New Zealand supermarket giant to trial plastic removal from fresh produce items

New Zealand supermarket Countdown will be removing plastics from 65 of its fresh produce items, as part of a ten-week trial: 'Unwrapped', which will aim to remove more than a tonne of plastic from three of its stores from next month.

Customers at Orewa, Ponsonby and Manukau will try an unwrapped fruit and vegetable section, with a lot more loose produce, as well as brand new, specially-designed paper and cardboard packaging, from 10 February. Paper bags will also replace plastic bags for bulk foods.

"For the 10-week test we’re completely transforming how we usually source and supply fruit and veges, including changing things with our produce growers and our own packhouse to remove as much plastic and packaging as possible," Countdown’s General Manager Corporate Affairs, Safety and Sustainability, Kiri Hannifin said. "Sixty-five products have been taken out of plastic, as well as plastic produce bags and the bulk bin bags."

While some products, such as bagged lettuce and herb portions, will remain in plastic due to a lack of suitable alternatives, where possible any plastic packaging provided is made from PET or rPET which can be recycled and used over and over again. Soft plastics can also be recycled at each of the Unwrapped stores.

The company has invested more than $500,000 in shelving, packaging and production changes for the test, but Ms Hannifin says it is an investment that has to be made if they are serious about reducing the use of plastic in the future.

"A lot of produce will be loose, but where cardboard or paper is used as an alternative to plastic, during the test this will either be packaged by our suppliers at source or in our Auckland packhouse," she said. "We’ve invested heavily into working with our suppliers and introducing specially-made and designed packaging for the 10-week test, so removing plastic right from the start is very much front of mind for us while also still ensuring customers can find the products they love."

She added that removing plastic and finding alternative packaging that meets strict quality, food safety and environmental requirements has been tricky, because the company does not want to create more waste as a result. For example, without packaging some products might deteriorate faster, and have a lower shelf-life.

"We don’t want to replace one issue with another and as such we need to monitor food waste very closely," Ms Hannifin said. "We’re really keen for our stores and customers to test what we have available so we can get a good understanding of what might work for the future. Like all Kiwis, we are incredibly passionate about the environment and reducing the amount of plastic and packaging in our produce section is something we, along with our customers, are keen to see. Unwrapped gives us a chance to give some new things a go with our growers and packhouses. We’re really excited about how these stores will look and feel for our customers and team."

As part of Unwrapped, Countdown wants to test whether the changes that will be made can be sustained over the long-term and in a way that delivers better outcomes for our environment.

"We’re mindful that packaging or process changes might cause bigger issues so we need to understand this a lot better before we roll something out nationwide,” Ms Hannifin said. "Ultimately our customers also have to love shopping with us - changes need to be easy, convenient and better for the environment at the same time. Unwrapped will change the way our customers shop for ten weeks, but their feedback could have a long-lasting impact on how all New Zealanders shop in the future and help guide our next steps.”

Throughout the 10-week test, Countdown will be talking to its customers and team to understand opinions on the changes, as well as measuring a range of factors. Countdown phased out single-use plastic shopping bags in October 2018, and over the last few years has focused on a programme to reduce unnecessary plastic and packaging, including removing 150 tonnes of plastic from produce and introducing BYO containers nationwide.

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