Some of you have asked but I know a lot more of you care about this hugely important issue: how do we reduce the amount of plastic in the veg boxes? In fact, let’s take that one step further: how do we eliminate single-use plastic from our veg boxes? Believe me, this is an issue at the forefront of our minds. Do we have a solution? No. Not yet. Here’s why….
It’s a simple fact that some veg, particularly the delicate leafy ones, require some kind of packaging to protect them. Plastic bags help prevent damage in transit and stop them from dehydrating. This prolongs their life and prevents them from arriving in your box a wilted disappointment. Salad, spinach, smaller chard leaves all need packaging of some description, as do slices of pumpkin which need to be kept clean (no one wants soil encrusted squash!) and would dry out without being bagged. George at Sandy Lane Farm always makes every effort to use plastic bags only when absolutely necessary. You may have noticed that some other veg (mushrooms, potatoes, tomatoes and more recently Kalettes) all arrive in recyclable paper bags and much of the veg is loose in the box. Each week George looks at the contents and asks himself: do I really need to bag it (bagging anything takes time) and then do I really, REALLY need to use plastic. Basically, single use plastic is not the default position at the farm, or of Ten Mile Menu, it’s the last resort. BUT there’s a balance to be struck between packaging and food waste. If your salad arrived in a paper bag but it’s shelf life is so reduced it has to be thrown away before you can eat it, then surely that is the worst waste of all and makes everything we try to do to rather pointless!
So far so obvious, but SOMETHING clearly needs to be done to eliminate plastic from our boxes which is why we carried out extensive research at the start of last year into compostable bags for all our leafy greens. As a small company, we needed to find a product that was readily available to buy on the open market and while we always knew the solution would be more expensive, it had to be affordable for us. The bags we trialed were similar to ones you can buy for food bin caddies and were fully compostable. This was an exciting time and we were hoping we had found a solution that would work for the veg, be easy to manage for our customers and completely remove the need for plastic bags in the boxes. The ‘pros’ were obvious - these bags had a much reduced environmental impact. As for the cons? They didn’t really work very well…..
The first issue was the price - they were TEN TIMES more expensive than the plastic bags, about the same price as the Sandy Lane paper bags. However, this was something George was prepared to take on the chin if the product performed as it should. Sadly, it didn’t. The bags actually drew moisture from the leaves and seemed to stick to them, basically, they were starting to do what they were designed to do and decompose….but with the product still inside. This left a salad bag with a fridge life of 1-2 days rather than 6-7. They also had a rather strange smell which was pretty unappealing (!) and they were cloudy rather than transparent so you couldn’t see the contents. This was less a problem for the veg boxes but a dilemma for the farm shop and when selling at markets.
The final nail in the compostable coffin was the the fact they were very fiddly to unroll and hard to open which, believe it or not, was adding two hours onto each packing day. The produce on the farm is hand picked and also hand packed and that added time was the clincher for George. There are no machines packing your veg boxes, just people and hands and for an entirely un-automated, manual system like the one we operate, these bags were not the solution.
So what is?! We don’t know yet but we’re still looking. What George and Steve are fully committed to is making these boxes, and every step of journey getting them to your door, as environmentally considerate and sustainable as possible. We are constantly making changes to our systems in order to reduce our impact on the environment - last year we welcomed our first fully electric vehicle and are planned to phase out our dirty diesels! The electric van is smaller, can do fewer miles, runs out of battery faster in cold weather (meaning Jackson can’t put the heater on!) and we lose time when it has to be recharged BUT these are compromises we are happy to make now the technology has caught up and made it possible. And, of course, we are committed to providing locally grown veg wherever possible - produce that never sees the back of a truck and whose journey involves a short walk from the field at Sandy Lane Farm to the packing shed, keeping our food miles down to mere minutes! On a smaller scale George re-uses his plastic harvesting bags time and time again, he has removed plastic from the poly tunnels floors in favour of woodchip and of course veg boxes themselves are re-used multiple times. As veg box customers ourselves, we have also found ways to make our salad bags ‘double use’ by popping dig treats in them on our walks or to hold some of the muddier carrots (!) before putting them in the fridge.
Single use plastic is a problem that we can see right in front of our eyes but the bigger picture is that we are working, not only on finding a solution for plastic bags but also lightening our tread on the earth throughout our business every single day. We are extremely lucky that we have customers that care about these issues and continue to encourage us to be ever better. We’ll get there with the plastic, bear with us, we’re on it…..!