Plastic packaging

Supermarkets are finally getting rid of plastic shopping bags. But what’s next?

Capsicum wrapped in plastic

Countdown, New World and Pak’nSave are in the midst of ditching single-use plastic bags. The move can be chalked up as a win for consumer pressure. But what are the stores doing about the huge amount of other plastic packaging lining their shelves?

As well as scrapping plastic bags at the check-out, supermarkets promised to take the “reduce, reuse, recycle” message to heart throughout their stores. But our recent survey found basic steps to cut plastic waste weren’t always being taken.

We went shopping at three Wellington supermarkets to assess the plastic containers being used in their produce and bakery departments.

What we found

To help recyclers sort materials, most plastic carries a code (numbered one to seven). Without a code, it’s likely to end up at the landfill.

In Countdown’s bakery and produce sections, we found seven types of container (14%) with no recycling number. This included one tub of its store-brand Select cheesecake.

At New World, 8% of containers – including a plastic tray for its store-brand lamington squares – also lacked a recycling code. At Pak’nSave, the figure was 9%.

Countdown not only had the highest proportion of plastics without a recycling code, it also had the lowest use of recycled plastic packaging – known as “RPET”. Just 16% of containers we found at the Wellington store were labelled as previously recycled plastic.

Of the Countdown store-brand items in our stocktake, only three out of 16 (Countdown cherry tomatoes, Countdown Hersheys choc chip cookies and Countdown iced cupcakes) came in RPET-labelled packs.

At New World, 31% of plastic packs were labelled as RPET. Just over a quarter of containers at Pak’nSave were made using previously recycled plastic and 43% of the supermarket’s store brands came in packs bearing the RPET mark.

However, none of the 11 Pams products – a New World and Pak’nSave store brand – came in RPET-labelled containers.

Cutting plastic

If supermarkets are serious about addressing their plastic problem, ditching virgin plastic in their store-brand products is an easy place to start. Switching to plastic with recycled content could drastically cut the amount of new plastic being produced for their products.

The stores also have the market power to influence local producers. In our survey, we spotted plenty of examples of excessive plastic packaging: from a Rockit tube containing five apples to a Soup Pack tray holding carrots, onions, parsnip, celery and a swede.

Some fruit and vege – such as cherry tomatoes at New World and Countdown – were only sold in plastic containers. There was no way for a shopper to avoid this plastic.

Both Countdown and Foodstuffs – owner of the New World and Pak'nSave brands – have pledged to use 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging in their own brands by 2025. However, 94% of the store-brand containers in our survey were already recyclable. The rest were made from uncoded plastic.

Countdown said its bakeries would switch to RPET – made from locally recycled plastic – for all packaging by the end of October. In the same month, it will stop stocking plastic straws. Countdown general manager corporate affairs Kiri Hannifin said it was reviewing plastic packaging on its store brands, including food and non-food products.

“Our goal for our own brands is that, wherever possible, we’re using recycled plastic and that it’s then able to be recycled at the end of its life – or, even better, that we’re not reliant on plastic packaging in the first place,” Ms Hannifin said.

Foodstuffs wouldn’t commit to a full switch to RPET but said it aimed to reduce plastic packaging “wherever feasible”. Foodstuffs head of external relations Antoinette Laird said both New World and Pak'nSave were reviewing store brand packaging to ensure it's reusable or recyclable.

Ms Laird said some New World supermarkets in the South Island are trialling a programme (dubbed “Food in the Nude”) to cut plastic use in the produce department. In October, both New World and Pak’nSave will cease selling plastic-stemmed cotton buds.

Two plastic manufacturers, which sell containers to food producers and supermarkets, said they had started replacing virgin plastic with RPET. As these new versions are rolled out, six items in the Pams range will be repackaged in previously recycled plastic. The amount of RPET in New World and Pak’nSave bakery and produce departments will also increase but the timeframe for this is uncertain.

What is RPET?

Most hard plastic packaging in supermarkets’ bakery and produce sections is polyethylene terephthalate (PET). It carries the recycling code “1”.

Used PET plastic from soft-drink bottles, condiment jars and food trays can be broken down into flakes, which are then used to make recycled PET (RPET) packaging. This recycling process can happen over and over.

RPET packaging typically contains between 10% and 100% recycled material.

However, not all RPET is alike – some only includes “recycled” offcuts from the plastic manufacturing process rather than material that once graced consumers’ recycling bins. But unless it’s labelled as post-consumer plastic, you won’t be able to tell from the label.

Flight Plastics is the only local RPET manufacturer. All of its plastic is made from New Zealand-recycled material.

All other RPET is shipped in from overseas, though packaging manufacturer Alto said it tries to use New Zealand-recycled material in its RPET facilities whenever it can.

Flight Plastics and Alto say an RPET container costs the same as one made from virgin plastic, though the price of raw materials can vary. Custom-Pak, which also makes RPET, said “in many cases” it doesn’t charge more for packs with recycled content.

Survey results

We surveyed the produce and bakery departments for items with hard plastic packaging at a Wellington-based Countdown, New World and Pak’nSave in May 2018. Packaging was examined to see what it was made from and if it had a plastic recycling code.

Our survey didn’t include the butchery department. Stores say they've switched to trays with recycled content for the majority of packaged meat.

Plastic containers

Bakery department

Countdown: 27 types
New World: 20 types
Pak’nSave: 19 types

Produce department

Countdown: 22 types
New World: 28 types
Pak’nSave: 14 types

No recycling code

Countdown: 14%
New World: 8%
Pak’nSave: 9%

Made from previously recycled plastic: all brands

Countdown: 16%
New World: 31%
Pak’nSave: 27%

Made from previously recycled plastic: store-brands

Countdown: 19%
New World: 26%
Pak’nSave: 43%

GUIDE Items purchased from Countdown Johnsonville Mall, New World Thorndon and Pak’nSave Petone, 14 to 18 May 2018. Results may vary for supermarkets in other locations. BAKERY DEPARTMENT and PRODUCE DEPARTMENT include all brands in the relevant department, including store-brands. TYPES show the number of different hard plastic containers and trays. MADE FROM PREVIOUSLY RECYCLED PLASTIC shows the percentage of containers that indicate they were made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (RPET).

Foodstuffs said it will work with companies to “rectify” missing recycling codes. Countdown will also follow up with suppliers on the seven products we found lacking a recycling symbol.

Tips for reducing plastic use

Here are some easy ways to reduce your virgin plastic consumption:

  • Avoid buying items covered in unnecessary plastic. If it’s a choice between apples in a tube, or fruit from a bin, go for the latter.
  • Look for plastic packaging with RPET on it. Most RPET is labelled.
  • Keep an eye out for “Flight RPET” or “Flight Plastics RPET” on the container if you want one exclusively made from New Zealand-used and -recycled plastic.
  • Support supermarkets in your area that make efforts to reduce their plastic usage.

Are our efforts enough?

Images of a pilot whale in Thailand that died after ingesting 80 plastic bags made headlines in June. The story illustrated the world’s growing plastic pollution problem. Millions of tonnes of the stuff are estimated to be littering our oceans.

In the same week as the whale's plight hit the news, 12 companies signed a declaration committing to using 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging in their New Zealand operations by 2025. Countdown and Foodstuffs were signatories, along with Amcor, Danone, Frucor Suntory, L’Oréal, Mars, New Zealand Post, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever and Nestlé.

But the declaration isn’t without critics. Responding to the announcement, Greenpeace NZ oceans campaigner Emily Hunter said reducing the amount of plastic produced was crucial. “We’ve got plastic waste being stockpiled by councils ... there are no industrial-scale composting facilities for bioplastic and there are no bans on plastic bags, cutlery and other easy-to-eliminate plastic pollution. If we don’t eliminate and significantly reduce plastic packaging and single use plastics this problem won’t be fixed,” she said.

Member comments

Get access to comment

Katherine W.
05 Aug 2018
One shop’s effort to use less plastic

My local fruit and vegetable shop (Torbay, Auckland) has made some changes which have greatly reduced the use of plastic bags.
1) “boomerang bags” - if you don’t have a shopping bag you can borrow one from the shop and return it another day.
2) loose fruit and vegetables can be put into reusable mesh bags to be weighed at checkout. After weighing, the items are put into your shopping bag, minus the mesh bag which then gets reused in the shop. So no need for those thin plastic bags for bagging items that need weighing.
Just a few examples of what they are doing to reduce plastic use.
At the moment customers can choose whether or not to use plastic bags to weigh items in.
The new system has had a very positive response from the locals.

Kay R.
21 Jul 2018
Plastic labels on produce

Those silly little name labels they stick on fruit skins really annoy me. If checkout operators can’t identify a kiwifruit from a tamarillo, then they shouldn’t be serving the public. I have to remember to remove them prior to composting otherwise they remain intact in my garden. We didn’t need them in the past, why now?

Brian N.
11 Jul 2018
Plastic, Plastics, everywhere

The change must be more than simply removing plastic bags. Plastic bags cost the business thus not supplying them saves money and potentially looks good.
I've recently stopped purchasing packaged chips and any snack items in plastic—since they don't indicate anything about recycling or RPET.
The chip packets are constructed in layers of plastic which means they aren't recyclable and might last in the environment forever, or at least indefinitely or for hundreds of years.
I bought a pure wool blanket that was in a non-recyclable square bag that had a non-recyclable plastic fibre handle; what happens to it now.
Consumer pressure? The local Pak 'N Save got rid of the in-store bags, but there was such a backlash that they made them available again.
We need to be tougher on what is considered recyclable: it needs to be able to be recyclable over and over and over again in a never-ending cycle.
A plastic bottle turned into a exercise shirt. What happens to it at the end of life? Re-usable: what about afterwards—Nothing should last forever.
Force manufacturers to use 1 type of plastic, or glass. That would add in the ability to recycle the product. Right now a bottle probably has a plastic label, different plastic bottle, different plastic top, different plastic nib, different plastic nib cover. Degradable plastic: probably last almost as long and may release toxic material into the environment.
The produce department: the little things: the item labels on fruit; the tape around spring onions and asparagus.
Straws are recyclable, but they are so light they are lost in the sorting process. No recycler seems interested, far too difficult.
Things are so half hearted: Starbucks in the US are getting rid of straws, but the cups are made of 2 or 3 types of plastic.

Marilynn J.
09 Jul 2018
Plastic Packaging

This article was well researched with useful information to encourage us all to act more responsibly with regard to the use of plastic. Plastic bottles should be eliminated but I can't suggest an alternative other than glass which would then increase freight charges.

Sam Y.
21 Jul 2018
Fill our own?

Hi Marilynn,
How about filling our own? Much easier. Local farmers here in Nelson and Tasman allow us to all refil our own glass bottles for milk (available at the farm gate, selected green grocers and cafes), local brewers let us fill our own beer, cider and soft drinks. Then we can reuse our plastic bottles.

Jacqui T.
08 Jul 2018
Just paying lip service

I went to a Christchurch countdown just yesterday and the vast majority of the fruit and vegetables seem to be in packaging of some sort, it made it difficult to buy what I needed. I usually go to vege place which is a bit better. I try to buy as little in plastic as I can, take own bags both big ones and for produce. Until the stores show real commitment and give us the ability to choose non plastic it will be hard to change the amount of plastic used.

Sam Y.
08 Jul 2018
Just leave it at the checkout...

Hi Jacqui T: leave all your plastic at the checkout, and make it the supermarket's problem, not yours.

Sam Y.
08 Jul 2018
Leave the plastic behind

I have started leaving the plastic behind at the checkout. I take in my reusable mesh bags, tip the tomatoes - or whatever - into my mesh bag, then after the containers have been scanned, I leave the containers behind at the checkout. I take the plastic off my cucumbers and leave that behind too. It not only sends a clear message, it pushes the problem and cost of disposal onto the retailer. If enough of us do that, retailers will start asking suppliers or distributors to supply loose veg to avoid what is becoming a problem for themselves. Push the problem back up the chain, and that will, I suspect, effect a change.

Hamish W.
17 Jul 2018
Good thinking Sam!

Yes, let's all leave the plastic at the checkout.