Plastics and packaging at our farmers markets

April 25, 2019

We receive a lot of questions about packaging and plastic usage at our markets. It is an imporant issue that requires action from everyone. Read more to see what is being done.

What we are doing as the Farmers Market managers?

Compared to supermarkets, most products at farmers markets are sold loose.  Bread and cakes, some meat, fish, flowers, plants, most vegetables and fruit, cheese, eggs, pies and much more. Look around your market and you will see. We always encourage new businesses to sell products unwrapped. 

We encourage you to bring your own bags and containers to market and to refuse any bags that you may not want. Refuse napkins and cutlery and bring your own. Bring your own washable containers for meat and fish.  Bring your own coffee cup. We are including a stronger 'bring your own bag' message in all our communications.

We have banned plastic straws like other London businesses and are banning plastic cutlery and encouraging hot drinks to be sold in reusable and washable mugs.

We ask business to ensure that all take away food is sold in compostable, biodegradable packaging (not plastic).

We frequently communicate with all market businesses urging them to reduce and review their plastic packaging, offering alternative suggestions.

We recommend stalls charge for single use plastic bags.

We invite composting and recycling groups to markets to help customers learn how to manage their waste more responsibly.

What can you do as a Farmers Market Customer?

Bring your own bags and containers- Especially for things like fish and meat if you do not want to use new plastic. Bring your own coffee cups.

Encourage your favourite stalls to charge for plastic bags.

Ask farmers and producers to use recycled plastic instead of virgin plastic, if they can find it being made for their purposes

Ask farmers and producers to add recycling information on the containers / wrappings they use if it’s not obvious whether it can be recycled or not.

Support stalls that do use less plastic and post about it on the markets Facebook page.

If you are doing the above, ask your friends and neighbours to do the same.

Get your children interested in what you are doing and explain to them why.

plastic free customer container bh

What are the farmers and food producers doing about plastic and packaging?

We work with over 200 different businesses at our farmers markets. To list everything would take some time. For us to try to impose our views on them would be like acting as a supermarket does and not giving their suppliers any room to make their own decisions. All of the businesses at our farmers markets are thinking about the plastic and packaging issue and making the changes that they can. You as customers can encourage them and help them to do more.

Many stalls have made changes and more will be coming, for example soft fruit sold in cardboard rather than plastic.

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle

We believe that the best solution for concerned customers is to reuse bags given at market as much as possible and then recycle them responsibly. We all have just as much responsibility as the manufacturers in recycling our own waste. Lobbying should go into improving recycling in the UK and development products from waste plastic that store the carbon in an inert form for a long time. 

Plastic is part of the modern world but it has been disposed of irresponsibly by the whole of society. With awareness its use can be reduced and its disposal can be managed without damaging the environment. We all need to do our bit and not blame each other, by shopping at farmers markets you are buying food products that have been wrapped in less plastic.

Here Is an Organic salad growers thoughts:

We must always balance the environmental impact of the packaging against the impact of the food waste that would occur if we didn’t use it.

The main reasons for using plastic are:

1) Preventing food wastage. Loose leaves, even carrots wilt and go soft very quickly in the market environment, we are not working in the chilled, humidity controlled area of a supermarket fresh produce aisle. 

Loose produce starts drying out as soon as we bring the crop to market, at the market and in customers fridges afterwards. We were dumping trailer loads of wilted greens every week and we could not send any of the leaves that had gone out on Saturday on Sunday. 

Basically we were working very hard growing and harvesting crops which were then dumped on the compost heap. This is both psychologically and financially unviable. Also trying to quantify sales at each market was impossible and it meant we could not send the correct amount of stock which meant more wasted food. 

2) Food hygiene reasons. Loose leaves and veg handled by other customers spreads disease. Particularly for uncooked salad leaves and during the flu season. We had complaints from customers who said they would only buy pre packed veg. We put out tongs to use but only a percentage of people used them. 

3) Portion size. When the financial crash happened people became more worried about budgeting. With loose veg people often packed a bag then found it expensive especially if they had a few products in their basket. With pre packed products customers could calculate their purchase as they went along and get 5-6 products for £10 rather than 2 or 3.

4) Customer Choice. Although I get regular requests for loose veg, when sent as an experiment it does not sell. We either bag it at the market if we run out of packs or if we still have packs it gets dumped. Recently we sent loose parsnips and 4 x 12 bags of 500g. We sold all the bags and only 300g of loose parsnips all day. 

And this leads to the key point; since we have bagged our produce our sales at markets have more than doubled. The smaller Saturday markets we do are only viable because sales have increased and the unsold produce can be sent out again on Sundays or to our midweek markets. We know the majority of our customer buy pre packed bags. We know given the increases in labour and overhead costs our business is no longer viable with the levels of wastage we used to have. 

We do care about the customers who complain and I reply to every email to explain, however it’s almost impossible to rapidly change what we are doing as the majority of customers like the convenience and value, the freshness and long fridge life of their produce after purchase.

We have a lot to deal with at the moment; Brexit has not happened yet but we know we will lose more staff and horticulture is going to get very hard.

We need stability at the markets as there are already too many new unknowns and risks in running a horticultural business.

We are looking at recycled products. All our carrier bags are made from recycled plastic. We have asked our supplier about recycled zip seal bags but to get them clear is almost impossible.

Biodegradable bags are environmentally less good as they cannot be recycled and if put in landfill degrade anaerobically releasing methane as a greenhouse gas.

At the Soil Association conference about plastic packaging I went to recently, we were told even when council green waste is being composted professionally, compostable bags are being screened out with non-compostable waste as part of the process and sent to landfill where they produce methane.

It a very complex issue but recycling is the key to solving the problem.

Our fully recyclable polythene bags, capable of multi-use are what we consider to be the best option so far.

FAQ’s and other resources

Biodegradable plastic isn’t really biodegradable. It is normally just conventional oil-based plastic with an accelerant added to it, which breaks it down into little pieces and there it stays for a long time.

Meat and fish packaging is often an issue. Without a shop front, our farmers are travelling to a market with their cuts of meat and want it to arrive chilled and with no waste. They want you to be able to buy it without any leakages. Those who cut to order can use butchers paper but it still needs to go into something to prevent any leakages. 

On the fruit and vegetable side, delicate herbs and soft fruits need to be protected

All stalls must be compliant with food safety requirements which can and do differ from each local authority.

What works for cake and apples won’t necessarily be appropriate for a piece of fish or meat. .

Paper bags aren’t the answer, biodegradable plastic is problematic

We’d love you to read this from environmental writer Julia Hailes, author of The Green Consumer Guide. 

And you may be interested in this from The Grocer magazine.

As Dame Ellen Macarthur points out, much of the problem is down to bad design. 

Emma from Pastures Farm noted that they do everything they can to reduce plastic waste at the farm. She says; ‘it is impossible with raw meat to avoid it, especially with poultry.’

Nicola Bulgin from Beatbush Farm says she’s ordered biodegradable food trays for her meat, but the small print annoys her; very few plants can recycle the trays, so they end up in landfill. Where she can (where her butchers are at markets) she cuts to order and wraps in peach (butchers) paper and a recycled plastic bag which is the closest to a perfect solution we have at the moment.

What we need to see is food grade packaging made from recycled plastic.

It’s not always easy to get the containers our farmers and producers need e.g with lids, at prices they can afford and small quantities they have room to store. Some of our farmers have started to use alternatives to plastic packaging for selling soft fruit; you may have seen at market that they don't have lids. 

Stumbling blocks

For many of our farmers their ‘stumbling block’ is their environmental health officer and ‘whatever the Food Standards Agency will dream up next’.

A few have trialed selling loose meat ‘and sales plummeted’; many people like to pick up a pack and know the price.

Some farmers are aware that they don’t have the skills to cut meat to order; Angelika von Heimendahl from Camcattle says;

‘We are farmers and not butchers and I don’t think I could cut up meat to a high enough standard. It would also mean bringing a much bigger vehicle to load up a whole meat counter rather than some chiller boxes. We vacuum pack our beef and lamb, but we do not use any trays.’

Meat is a highly perishable good that has quite a high footprint and extending its shelf-life is justifiable on those grounds. We do not have too many customers ask about the plastic packaging as it’s very versatile. It can be put in your shopping bag without additional wrapping and can go into your fridge or freezer without adding anything.’

Lots of food for thought here; at the very least, please do bring your own bags to market!