A Tale of Two Punnets: the Media Misinformation Story

post by Iain Tolhurst on the pitfalls of oversimplifying the packaging debate to “plastic bad – paper good”
13 June 2019
Single-use plastic, we are told, is bad.
Well, we know that! Especially if it finds its way into the sea or into our soils.
But what about the effects of paper-based packaging? We sell over 5,000 punnets of strawberry annually. Grown to perfection and picked at their best, we need some form of protection for them, if we are to sell them effectively. We grow and sell food that has the lowest carbon footprint of just about any other – that is our Mission. Our customers are wonderfully supportive, but we hear the occasional moan about single use plastics, despite the fact that we package very little of our annual 120 odd tons of fruit and vegetables.
So, we invest heavily in an alternative product made from paper pulp (Berigard) hoping that we are doing the correct thing. This is the type of punnet that we were used to as children before plastic came along. It looks good, protects the fruit and breaks down rapidly in composting systems.
Digging deeper I discover that they are made in the Czech Republic, so a big transport issue – over 1,200 miles away.
Comparing the whole-life carbon footprint of the two materials is not easy, but so far I have discovered that the Berigard punnet consumes far greater carbon in its production and that you would have to use it at least 6 times before it equalled the carbon used for the plastic punnet.
The photo shows 250g of our strawberries. On the left – 10 empty punnets behind the full punnet. And 10 Berigard empty punnets on the right. The Berigard take up over 3 times the space and weigh more than three times the plastic punnets. Clearly the Berigard has a far greater global warming potential.

The only alternative product to plastic or paper packaging is no packaging. Can’t imagine how that would work with such large numbers of strawberries. The plastic could in theory be washed and used dozens of times and still fulfil its role in protecting the fruit.
Some comments:
Sarah Pugh: Interesting. Doesn’t factor in environmental pollution or CO2 created in disposal, including transport to China. Nor the cost of getting each used punnet back to suppliers to wash and reuse? Nor improvement of paper-based punnets made in UK or from hemp?

Ann Owen: There’s plenty to explore here, but at this point in time, re CO2 emissions, plastic wins by a mile. The paper making process is so polluting, enormous water footprint, usually made abroad and then really heavy and bulky, as Iain says, to transport. China no longer accepts any of our plastic waste, other countries are following suit. What is needed is a whole life cycle production system in the UK with recycling facilities and that’s what I think all those anti plastic campaigners should be focussing their energy on. These punnets are already made using up to 70% recycled plastic. They are re-usable, but this isn’t allowed by Trading Standards Agency, which is the most ridiculous rule ever. Compostable plastics are still in their infancy and currently don’t offer a viable, low carbon alternative.

Sarah Pugh: So if the government was really interested in reducing emissions and plastic it could build subsidised paper recycling industrial infrastructure in areas where jobs are needed? Maybe that’s what we should be campaigning for, instead of bans on straws?

Petra Weinmann: I’m sure many options have been explored and have shortcomings. It’s hard to get around the usefulness of single use plastic. Perhaps, as Judith and Iain have suggested, there are certain applications that should continue, once all factors have been weighed up. Efforts to improve reuse and recycling infrastructure seems essential. Exporting materials for recycling does seem to be a sensible policy…

Judith Thornton: Um. Glad that the discussion is becoming more nuanced! People who are actually involved in growing and the supply chain are much more realistic about this ,than the consumer who thinks they know better. But obviously the consumer still demands the right to buy green beans from Kenya and asparagus from Peru, they just want it without the plastic.
Andy Williams Not all oil is fossil fuel. We can manufacture plastics that are entirely renewable. Of course, they’ll still take huge amounts of energy to produce, and growing the oil crops will use large amounts of land that could be producing food for humans, as well as probably being plough-based agricultural models that contribute massively to climate change. The whole ‘plastics = evil’ argument is hugely overly simplistic. Plastics are an incredible technology. I have plastic toys from my childhood that my great grandchildren might, just about, be able to wear out if they treat them badly enough. I regularly buy vintage tupper ware from charity shops because the stuff made in the 50s and 60s is generally still in prefect condition. Plastics are awesome. What isn’t awesome is the planned obsolescence of plastic products. Modern tupper ware doesn’t last more than a couple of years, for example. Plastics aren’t the problem, it’s the economic model of perpetual growth we’re forced to live under that is behind most pollution. We’re forced to buy goods repeatedly that could be designed to last a lifetime, to consume more and more, in the name of GDP. From fridges to plastic punnets, it’s the same. Virtually everything has a far higher ecological footprint than is necessary, because of the industrial supply chain manufacturing and transporting it.

Ann Owen: While we absolutely need to stop ridiculous excessive packaging, we need to be able to differentiate with where its use is beneficial, as in preventing food waste. But I really don’t see why bits of plumbing equipment, themselves often plastic, have to be wrapped in endless layers of plastic packaging. Or why they have to shrink wrap cucumbers.

Sally Owen: Only problem is that there is a limit to the number of times it can be recycled (and that some folk just don’t bother). Also it supports the fracking industry :-( I’d be interested to know if the mycelium packing material that IKEA is looking at has any potential for food protection, as that will work on the compost heap ok.

Laura Davis: Most of the un-recycled plastic waste that is getting into the oceans comes from a generous handful of Sub-Saharan African and Asian countries. In the West we are much more successful at recycling or burning plastics at high temperatures. There’s no room for complacency though, as plastic use in food systems at every stage is ubiquitous. Some plastic use is justified in food systems and other forms of production, but throwaway plastic use needs to be tackled vigorously. Unfortunately the problem in the main offending nations is a complete lack of infrastructure to deal with any kind of waste stream. Ultimately it’s a problem of development – until these countries can afford to a) educate people and b) put in the infrastructure of proper waste disposal and recycling infrastructure, the terrible streams of plastic waste flowing into the oceans will continue unabated.
Ruth Louise: Yes Laura I agree, and I fear that a lot of that waste in those countries is generated either directly or indirectly by us in the west.. Either through us sending our ‘recycling’ abroad, or through demanding cheap goods that are manufactured in these countries, without proper environmental regulations .. We very much need to point the finger back at ourselves, and our rampant consumerism.. It’s just habitual to most of our lifestyles.. We like to keep our doorsteps clean and green, but turn a blind eye to the offloading onto others.. It’s not that we’re evil, so much as ignorantly complicit 🤔 But ignorance is also a bit of a choice too.. 🙄
Laura Davis Ruth Louise suspect the trend for more and more goods packed in plastic to some in the rest of the world is a status symbol of ‘development’ and modernity. As it once was to us. I was in China recently and shrink-wrapped plastic packaged fruit and veg is everywhere in clean and bright new stores. I was also in one of the culprit African countries, and it is truly horrendous. The environment is littered with plastic and the main river estuaries are belching immense amounts of plastic waste into the sea. We have exported plastic as a symbol of ‘development’, and now look at the mess we are in.

Edwina Green: Thank you for sharing and proactively considering the impact of your packaging on your product , your consumers and the environment. We are programmed for right and wrong approaches, the reality is much more complex. That you are making the effort to research and invest time and consider your approach is much appreciated. As consumer we need to support you and keep making demands or change, I hope that demand is sufficient for an entrepreneur to sees
the opportunity to set up production in this country and significantly reduce the miles. Not the full solution but a step in the right direction.
Chris Green: Iain, it’s wonderful that you are taking the time and effort to examine the best way to transport your delicious strawberries and sharing your findings on social media but I feel your ‘tale of two punnets’ doesn’t quite tell the whole story. While you have compared the carbon footprint of production and journey to your farm I don’t think you have adequately examined the end of life journey to reach a definitive conclusion. If the plastic punnet can be reused or recycled then there are clear merits over the paper alternative. However, if it cannot be recycled and gets shipped to Malaysia its end of life journey is significantly further than the Czech Republic. If it is then disposed of in an illegal plastic burning factory the toxic fumes emitted not only have a greenhouse effect but are also carcinogenic even in small quantities. Plastic is a wonderful material that makes the world a better place in so many ways but single use plastic that cannot be recycled makes up roughly 50% (150 million tons) of total global plastic production annually and really should have no place in our society. If we can’t track what happens to the plastic punnet after your delicious strawberries have been eaten then almost any alternative is better. There is, of course, an incredibly simple solution. Stop manufacturing single use plastic. It is absurd in the extreme that we continue to produce the longest lasting substance for the shortest use.
Iain Tolhurst: Chris Green no I haven’t told the whole story, it’s just so huge as to be near impossible to cover without spending months researching and thousands of pages to read, nobody would get read it. I’m a farmer not a researcher or journalist, I’ll happily let somebody qualified take over, I just get to stir the shitbup a bit and get people to engage their brains and consider the big picture.
Andrew Tovey: The solution is for someone to make paper punnets locally. And the route to that is for the government to incentivise it, and penalise the use of single use plastic. If you get locally made paper products from recycled sources then you’re set. I totally get your point about the current situation though
Heloise Balme: It’s true that paper based products often have a bigger carbon footprint so thank you for sharing this info and then dilemma. The bit that still worries me though is the fact so much plastic that is put into recycling is no longer even repurposed but discarded or incinerated…is there’s any way that durable plastic containers could innovativley be trialled on a deposit scheme? We buy so much soft fruit in summer and I’d be be happy to return the empties to the grocer

Gemma Birch: What a fabulous feed and great to see so much research and accountability. You are clearly leading the way – keep up the good work 👏👏👏 although I’m still not completely sure what I should be using 😂😌…

To read all comments, please visit Iain Tolhurst FB page.

3 replies
  1. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Great to be thinking deeply about this. Aspects to also consider is biodegradability. Plastic is with us virtually for ever once made. This may not be true in the future, but it in our current state of technology. So paper would win every time.

  2. Engin SARIKAYA
    Engin SARIKAYA says:

    Interesting topic and absolutely valuable critical thinking and comparison, thanks to the author. Arguments stated in the comparison does not have solid scientific bases.
    Firstly, “paper” has several sub-divided products and production process differences. Compared products are “PET” and “Molded Fiber”. Here are the corrected aspects regarding comparison;

    * transportation based CO2 footprint has lowest impact (something around 2-3%) in LCA analysis of PET and molded fiber
    reference : LCA of molded fibre and PET egg cartons – PÖYRY

    * molded fiber vs PET production process based CO2 resolution is not 6times higher as indicated, something around 0,5 times
    reference : LCA of molded fibre and PET egg cartons – PÖYRY

    as a result; every packaging material has advantages and disadvantages. there is not an optimum solution that covers every aspect. Environmental impact comparison of PET vs Molded Fiber is a topic of sustainability and LCA and arguments should scientifically based. References should better to be published in peer-reviewed articles, not company brochures. material source of cellulose (virgin cellulose or waste paper) should be taken into account. I hereby list further researches about this topic;

    1 – Zabaniotou, A., & Kassidi, E. (2003). Life cycle assessment applied to egg packaging made from polystyrene and recycled paper. Journal of Cleaner Production, 11(5), 549-559.
    2 – Didone, M., Saxena, P., Brilhuis‐Meijer, E., Tosello, G., Bissacco, G., McAloone, T. C., … & Howard, T. J. (2017). Moulded pulp manufacturing: Overview and prospects for the process technology. Packaging Technology and Science, 30(6), 231-249.

  3. Daniel Wimberley
    Daniel Wimberley says:

    This comment is about the part of the carbon footprint which is down to transporting whatever product it is that we are talking about.

    It entirely depends on how decarbonised the transport is. So if the Czech paper punnets are transported by electric train the whole way to Ian’s farm, let’s say, AND if said trains are powered by renewables, be it solar from the Sahara, or wind turbines in the North Sea, then it does not matter that they weigh more than the plastic ones. (It may however matter to Ian that they take up more space, and that depends on how tight he is for space, or how much his space costs him).

    Likewise if the Czech punnets are transported by Electric Goods Vehicles AND those EGV’s are powered by renewable electricity, then the the transport element of the carbon footprint of the punnets will be very low. The problem of space still remains, and also the problems inherent in ANY road transport as opposed to rail – namely nuisances such as noise, visual intrusion, severance, sense of danger (leading to stress), actual danger, and probably one or two more I have failed to mention.

    What I am saying is that the calculations of carbon footprint are themselves always changing as the technologies change, in particular as we decarbonise totally our power supply which must be trhe number one target in any transition away from fossil fuels..

    At present from all the comments it sounds like the best solution is to go for relatively sturdy punnets made of plastic, and make sure they are re-used, and see ghow mmnay bntrios can be got out of them.

    In a box scheme this is perfectly feasible, how about a competition for which customer succeeds in getting “their” punnet to be re-used the most times?

    That might make the daily mail . . .


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