Yes, it's a question that should be asked.
We participated in plastic free July and August in partnership with Commonsense’s 6 stores. Our breads were packaged in paper bags for 2 months and sales have been analysed. Overall sales dropped. Paper bags cost more to use than the usual ones, so had we continued with paper we would have needed a price increase which was unlikely to improve sales. Above all things we need to make sure that our business operates on a financially sustainable footing and we can’t do that with a constant reduction in sales.
Our plastic bags can go into the soft plastic recycling bins, and whist we acknowledge this is not a perfect or whole solution, it is better than nothing at the current time. We are continuing to monitor eco-friendly and biodegradable packaging as it become available in NZ and which will meet our criteria of being food safe, robust and affordable.
In the meantime we strongly support the use of (preferably recycled and home made) reusable bags, the minimisation of plastic use wherever possible. We buy local and support local businesses wherever we can.
If you buy bread from us direct you will know that we usually pack it in paper as a matter of course, although we do have customers who prefer the traditional bags and we do that too if asked. In all other stores we use bags manufactured locally in Christchurch by an NZ owned company. They are made from Cast Polypropylene (CP) which is not Cellophane, although they have a similar feel. CP is a highly transparent film and as it’s base is polythene it can be recycled in the (in store) soft plastic bins.
As part of the initiative by Commonsense Organics for their plastic free July we moved to packing our bread in brown paper bags. Sadly they didn't mention this in their blog :( but we were not deterred! http://commonsenseorganics.co.nz/blog/quick-and-easy-switches-for-plastic-free-july/ and carried on with paper until the end of August to see how their customers liked it.
Legislation and other rules
in New Zealand food safety and security is taken seriously. We have a stack of legislation which we are required to comply with as a commercial food maker. Despite bread being a relatively benign product there are quality and hygiene matters that are important to ensure that what we sell is of a safe standard.
The ingredients must be clearly and fully listed so that people can avoid anything they may be allergic to or simply want to avoid. Nutritional information is required as is the weight and a best before date.
All this information must be on any product which is being sold away from the premises where it was made. So if we want to sell at a Farmers market for example, we must have product wrapped with this information on it so people can be assured of that whey are buying. This applies to all food items.
All food products also need to to say who made them, but sadly not where they were made. This is the loophole which has allowed unscrupulous manufacturers to suggest that their products are NZ made when they are not. This issue came to head a while ago when it was revealed that certain bacon products were being made with pork which had been grown and killed in China and other places and sent to NZ for processing into bacon. The packaging of the bacon certainly made it look as if the product was 100% made in NZ.
NZ legislators have been super resistant to having Country of Origin labelling despite it being in place in most other parts of the world including the EU, USA and even Australia with whom we share common Food Safety legislation. The big players in the NZ food chain are largely against it, citing it as ‘too hard’, ‘too complicated’, will hurt our exports etc etc; the excuses are endless. Yet somehow little old Aussie and tiny little Germany and minute America seem to manage. They don’t all do it the same of course, but they do something to show consumers where they food they are eating has come from.
Anyway, everything our little bakery is all handmade from organic ingredients, sourced either right here in NZ or via a certified organic importer if it is not available here. Growing organic cereals in NZ is a labour of love and we always support our Kiwi farmers first.
Customers have recently asked us to offer bread for sale in Commonsense without any wrapping at all. Whilst we admire the desire to avoid plastic and unnecessary packaging, this isn't something we would want to do for both hygiene and legislative reasons. We sell products to improve health. Sending bread unwrapped and then having it pass unprotected through many pairs of hands just doesn't work for us. In this day and age many people are susceptible to food borne diseases because of things like immune system weakness and we want to make sure our food is safe for everyone.
We make both gluten free and gluten inclusive products and go to great lengths to avoid any cross contamination. Wrapping is the best way to avoid cross contamination. Even then we don't recommend our products to those with extreme gluten allergy or coeliacs disease, where even a hint of gluten can cause significant health problems.
The Paper Bag Experiment
The paper experiment in Commonsense was very interesting. The general expectation was that paper bags would appeal to their customer demographic and sales would at least remain the same, and ideally increase somewhat as discerning customers chose paper over plastic packaging of competitors. No one else tried out paper so it was a good opportunity to see what happened across the 5 x Wellington and 1 x Auckland stores.
The bags we used were brown paper and did not have any plastic window so the bread was not visible. They were labelled in the usual way. We always had concerns that people do like to see bread when they buy it and wondered how we would attract new customers when they could not see what they were buying. It was hoped that existing Breadman customers would carry on purchasing as before.
What happened was that sales fell across July and August. We were quite surprised that we received mixed feedback from our customers direct, with just as many people for as against paper. Commonsense ran an on-line poll amongst their general customer base which was overwhelmingly in favour of paper, but that opinion was not supported by the sales outcomes. This is of particular interest as no other bread suppliers changed to paper over the same period, but additional customers did not move to our product based on the packaging.
As a small business it is our first responsibility to remain an economically viable operation, so when we think of sustainability our first thought is to our financial position. If we go bust people will lose jobs, suppliers will lose customers and (almost) worst of all, there won't be any more Breadman bread! So we work hard to make sure that we remain financially sound whilst keeping our prices as low as we can and paying fair wages. The paper bags we were using for Commonsense cost more than the CP ones and take longer to pack the bread into as they need to be neatly folded. At some stage we would have needed to increase the wholesale price to Commonsense to continue with them which would mean they their retail price would likely increase and also that they would be paying a higher wholesale than their own competitors. Given that sales reduced using paper without an increased price, it simply didn't make economic sense to then increase the price.
As an enterprise focusing on organic manufacture, we naturally have an environmental focus on everything we do. We are acutely aware that plastic use, or more accurately plastic disposal, is out of control and there is nothing we would like more than to find a viable alternative.
The next best alternative could be the paper bags with a plastic window in them although they all come in from China and do need to be manually dismantled so the plastic is put into soft plastics recycling.
Soft Plastics Recycling
The initiative to provide a place for soft plastics to be recycled is not a perfect solution but it is the only realistic and practical thing available in NZ at the moment. Yes, it has shortcomings and no, it's not a complete answer BUT we take the view that it has taken many decades for us to get into this plastics mess so it's not going to be fixed overnight. As in all things there will be no single silver bullet and simply demanding that no one uses any plastic is not practical at the current time. There is no affordable, practical alternative for many products. If price is of no concern then, yes of course we can make everything plastic free - we would happily sell our bread individually wrapped in eco paper, but the cost would be more like $20 a loaf to cover the extra staff we would need to do that. Unaffordable for most people.
As a starting point we support the soft plastic recycling initiative. It is at least doing something practical. The process of recycling is such that it doesn't take everything and bio/enviro type bags stuff up the recycling process so can't go in there but that's no reason not to attempt to recycle what we can.
Don't assume that every 'eco' or 'green' thing you see is what it says it is, or is necessarily better for the environment. Just because something is manufactured away from our line of sight it doesn’t mean that it is being made in a sustainable way or that the people involved are being treated fairly.
For example, cotton is a massive planet polluter and for a small local view of the harm it causes, check out what's happening in Australia in the Murray-Darling Basin. A google search of ‘Cotton Murray-Darling’ will be enough to make you weep. So a mass increase in the demand for cheap cotton shopping bags isn’t the answer either.
In fact manufacturing new stuff is part of the global consumption issue. For truly recycled bags you can’t go past using old t-shirt and shirts to make reusable bags. There are many designs and ideas on the internet, googling ’T shirt shopping bags’ will get you more ideas than you know what to do with and you don’t even need to be able to sew.
On the subject of reusable shopping bags, please keep them clean. The T shirt/ shirt ones are really great as they can go in the washing machine on a hot wash or in a bucket of something bleachy / vinegary to make sure you are not cross contaminating your own food on the way home. Similarly a good spray of the inside of the bag with vinegar and an inside out dry in the sun will go a long way to keeping those supermarket re-useable bags healthy.
Once you start to properly investigate where things come from, how they are made and who made them your world will get a whole lot more complicated. Paper may be biodegradable but chopping down trees to make a single use bag and then shipping it halfway across the world to use it is hardly ideal. Paper manufacture itself is a polluting process and often happens in places where we have no idea of the environmental harm it causes to communities where it happens.
Cellophane, whilst being biodegradable in itself, creates pollutants during its manufacturing process and as an aside, if it has anything written on it or stuck to it, it needs to be coated in plastic otherwise nothing ‘sticks’, thereby removing its biodegradable quality.
As at September 2018, we have yet to find an affordable, hygienic and practical option to our current CP bags. But the search continues and will continue. We are open to anything so long as it is fit for purpose, so if you have any ideas, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
We feel very strongly about looking after our environment so please consider these three things ;
Finally, check out your local council recycling initiatives, they vary hugely throughout the country.