The plastic bag conundrum: why we use them and what we're doing to reduce them
Plastic remains a very tricky topic for us because we're caught between two very serious issues - food waste and plastic waste. When it comes to food, waste is more significant than packaging in terms of climate change (according to WRAP food waste in the UK is responsible for over 20 MtCO2e whereas all packaging in the UK including non-food packaging is responsible for 17.4 MtCO2e). Also worth noting that although it's distressing to hear of whales washed up on beaches with 20kg of plastic in their bellies, it's important to note that the majority of our waste in the UK ends up in landfill, so aside from a bit of litter from seaside towns and waterways, your plastic will be ending up in landfill. This isn't to say we're off the hook - we want to keep plastic out of the ground too!
How we currently keep waste to a minimum
By joinging a veg scheme you will be significantly cutting down on packaging - we pack the fruit and veg in organic fairtrade cotton bags or net sacks which our customers return to us so we can reuse them as much as possible. In addition to that, all the boxes that the produce is delivered in get sent back to the farmers so they can reuse them. Any boxes that are no longer usable get recycled or used by the growers as sheet mulching.
In addition to that we minimize food waste through only ordering from the farmers what we need for the customers we have. As a result there's very little surplus. When we do have left over fruit & veg we give this to our volunteers and a homeless centre called Martha House in Tottenham who we have close links with.
Why we use plastic
The packaging is kept to a minimum, with most fruit & veg being packed loose into cotton bags or net sacks. However, we find that leafy greens like salad leaves, spinach and kale, don't last unless it's packed in a polythene bag. We've found that paper will suck the moisture out of greens and they'll end up limp and shriveled by the time they reach you and will go off quicker. We have tried other alternatives and unfortunately polythene bags are still the best option to store & transport greens.
The compostible conundrum
Compostible bags are a great idea in theory but they're not recycleable and if they end up decomposing in landfill they release greenhouse gases, so if they don't end up in your compost, they can do more harm than good. And there's no guarantee that compostible bags that you throw into your municipal compost bin will actually be composted. North London Waste Authority have advised us that "food waste is sent to anaerobic digestion and all liners, along with the waste packaging that is received will be removed prior to the digestion process. Liners that have already broken down to some extent may pass through this pre-screening process and be digested, but those that are removed will be sent to landfill." The infrstruture is not set up yet to deal with compostible bags, cups, plates etc!
You may notice that the greens we grow at our base in Wolves Lane are now packed in biodegradable bags. These are one step away from compostible – you can put them in your home compost and they will break down to an “environmentally-benign” material over two years. You can also put them in your recycling bin or landfill bin - in landfill they will disintegrate. However, they are not be put in the munipical compost. You can read more about these biodegradable bags here
The devil's in the detail
Weighing up all the environmental impacts of every type of packaging material is a complex task - there are so many factors to take into account, from the raw materials to transport and disposal. Being a very small business, we don't have the resources to do a huge amount of research into the plastic issue, but luckily our friends at Growing Communities have, and their director, Julie has written a very in depth and informative blog about her findings - I highly recommend you make yourself a cup of tea and settle down to a good read of it.
Based on this and other research, including George Monbiot's very interesting article Plastic Soup, we have decided for now the best thing we can do is reduce and reuse plastic as much as possible (you'll notice some more robust greens like spring greens are no longer bagged, and in the winter we have been asking our farmers to bunch kale rather than bag it).
What you can do
What you can do to help is return the bags that your salad and greens come in, and we can reuse them to pack the greens we grow at Wolves Lane. Although, we need you to help us out by returning them clean and dry (it would cost us a lot of extra time each week cleaning and drying them ourselves, which would not be economically viable for us).
We've also been indertaking a survey with our customers about what they currently do with the plastic bags they receive greens in from Crop Drop - whether they reuse them, recycle them or put them in the landfill bin, and we're trying to find out how many of our customers use composting facilities (either at home or the food waste bin the council provides). This info will help us shape any future changes we make to the packaging materials we use.