from the lining of their tea sachets.
2. Soil Association standards
Don’t get us wrong, we love the Soil Association, and are fully on board with their overarching aims and policies, but as an organic certified retailer, we have to conform to their standards, whose stringent stipulations don’t necessarily help our plastic-reducing goals.
Under their rules, we can use some types of compostable or biodegradable packaging, but there are a whole host we cannot use. This is because the production methods go against Soil Association principles of using certain chemicals and GM crops.
It’s currently very hard to source material that fits their criteria. For example, bio-based packaging is available (we use it in our cafes, see ‘What we are doing’, below), but there are no manufacturers in the UK that can guarantee bioplastic materials are GMO free. This is because they source the corn from the US and Asia where there laws around cultivation of GM crops are more relaxed.
So it’s a balancing act, and one we’re in serious discussions with them about. Watch this space.
What’s the best way forward?
We’ve done a huge amount of research to try to understand and limit our contribution to the plastic mountain.
On the positive side, we know that packaging – be it plastic or not – has a big part to play in reducing food waste.
We also know that pack-size is an important consideration. Larger packs can reduce the amount of plastic used, but also encourage consumers to buy more than they need and increase the chance of food being wasted.
So a balance needs to be struck between protecting and prolonging the life of a product and the type of packaging we choose to deliver it in.
At a European level there is a push for a circular economy, which follows the philosophy of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’. The current ubiquitous route tends to favour the more linear ‘make, use and dispose’.
While progress is being made, the packaging industry still has long way to go to find the most suitable options, achievable at scale and for a wide variety of different products in order to become more widely adopted.
What we are doing
While we work towards some bigger packaging-free goals, this is where we currently are:
In the café
– Our cafés are not Soil Association certified (instead, they have Organic Served Here awards, which focus on ingredients only), so different rules apply. This means we can use Vegware to package all our take-aways. They use biological materials, including Natureflex bio-films from FSC wood pulp and corn-based ‘plastic’ that can compost within 12 weeks, but doesn’t meet Soil Association standards (see ‘Soil Association standards’, above).
– From July, we’ll be using stainless steel reusable straws, also available to buy for £1. We also have Vegware ones, made from wood pulp for takeaways if you’d prefer not to buy one.
– You can buy ecoffee cups and take away food in Vegware, or bring in your own.
– You get 20p off hot drinks in our cafés if you come with your own cup.
– From July, we’ll be selling reusable glass travel cups from Keep Cups, so you have lots of options to choose from.
– All our stores have free filtered water, ambient, cold and fizzy. Just pop in for a quick glug, or refill your water bottle. No purchase necessary, though we have glass bottles you can buy and take away with you for future free refills.
– As well as free boxes, you can buy bags for life. You can pay 10p for a Soil Association-approved biodegradable /recycled plastic bag as well, as there are times when that’s a useful option.
– Where possible, we’re moving away from selling fresh produce in single-use plastic bags and nets. It doesn’t work for everything, but you’ll notice apples, for example, are now loose, with paper bags available for you to select your own.
– The small punnets used to protect more delicate items, such as soft fruit, tomatoes etc. are plastic (due to Soil Association restrictions outlined above). We are looking into alternatives, such as recycled card punnets. In the meantime, if you’d rather not take them home, just take a paper bag with you to the till and you can decant them at the checkout.
– We’re discussing plastic alternatives with our suppliers. Essential, for instance, now use Natureflex for their own branded products. In the future, many more businesses could follow suit.
– Along with rice, oats, flour and muesli currently available in large tubs in our St Werburghs store, we’re looking into more refill stations, including…
– …refillable wine. Excellent quality organic, biodynamic and ‘low intervention’ wine from More Wine, brought to you with the specific aim of reducing, reusing and recycling packaging.
Health and bodycare
– We hope you’ll soon be able to benefit from refill stations in our Health and Bodycare section. You might also have spotted the bamboo toothbrushes and Pukka herbal remedies, both champions of plastic-free packaging.
With the Soil Association
– We are lobbying the Soil Association to review its packaging standards to include the elimination of single-use plastics, and asking them to work with other organisations like Vegware to find suitable alternatives that are GMO free.