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BusinessSeptember 6, 2018

Why New World’s social media went into meltdown over a plastic container

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New World announced this week they’re giving away plastic containers, and man oh man, the internet went wild. But was the hysteria justified?

Oh plastic, plastic, plastic. Who knew this one flimsy material could cause so much of an online furore in 2018? On Monday, New World announced the launch of its new collectables initiative: for every $20 a customer spends at New World, they’ll receive a sticker which they can redeem for a series of vacuum-sealed food storage containers. Collect four stickers and you get a New World POD pump that sucks the air out through a valve in the lid, helping to keep the food fresher for longer. Collect 12 stickers and you get a 600ml POD container, which is made from Tritan – a shatter resistant and BPA free plastic. Collect 14 stickers and you get an even bigger POD container, and so on and so on and so on.

Obviously, food waste is a massive issue, one that businesses like WeCompost and charities like KiwiHarvest have been working hard at to alleviate. Love Food Hate Waste estimates that New Zealanders throw away well over 120,000 tonnes of food each year worth almost $900 million. The main reasons for this seem to be because we throw our leftovers away instead of storing them, and when we do store our leftovers, we often don’t store them correctly or store them for too long, meaning they end up going off anyway. According to Michelle Dickinson (aka Nanogirl), who’s part of the PODs promo campaign, the containers are able to keep food fresh in the fridge for an extra one to two days.

Vacuum sealed ‘pods’ have replaced New World’s previous promo, Little Garden (Photo: world.co.nz)

So far, so good. A container that helps divert methane-producing food waste from going to landfill? Surely this will go down swimmingly.

It did not go down swimmingly. 

Most of the complaints on New World’s Facebook page stemmed from the fact that despite the company’s pledges to reduce plastic waste throughout its business, it was now introducing thousands of plastic containers back into the market with its PODs. Many also bemoaned that it would be running in lieu of its much-lauded promo from previous years, Little Gardens, which was a collection of seedling collectables aimed at teaching Kiwi kids about how plants grow. Others bemoaned that there were several other ways New World could’ve encouraged sustainable practices without introducing more plastic into its business (with suggestions including food stamps, net bags, and beeswax wrapping, to name but a few).

New World’s social media person, who clearly had their work cut out for them, then proceeded to respond to the 300-plus comments bombarding their Facebook page. Replying to one comment, New World said that: “We all want to live in a world with less plastic waste, which is why as a business we’re doing a lot to reduce or recycle it. But not all plastic is bad – plastic does a lot to protect and preserve food and other products from damage, bugs and other environmental factors.”

“Little Garden was amazing, but this year we want to help New Zealanders make their food last longer and reduce the amount of food that is being sent to landfill,” New World replied to another. 

There was, however, also backlash to the backlash, which wasn’t entirely helped by the fact that New World seemed to be making more of an effort replying to positive comments than replying to negative ones (even going so far as to offer one of its supporters a gift in the mail for being “a voice of reason”, which totally doesn’t alienate the rest of its customer base at all).

“The reaction we’ve had in store to the New World PODs promotion is overwhelmingly positive, with thousands and thousands of customers avidly collecting stickers and some already redeeming their free PODs,” a Foodstuffs spokesperson said when contacted by The Spinoff for official comment. “We’re looking forward to this being yet another success, much like our award-winning promotion Little Garden. We have every intention of helping our customers make small changes which add up to a big difference to the environment and their pockets,” adding that the promotion will continue to run through to October 14 as planned.

While both sides clearly have valid arguments, Emily Frost, science advisor for the environmental group Our Seas Our Future, points out that from a behavioural standpoint, there are many positives to be taken from the PODs campaign, even if it isn’t the most ideal from a plastics reduction point-of-view.

“I can totally understand both sides. You’re bringing in more plastic, and it’s hard plastic which means it’ll take a long time to degrade, and no matter how many times you reuse it, at the end of its life, it’s still going to be thrown away. If they used something like glass or aluminium, then it would be slightly environmentally better,” said Frost.

“But if you’re considering the behavioural change that’s involved in terms of encouraging people to move from disposable plastics to non-disposable plastics, then I think that’s something that’s very important. So if this idea is more about changing the behaviour of someone – even though these PODs are made of plastic, which we’re not particularly fond of – at least that’s moving in the right direction. Changing behaviour around how we use plastics… is more important than the plastic itself.”

Frost adds there are ways New World can extract more value from its divisive promo, such as by allowing customers to use these POD containers at New World deli counters, a suggestion which was brought up more than once in the Facebook comments (New World responded that it was “trying this in a few stores” but that it has a “few things [it] needs to work through first”, which most likely refers to its health and safety standards).

“For commercial companies like New World and Countdown, they really need to start looking into things like that. It’s all good giving out Tupperware containers, but they may need to change their own policies as well to accommodate for that,” said Frost.

“From a health and safety standpoint, if you read the policy, some of it’s a bit unnecessary. I totally understand that they’d be liable for whatever illnesses are kicking around if someone gets it from their deli from contaminated Tupperware, but they need to have a think about it because they can’t continue to just use their own disposable containers. It’s a difficult situation, but it’s something they should think about. Even if they have something like a cleaning policy or a sterilisation policy, for example.”

As New World points out, sometimes what you see isn’t always what you get, and what happens on the internet isn’t always the reality on the ground. In truth, it’s likely that most customers will welcome the free stuff and react positively (or at the very least, be apathetic about it). Despite New World’s good intentions, this was probably a case of a marketing team that got too clever for itself and couldn’t see that giving out free plastic containers of any sort (waste preventative or not) was just going to look like a bad idea.

In any case, all we can do is wait and see how it goes. Maybe they’ll bring it back next year, maybe they won’t.

They probably won’t.

Keep going!