Three Countdown stores are currently trialling drastically reducing plastic from their fruit and veg… but it’s a solution that comes with problems of its own.
Ah, plastic. The synthetic material we love to hate. In a world where many of the biggest contributors to the climate crisis are not exactly easy to give up – cars, air travel, animal agriculture – it’s natural to gravitate towards something that just seems so unnecessary and so easy to eliminate.
Granted, there’s no doubt our penchant for single-use plastics is a huge problem. In 2017, the first-ever global tally of how much plastic has been produced, discarded, burnt or put in landfills since its mass production began 60 years ago came up with this figure: 8.3 billion tonnes. Most of it is still out there in some form – it can take plastic anywhere between 400 to 1000 years to degrade.
Why are we in this pickle? Well, because plastic is extremely handy stuff, and we humans are obsessed with convenience.
It’s not just our laziness as a species, however. Why is there still so much plastic in our supermarkets? In a word (well, two words): food waste. Plastic does an incredibly good job of prolonging the life of fresh produce and keeping it in good condition.
And that’s important. Why? Because even though it’s harder for us to grasp – a decomposing apple on a grass verge seems somehow less offensive than an empty Coke bottle – food waste is a huge contributor to climate change, estimated on a global scale to produce four times as many emissions as aviation. If it was a country, food waste would be the world’s third-largest emitter, surpassed only by China and the United States.
For this reason, researchers have found that removing all plastic from our food supply may not be the best move for the environment. It’s something Countdown is eager to test as the supermarket chain launches a 10-week “unwrapped” trial to drastically minimise plastic in the fresh produce sections of three of its wider Auckland stores.
At one of those stores, the Williamson Avenue Countdown in the city-fringe suburb of Ponsonby, before the trial began some of the fresh produce was already “nude”, kept fresh with a misting system. Or at least that’s the idea. When The Spinoff visited on a hot summer’s day, with Countdown head of produce Steve Sexton and Kiri Hannifin, general manager of sustainability, it’s fair to say some of the nude veg wasn’t looking as perky as it could – heads of bok choy and celery leaves were wilting ever so slightly.
“It works in theory,” says Sexton of the misting. “But in practical terms…” he trails off. “It looks cool, consumers like it, but the product doesn’t like it as much as plastic.
“They’re trying to replicate something that’s really hard to replicate – a closed, sealed environment. Some products handle it better than others.”
Hannifin says it’s a balancing act – consumers want the plastic gone, and so does Countdown, but if food waste is the alternative, it becomes a lot more problematic.
“We’ve committed as a business to reducing our emissions by 60% by 2030, which is massive, and a big part of our current exposure is food waste,” explains Hannifin. Yes, every store has a food rescue partner, but fresh produce goes off quickly, and some of it just can’t be saved.
Those food-waste implications are why this trial period is essential and why it would be unwise for Countdown to simply “take the plastic-free plunge” in one fell swoop, as one commentator urged.
The trial began this week at Countdown’s Ōrewa and Manukau stores as well as Ponsonby, and will see a tonne of plastic removed from the produce sections over the 10-week period. There will still be “a sprinkling of plastic through the department”, says Sexton, “but this is because we’ve had to balance a few other things as well.”
Those rolls of plastic bags by the loose produce have gone – customers can opt for reusable bags of their choice (mesh ones will be available to buy at three for $3) or simply not bother with separate bags at all. Sixty-eight previously plastic-packaged product lines have been changed, with some items being sold loose and some, such as strawberries and cherry tomatoes, moving to non-plastic alternative packaging such as lidless cardboard punnets. Lids will be available for punnets of these small items to stop them escaping during transit from store to home, but for the most part the punnets will be open. How customers feel about this is something Countdown is keen to hear about during the test.
You’re able to buy paper bags of potatoes, carrots, apples and the like, while salads and herbs are remaining in plastic because they deteriorate so quickly, as will easily squishable soft berries. Some things – single shrink-wrapped huskless corn cobs, for example – will disappear.
“It’s an awesome test,” says Sexton. “We just need to see what happens. Consumers will either say, ‘yep, we’re on board’, or they’re going to vote with their feet, which will inform our decision making.
“We’ll go the whole nine yards, get the feedback from consumers, see how it works for store processes, closely review the waste, and see what happens,” he says. “But it’s important we start at the extreme point because if you don’t try, you don’t know.”
When The Spinoff returned to the Ponsonby Countdown two days into the trial, the produce section looked very different – and, it must be said, very appealing, the brown paper bags of kūmara and onions giving a sort of rustic farmers market vibe; grapes, pears and lush apricots piled high in open-top punnets. Customers seemed to be fully on board – no one seemed even slightly perturbed over the lack of plastic produce bags, with most just opting to put fruit and veg into their trolleys and baskets loose. At the self-checkout, a single apricot tipped out of the punnet as I scanned it, but if that’s as problematic as it gets, it’s fair to say the trial’s looking good, at least from a customer perspective.
Such a big transformation of the supply chain takes a lot of work, and Countdown has invested heavily in working with suppliers to reduce plastic. Some, such as potato, carrot and onion supplier Wilcox, are packing their produce into paper specifically for the three Unwrapped stores. It does add a bit of extra time to their usual processes, but they’re keen to support the initiative. “It’s important for businesses like ours to be engaged in making changes that could have long-term benefits for the environment,” says John Wilcox, the company’s account manager for Countdown. “We won’t know the full extent of the impacts on our packing times until the test gets under way, but that’s all part of it. It will be a long journey for everyone, but it’s something we’re really committed to to make sure we get the right result.”
Countdown also has its own packhouse, which Sexton says is a key advantage in being able to respond quickly to customer feedback. If it transpires that items fall out of the topless punnets in trolleys, for example, a potential solution could be making the punnets a bit higher.
Throughout the trial, in-store greeters are there to explain what’s happening and seek feedback, and customers can give digital feedback too. “The produce team will get a really good sense from their interactions with customers, too,” says Sexton.
That feedback, combined with team feedback, sales data and food waste considerations, will inform what permanent action Countdown decides to take throughout all its stores.
When the company got rid of plastic carrier bags at checkout in 2018, it took only a few weeks for customers to accept, says Hannifin. “The first few days were a little tricky but after a few weeks, customers totally got it. We were pleasantly surprised by that. We are hoping Kiwis get behind this test as well. It’s going to take some behaviour change in terms of how we shop, but we hope it will become second nature as quickly as bringing in our own shopping bags. We really need New Zealanders to meet us halfway and give a new way of shopping for produce a go.”