Editor’s Comment

The ripe to an opinion

Steven Pacitti – editor

I am sure that most of us are well versed in the dangers of social media and the ease with which we can get involved in a debate with members of the general public over the use of plastics packaging, especially in the current climate.

I write this column having just discussed the use of plastics wrap on avocados in a UK supermarket chain with a London-based consumer, who had resorted to targeting the retailer with expletives over what she deemed “unnecessary packaging”. Having explained to her that avocados need protection as they damage easily, and the film increases shelf life by two days to reduce food wastage, which is a real issue for society, she responded by saying that she has a food bin given to her by the local council and so “why would I want to buy an avocado with plastics that could get polluted?” (yet, she is happy to waste spoilt food). Then she ended with “‘Prevention is better than cure’, is all I’m saying”, which makes no sense as it contradicts the rest of her statement.

Unfortunately, these kinds of conversations with the public are all too common, as they respond with knee-jerk reactions to headlines and watch programmes hosted by celebrity chefs, among others, who clearly have agendas that they need to satisfy.

Avocados are actually an interesting conversation topic. They have soared in popularity on the back of their assumed health benefits, but the majority are produced in Peru, Chile, and Mexico, and so potentially travel long distances to reach consumers. It also takes a lot of water to produce avocados; on average, 2,000 litres of water are needed to produce a kilogram of avocados, so the last thing you want to do is to throw it straight in the bin when it reaches the consumer. Therefore, they need to be protected and have their shelf life extended as much as possible.

The UK supermarket in question, Waitrose, was in the news for other reasons this month after unveiling a refill zone at select stores as part of a trial scheme. Customers will be able to fill up their own containers with products ranging from pasta, sweets, dried snacks, beer, wine, washing up liquid… hold up! Beer? I’m not quite sure how the refill station will work in conjunction with carbonated beer, unless the zone doubles up as a drinking bar for consumption. Customers can also ‘borrow a box’ for £5 ($6.30) from the store to shop with and then return on their next visit. Maybe the retailer could coin the phrase Box Return Scheme (BRS) for this concept.

I am not entirely sure how this packaging reduction scheme would actually play out in reality. It conjures up images of consumers queuing up to shuffle along each refill station with their collection of containers, as if they’re navigating the buffet on a package holiday to Majorca. I also wonder about the hygiene element, and the likely mess as consumers spill product while decanting from the refill cylinders. And that’s not to mention the potential cross-contamination issue for allergy sufferers.

But Waitrose is not stopping there. The retailer is trialling a frozen fruit pick-and-mix counter, involving frozen mango, strawberries, blueberries, pineapples and raspberries. If traditional confectionery pick-and-mix counters are anything to go by in terms of hygiene, I think the advice to consumers with this scheme will be to wash the fruit well before consuming.

Or perhaps these products can be packaged in banana leaves, as one Thai supermarket decided to do this month, replacing plastics packaging, albeit the label is likely to either be made of plastics or to involve it. The retailer is wrapping its vegetables in banana leaf secured by bamboo.

All well and good in tropical locations, but Europe might struggle to justify the cost of replacing plastics with banana leaves. Actually, the art of using banana leaves to wrap food is not a new invention, with vendors in tropical countries having used them to hold products together for decades. Perhaps promotion to the supermarket shelves is their ticket to fame and fortune.

The entire debate should be about rational thinking, treating items on a case-by-case basis, and compromise. Another retail giant removed packaging from its fresh produce recently in a trial and found that its food waste doubled.

In fact, waste reduction charity the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) recently reported that UK households throw away approximately 7.1 million tonnes of food a year, with a further 3.1m tonnes discarded on retail shelves, having expired, or else lost in the supply chain itself. Major retailers have responded with campaigns such as Asda’s Wonky Veg initiative, while the use of packaging to combat the waste issue is a veritable minefield of challenges to consumer acceptance.

For some consumers, however, the fact that they have been given a bin specifically for food waste circumvents the entire issue. If only life was that simple. Avocados are just the tip of a very big iceberg, and we can expect further Guacamelees (sic) in the supermarket aisles in the months ahead.