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The Packaging Conundrum

“Single-use plastics” is a phrase you might never have heard up to a couple of years ago, but you have almost certainly done so in the last twelve months. It’s hard to spot the moment when the zeitgeist shifts, but in this case, David Attenborough and his unforgettable images of polluted oceans probably had something to do with it. It is hard to argue with the thesis that single-use plastics are harmful to the planet, so shouldn’t Tablehurst just eliminate them? In time, the answer is probably yes, but getting there is surprisingly complicated.

What’s so great about plastic anyway?

Plastic is ubiquitous in the food packaging industry. It is light, transparent (if required), easy to print on, impermeable, strong, and capable of being formed into all sorts of flexible and rigid packaging solutions. It is also relatively cheap. No wonder usage has exploded since this family of wonder-materials was invented. The problem, of course, is disposal. Most of the plastic used to package food has a useful life of a few days or weeks, followed by a worse-than-useless life of hundreds of years. Recycling techniques are improving, but a huge amount of single-use plastic is still finding its way into the environment, with increasingly harmful consequences.

What are the alternatives?

Food packaging is complicated! The right packaging depends on the type of food, its perishability, whether it is fragile, how far it is going to travel, and how and where it is going to be displayed for sale. Let’s take a look at some of the alternatives to plastic that are available to us as retailers:

  • Biodegradable plastics. Biodegradable must be good mustn’t it? Well, up to a point, this is true, but it's a real minefield. When a product is described as “biodegradable”, that simply means that it can be broken down by living organisms, typically bacteria, something which certainly cannot be said of conventional plastics. However, the fact that a material can be broken down biologically does not necessarily mean that it will be in practice; it all depends on where it ends up after disposal. Recent research published in The Guardian suggests that biodegradable plastics may be extremely slow to break down in the ground or in marine environments – essentially they need to find their way to just the right reprocessing facility or they could do as much environmental harm as conventional plastics.

  • Compostable alternatives. Surely this is the right thing? Well, maybe! Compostable materials do break down a bit more quickly in the soil, but they too really need the right environment to do so. Some materials are categorised as “home compostable” which means they should break down in a domestic compost heap, but the majority of compostable packaging requires an industrial scale composting system operating at high temperatures to break it down completely, so if it doesn’t get into the right recycling stream, it might hang around for a long time.

  • Paper and card. For some dry goods (cereals, pasta, sugar, flour), cardboard boxes or paper bags without an inner plastic liner can be an effective solution. These goods are fairly robust and have a long natural shelf life even if not perfectly sealed from the atmosphere. However, a lot of products, particularly more perishable ones, aren’t really suited to paper or card packaging. I’ll come to the question of paper packaging for meat a bit later in this post.

  • No packaging! Surely the simplest and best solution wherever it is possible, but in practice it only really works for goods that don’t have to travel far, and which don’t need much protection. It’s our favoured solution for our farm-grown vegetables, but as you will see later in this post, even this simplest of ideas can be hard to put into practice in some cases.

  • “Bring your own” packaging. This is a great solution as it allows you as a customer to choose suitable reusable containers for your purchases. Some shops have introduced bulk dry goods dispensers for use with customers’ own containers. We have actively considered this at Tablehurst, but so far held off because of space limitations in our shop. We are however encouraging customers to bring their own packaging to Tablehurst; there is more on this below.

So that’s a bit of background on the challenges and the options available. But what are we actually doing today at Tablehurst? Here is a taste of where we are up to:


Meat is highly perishable and plastic packaging is without doubt the easy option. We still wrap some of our meat in vac-pac plastic because it protects the product so well and is an excellent solution for meat that is to be frozen. However, we wrap all our fresh counter meat in paper now and we are experimenting with paper wrapping for a range of meat products in the display fridge. So far, this seems to be working well, though bear in mind that the paper has to have a coating – in this case silicone – to prevent the meat from sticking to the wrapping. There is evidence that this type of coating will biodegrade, but we cannot be certain. Best of all, we warmly welcome customers who turn up with their own containers to take meat home in – just tell the butchers that you would like the product without any wrapping at all, and they will oblige.

that this type of coating will biodegrade, but Best of all, we warmly welcome customers who turn up with their own containers to take meat home in – just tell the butchers that you would like the product without any wrapping at all, and they will oblige.

Vegetables and fruit

Until recently, we sold all our more fragile salads, herbs and leafy vegetable in plastic bags. The ideal bag for storing and presenting vegetables must be able to hold together when the contents are wet, be strong enough not to split when filled with odd sized volumes of leaves, have a certain capacity to breathe, not mist or steam up, and be able to preserve the freshness of the vegetable over a number of days. Plastic bags meet this demanding specification extremely well, but we have been working hard to find alternatives. These include compostable bags (expensive, hard to find the right size, and still not ideal anyway); and selling the produce loose in boxes covered with a Perspex sheet.

Ideally, we want to sell every fruit and vegetable loose, but we have noticed an increase in wastage since we eliminated the plastic bags, so the optimum solution isn’t obvious. Let us know what you think – are the loose salads and green vegetables working for you? Also, do think about joining the growing band of customers who weigh their veg and collect the price labels, but put the produce straight into their shopping bag or box with no packaging at all. It isn’t going to work for raspberries or salad leaves, but it’s fine for a lot of more robust vegetables and fruit.


We have only been selling our raw milk for a few weeks, and we are pleased to be using a vending machine which uses no packaging and allows you dispense the milk straight into your own container. If you don’t have a suitable container, we can sell you a reusable glass bottle in the shop.

Ready meals and pies

We sell a range of our own savoury pastry goods (pies, pasties and sausage rolls). When these are available straight from the kitchen, we present them open for you to pop into a paper bag, but once they are in the shop fridge of freezer, we are currently still wrapping them in plastic, as we haven’t yet found the ideal (cost-effective) alternative which will keep the products in peak condition. We also sell ready meals (potato-topped meals and casseroles) which are currently all wrapped in plastic for similar reasons.

Dry goods

This is a complicated area. The large majority of these items are bought in from wholesalers, so it is a matter of trying to choose suppliers whose packaging is sustainable. Recently, we found a supplier for a wide range of dry goods who uses compostable cellulose bags rather than plastic. Perhaps we should reduce our product range in order to make room for bulk dispensers? Do you know of other solutions for dry goods? Let us know what you think.

Dry goods in compostable cellulose packaging

Café disposables

Our café uses disposable plates, cups and cutlery for takeaway orders and at the al fresco kitchen in the café garden. All the products we use are compostable, but it would be much better not to be using any at all. We love it when takeaway customers to the café bring their own containers. Do you think we should be using washable plates and cutlery for our pizzas and barbecues?

Compostable cups. Better still to bring your own ...

Carrier bags

We no longer have conventional plastic carrier bags at Tablehurst, but for the time being, we do have a lightweight compostable plastic bag available. We are also just stocking up with high quality organic cotton shopping bags which are reusable and washable, and some new plastic mesh bags which are made from recycled bottles and which are strong, reusable and washable. Should we keep the compostable plastic carrier bags as well or simply do away with them altogether?

How you can help us

As I hope you can see from everything above, becoming truly sustainable is complicated! You can help us meet this goal in two ways:

  • Think about bringing your own containers and bags to the farm. Whether you are buying meat, vegetables, milk, or a takeaway coffee, every piece of packaging that doesn’t get used once and thrown away is a step in the right direction.

  • Sign up to this blog and post your suggestions for what we can do differently and better. We are working hard at this, but we definitely don’t have all the answers at our fingertips. We very much welcome your ideas, no matter how much you want to challenge us!

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Just a couple of comments. Carrier Bags:

In The Wit's End, we ran a couple of articles recently on packaging, and cotton bags came out badly because of the way they have to be made. As you say, ‘compostable’ is generally only for high-temperature industrial sites, and there aren’t enough of them in the UK (or anywhere else yet). I think the answer is to get everyone Thinking Outside The Box (our strapline), and bring their own re-usable bags and containers whenever they shop anywhere. I permanently carry bags in jackets and back trouser pockets, and it’s surprising how often they get used and re-used until they fall apart, getting washed when necessary using as little water as needed. We hav…

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