A trial being run by New World this month is helping Foodstuffs supermarkets take a step towards achieving their sustainability goal of using only reusable, recyclable or compostable material in their retail and private label packaging by 2025.
And while getting rid of single-use plastic packaging might seem like a no-brainer, Debra Goulding, Foodstuffs New Zealand’s sustainable packaging programme manager, says it’s actually far more complicated than people think.
“None of the packaging is there for the sake of it being there, it all has a very specific purpose,” she says.
Retail packaging includes things like plastic produce bags, sheets of paper around food items bought from the bakery section, and the tray and plastic covering on meat sold at the deli.
Such packaging has a number of functions: it protects food from contamination, it seals in freshness, it increases the shelf life of many products and it can also play other roles, such as keeping food warm until you get it home.
Goulding says there’s more than 200 pieces of retail packaging used across Foodstuffs’ supermarkets, which include New World, PAK’nSAVE and Four Square.
She and her team have been tasked with identifying exactly where all that packaging is used, and how much of it can be eliminated, or replaced, with more sustainable options.
“The first question we ask is how much of the packaging is necessary, how much do we absolutely need to be using now?” Goulding says.
“But you can’t really do that without understanding how retail works and how customers engage with the packaging out in the store and then after what they do with it when they get home.”
The goal to make 100 percent of its retail packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable is part of Foodstuffs’ commitment to be Here for New Zealand and keeping their promise to be leaders in sustainability. This commitment was cemented back in 2018 as one of the first signatories of the New Zealand Plastic Packaging Declaration.
The co-operative’s commitment applies not just to plastic, but to all packaging types, including fibre, glass and metal. It also encompasses packaging on Foodstuffs own brands, such as Pams and Value.
Goulding says achieving the goal is a big challenge, but the company is already well on track.
Foodstuffs has already eliminated polystyrene foam meat trays and replaced them with recyclable rPET trays – which are made from at least 50 percent recycled content and can be put in your kerbside recycling bin. And single-use plastic checkout bags were phased out back in 2018.
Retail packaging is next on the agenda.
“We’ve got a lot to do, but that’s ok, we’re committed and up for the challenge” says Goulding.
“And so our focus is on saying, which of these things fit within our goals, so which of them can be reused, recycled or composted? Those are fine, we’ll leave them alone. What we’ll be doing in the run up to 2025 is focusing on changing the rest.”
One big component of retail packaging is single-use plastic produce bags and New World is at the forefront of the process of phasing them out.
Goulding says around 110 million of these are used each year and so getting rid of them will take some getting used to by customers.
As part of the research to finding suitable alternatives, throughout July customers at New World Durham Street in Christchurch will be invited to test a number of reusable alternatives to the plastic bags, including MUBs (multi-use bags), nylon mesh bags, polyester mesh bags and organic cotton reusable bags.
Goulding says the trial will help New World learn about what options might best replace the current bags.
She says the trial is a chance for the supermarket to find out how practical its replacement options are for shoppers in the real world.
“We’re not wanting everybody to just love it and praise it – we’re actually keen to know about the challenges so we can come up with the best solution together.”
As well as bringing its own packaging in line with its 2025 commitment, Goulding says the co-operative is also focused on educating customers how best to dispose of that packaging once it’s been used.
“There’s a big movement to make sure that every aspect of that product is correctly identified on the label as what to do with it – can it go in the compost , do I put it in my recycling, do I throw it in the bin that goes to landfill?
“So it’s kind of a double-edged sword for us because we’re wanting our labels to represent the reality of that piece of packaging, but we also want to make sure we’ve done as much as we can to get that packaging as good as possible,” says Goulding.
“Putting that kind of education out for the customer is a big part of what we do.”
Goulding says so far customers have reacted well to the changes, and she hopes the latest trial will build on that success.
“We all play a little part in this and New World is really focused on making sure we play a very positive role in sustainability leadership.”