April 20, 2024

A pilot scheme to replace cardboard produce boxes with reusable plastic crates has been launched in Victoria, with the aim to cut “invisible” cardboard waste.

The Victoria Unboxed project, led by food charity Sustain with Sustainable Victoria, has supplied 1,000 reusable plastic crates to transport produce from farms to venues, wholesalers and homes across Melbourne. The trial aims to reduce the need for single-use packaging, including cardboard, plastic and paper waste.

Executive director of Sustain, Nick Rose, said the trial has been a success, with some farms transporting all, or nearly all, of their produce in reusable crates.

Rose said packaging waste was an “invisible issue”.

“When people think about waste and food they think about what gets thrown out, food going off in the fridge, thrown into bins thrown into landfill and that’s certainly a major issue,” he said. “But further back in the supply chain, there’s actually a large amount of food packaging waste, which is a big problem.”

Farmers were particularly interested in the trial, he said, because reducing single-use cardboard, wax boxes or polystyrene means they don’t “continually have to purchase packaging”, resulting in cost savings.

Reusable folding crates can be used to deliver produce to restaurants, cafes and consumers, collected and washed by wholesalers. Photograph: Sustain

Jennifer Macklin, a senior researcher at Monash University’s Monash Sustainable Development Institute, said the shift away from single-use plastics has led to more reliance on single-use fibres such as cardboard, bamboo and paper. That’s an improvement, but not a solution.

“Single-use generally is bad,” she said. “We need to move away from this idea that we can have a single-use item and it’s OK because it gets recycled, to realising that it’s not nearly as good as utilising reusable materials.”

Cardboard can have a greater environmental impact than reusable plastic. Photograph: Sustain

Large amounts of water is required to create cardboard, grow trees and produce paper, and that can have a greater environmental impact than reusable plastic, Macklin said. With less structural integrity than plastic, some cardboard and paper materials are not as “fit for purpose” as reusable vessels.

“We have this idea that plastic is bad and cardboard or paper is better because one is synthetic and leads to litter and the other is natural and it’ll break down or get recycled but that’s an oversimplified narrative,” she said. “For reuse to be better, it has to be reused over and over again, and it’s much easier to make that happen with plastic, and in commercial situations.”

Macklin said while reusable containers would result in savings over time, businesses may need support to cover the upfront costs.

Fruit and vegetable wholesalers Natoora have introduced 960 crates into their supply chain through Victoria Unboxed in the past 12 months in an effort to reduce the 14.4 tonnes of cardboard waste generated annually in the business.

Product and communications manager Mark Leahy said the extra crates have made it possible for their growers to transition to reusable packing, both on the farm and in hospitality venues across Melbourne.

Stacked reusable crates, ready for delivery to restaurants across Melbourne. Photograph: Sustain

“One of the great things has been securing a surplus so we can approach growers and say, we would love it if they would start using [reusable] crates, and we can give them some to start with,” he said. “Farms also have enough that they can pack orders, they can also store with them as well.”

Leahy said engaging directly with growers has helped bridge the gap between consumers calling for action and the logistical reality of utilising reusable crates.

“It’s a lot more difficult for a consumer to go talk directly to a grower about using different packaging,” he said. “We can actually do that because we’re buying their products and then we’re selling them to someone – it’s a part of the service that we offer, you know, we deliver in a crate, we make sure that we pick that crate up as well because it’s important to us.”

With state and federal governments holding inquiries into food security across the nation, Nick Rose said he hopes to see more sustainable changes offered for farmers, wholesalers and consumers.

“Food is pretty fundamental, and we kind of take it for granted in Australia,” he said. “People are waking up to the fact that the comfortable assumption [of food security] is quite risky, and we need to be making sure our systems are robust.”

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