Supermarket News sat down with Jerry Pendergast of United Fresh to talk about New Zealand's current plastic situation.

When it comes to reducing plastic use, New Zealand has come a long way in the past couple of years. Major supermarkets have eliminated single-use plastic bags at checkouts; compostable packaging initiatives are springing up around the country and Kiwis are increasingly aware of the impact their plastic use can have.  

Supermarkets have long recognised the need to reduce and eliminate plastic from produce shelves. Two years ago Foodstuffs started Project Naked to identify opportunities to do just that. The initiative, also known as Food in the Nude, was trialled in a number of stores and feedback was positive.  

“The shift over the past year, in consumer attitudes and coalface activity, has been tremendous,” said Jerry Prendergast, president of United Fresh.

According to the Ministry of the Environment, New Zealanders send around 2.5 million tonnes of waste to landfill every year. About 252,000 tonnes of this is plastic waste.

“We’re running a trial of BYO containers in selected stores, inviting customers to bring in any clean, sturdy and leak-proof container with a lid to use at the butchery or seafood counters,” explained Foodstuffs merchandise manager meat and produce, Brigit Corson.  

The trial is limited to these departments because food purchased in either is likely to be cooked, which reduces food safety risks. 

“The phasing out of single-use plastic bags in our stores was the first of many initiatives to reduce our plastic waste and minimise our environmental footprint. Across our stores, we’ve taken out over 600 million plastics bags. We’ve given away more than two million reusable bags to help shoppers adjust to the removal of single-use plastic well ahead of the government’s country-wide ban, and we’re on the way to 100 percent of our private-label packaging being reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.” 

The country-wide ban on SUPs at checkouts comes into effect for all retailers on July 1.  

Protecting the environment is a global issue. Supermarkets in the UK have committed to ensuring all plastic packaging can be reused, recycled or composted by 2025. Amsterdam supermarket Ekoplaza recently introduced a plastic-free aisle, and at Berlin’s Original Unverpakt (Unpacked), customers can buy beans and rice from bulk bins, dispense olive oil into their own containers and buy chewable toothpaste that doesn’t come in a tube. 

Prendergast believes that plastic, however, still plays an important role, such as in the packaging for loose leaf salad so people can clearly see the product. "Consumers want visibility, and it’s important not to create barriers that may stop people eating produce. It’s a balance between convenience and practicality. Lack of convenience can reduce purchasing volume." 

“Plastic packaging is also a tool for keeping produce hydrated. Vegetables have a high water content and need rehydrating to stay fresh. There need to be good handling practices, and this requires a very special skill set. Over the years that skillset has been lost because it was not required. Stores are training and educating staff to know how to handle those practices,” he added. 

Compostable packaging brings its own challenges: it has to be processed in industrial composting facilities, and they’re not being created fast enough to meet demand and pressure to recycle. “There’s great innovation going on, but everyone needs to be aligned. A united approach is key for the future. We have a long way to go before we’re completely in line,” explained Prendergast.