Heidi Stiefel was destined for the horticulture industry from a young age having grown up on a lifestyle block growing everything from berries to asparagus in the beautiful Rangitikei. Her father was a researcher at AgResearch and ahead of his time, researching organic production technologies and adapting them for New Zealand conditions in the 1980s.

Stiefel decided to take a similar path and attended Massey University, where she completed a Masters in Applied Science, looking at why growers adopt sustainable technologies. “I have always been interested in sustainable technologies for commercial horticulture production and am very passionate about the wonderful quality fruit and vegetables we can grow in New Zealand,” she told SupermarketNews.

For the past 20 years, Stiefel has been working for Bostock’s – since the first orchard was converted to organic production and has been an integral part of driving the company’s sustainable practises.

Stiefel has been the driving force behind Bostock’s compostable apple sticker trial, a Southern Hemisphere first with the release of the compostable PLU stickers for the company’s apples.

The sticker laminate is 100 percent industrially compostable and meets FDA and EU regulations for direct food contact and breaks down when put in an industrial compost. “It’s important to know that they are industrial compostable, but they will break down in your home bin – it just takes longer.”

“A year ago, I met the manufacturer in Hong Kong to discuss the product and set up a trial. We worked with a New Zealand label company in New Zealand who sourced the materials from overseas suppliers,” she explained. “We ran a small trial in 2019 as we wanted to make sure we had no issues running the PLU over the machinery we have in place.

“So far, the sticker trial has been very successful, and we have had no technical issues. We will definitely work with the supplier to roll out more compostable stickers across our apples in 2020.”

While the compostable stickers are better for the planet, not having to use PLU stickers on their apples at all would be best. “Many of our customers don’t like the PLU stickers on the apples, particularly organic consumers. We do not want to put them on the apples either as it adds waste and cost.”

However, the retail trade requires the use of PLU stickers so that customers can identify organic from conventional apples and also as a way of identifying the brand, variety and country of origin – this is particularly important for Asian markets as “produce from New Zealand” is very important.

“If we can move away from retailing our apples loose and use compostable bags or trays instead, then we can minimise the use of PLU stickers applied to individual fruit.”

As for what other environmentally friendly initiatives Bostock’s is working on, Stiefel revealed that the company is working on a certified home compostable pouch bag that the team hopes to release in 2020. “We already use cardboard trays to pack our apples into in China, Malaysia, Russia and New Zealand. In New Zealand, they are covered with a compostable film.”

Stiefel credits the innovation that the sustainable movement has brought about in the industry – “there are a lot of very cool innovative products on the market.”

Every year she makes the trek to Berlin to attend the Fruit Logistica trade show.  “I take time to visit the companies working on innovative packaging and new technologies. There are a lot of great products. For example, packaging made from 80 percent grass. It feels like waxy cardboard. These are made into trays, and we are packing our apples into them for a customer in Europe,” she said.

“The problem is that these new environmental products are more expensive and require an investment in new machinery.

Plastic is cheap, convenient, and readily available. Consumers want plastic alternatives but don’t want to pay extra, and supermarkets don’t want the added cost, so this poses challenges for us as a business committed to providing environmental alternatives.”

Stiefel believes that there needs to be a financial incentive for companies to make a move towards either fully recyclable or compostable products. “We need to see innovative investment into recycling plans to manage soft plastics to turn them into playgrounds, roads and other infrastructure.”