A Life Less Plastic: Better Food’s journey
[See also A Life Less Plastic | How We Can All Contribute | When Did Plastic Become Fantastic? | Vegware]
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 finding innovative ways to preserve the taste of their teas and removing all plastic from their products. Even the string on the tags is organic. Another good example is Bio D, who use recycled plastic to make bottles for their household products.
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 our cafes:
Our cafés are not Soil Association certified (instead, they have Organic Served Here awards, which focus on ingredients), so different rules apply. This means we can use Vegware to package all our takeaways. 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). Vegware isn’t currently a perfect solution, but we’re using it for the time being, as explained here.
- We encourage people to bring along their own reusable cup, giving them a 20p discount per item.
- To discourage people from using a take-away cups, we charge a 10p levy, which we donate to the Soil Association, to help with their environmental campaigning. On average, we donate about £130 a quarter – that’s 1,300 cups. While the donation is great, we really hope to see that total drop.
- We use stainless steel or bamboo reusable straws in our smoothies and juices.
- You can buy a KeepCup, reusable cups made from glass and get your first drink free.
- As explained above, while not perfect, all our take-away packaging is from Vegware. Vegware is designed to biodegrade quickly, but only in special facilities, which require customers to know how to dispose of their packaging properly and finding a way of getting it to the closest composting facility, situated near Gloucester. Vegware does however biodegrade more quickly than most in landfill, but contaminates normal council recycling. As a company, Vegware are also working hard to find ways of organising collection points from where they can remove their cups, straws, boxes etc and dispose of them in the manner for which they were designed.
- You’re welcome to bring your own resealable tubs for cafe/deli takeaways if you’d rather not use Vegware boxes.
In our stores:
- 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 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.
- We’re moving towards using recycled card punnets to protect delicate items, such as soft fruit, tomatoes etc. We encourage our customers to leave any punnets with us in store and decant the goods into a paper bag at the till.
- Our St Werburghs store (our largest) has a refill wall containing over 40 products such as grains, flour, nuts and seeds. In fact St Werburghs has about 90 products available packaging-free.
- We’re installing as many packaging-free refill items as we can and all three stores and already have refill stations for household cleaning products.
- All our stores see beautiful self serve loose leaf tea from Organic Herb Trading.
- All our stores sell refillable wine. Excellent quality ‘low intervention’ wine from More Wine, brought to you with the specific aim of reducing, reusing and recycling packaging.
- We sell a variety of products that will help you use less packaging long term, such as tiffins, resealable jars and cotton bags.
- We sell loose free range eggs and recycle the egg boxes.
Health and bodycare
- Our St Werburghs and Whiteladies Road stores both have refill Faith in Nature stations for shampoo, conditioner and shower gel.
- We have an ever increasing range of goods to help reduce the amount of plastic in your home, such as bamboo toothbrushes and biodegrable nappies.
- For example Herbfarmacy have removed plastic from all of their packaging, while BoHo Green have a range of make up made from recycled and refillable containers. We also stock EcoBurst biodegradable glitter.
We’re always on the hunt for packaging free products such as shampoo bars.
With the Soil Association
Soil Association are taking a leading role in the packaging debate as they review their packaging standards. It’s a constructive, open and evidence-based collaboration, and extends to an informal partnership with other larger organisations such as Pukka, Riverford and Neal’s Yard.
Like many of these big issues, there isn’t a simple or convenient switch. If there was, we’d have done it by now. But good work is happening and more than just attitudes are changing. Watch this space …