We’ve always been known for our selection of loose fruit & veg and minimally packaged dry goods. We also offer an ever-increasing range of ‘unpacked’ goods, and various re-usable packaging options.
It’s been amazing to see such a rapid move away from single use packaging in the last couple of years, and it’s challenged us to keep thinking creatively about where we might be able to go next to keep reducing packaging use throughout the business.
We’re gradually extending the number of products we offer ‘unpacked’ from our bulk dispensers (more info on how this works here). This means you can bring your own containers, cutting out packaging altogether. The range is about 10% cheaper than the standard kilo price for the same goods when they come in bags. The gradual roll-out is allowing us to monitor the level of customer uptake and the implications of this system for staff labour, costs, space, time and shop floor congestion…bear with us!
There are lots of other ways to avoid packaging when you’re shopping with us…
Like many of you, we wish there was a solution for doing away with all disposable packaging! But for the items where packaging is (for now at least), unavoidable, read on for what choices we’ve made. It’s an environmental conundrum; there’s certainly no ‘good’ option. We are also constrained by the recycling collection systems in this area and by the packaging available on the market. But we’ve done a lot of homework and the choices we’ve made, if not perfect, are certainly thought-through.
See our 2018 newsletter article for a thorough look at the issues, and here’s some context to the choices we’ve made…
Public consciousness has been captured by the very real problems presented by plastic pollution, particularly in the marine environment. It’s no wonder single-use plastic packaging has become a huge focus; a pressing symbol of the impact of our throwaway society. So why do we use any at Unicorn? The simple answer is that it is leakproof and robust, it conserves fresh leafy greens better than paper and it helps prevent unnecessary food waste (also a huge environmental problem), and over the years our research has always shown (perhaps surprisingly) that plastic has a smaller climate impact in terms of the energy and water needed to produce and transport it than paper or card. Our aim is certainly use as little as we possibly can, but not necessarily to jump into replacing it with something that may be equally environmentally-unsound.
Eco Disposables (biodegradable/compostable)
“Made from plants not plastic” or “100% compostable” sounds good, but the vast majority of it (currently) can’t be composted because the infrastructure doesn’t exist. So it ends up in landfill anyway (and doesn’t degrade because the conditions are wrong), and if it makes its way into the oceans it’s just as polluting as other plastics! There’s also the issue of land use and soil erosion exacerbated by the diversion of land from food growing to produce materials for throwaway packaging, and the issue of water use to irrigate crops grown for packaging.
Eco-disposables also often require higher amounts of energy to produce, and as Riverford Organics founder Guy Singh-Watson pointed out recently, “anthropogenic climate change is unquestionably the biggest environmental threat our planet faces. Reducing plastic use does nothing to address climate change; in some instances, it can make it worse. We need pragmatic policies that balance all environmental impacts.”
So, what do we use?
It’s not easy to balance the various environmental impacts of different kinds of packaging; taking into account end-of-life impact, energy used in production, land use, pollution from manufacture, etc. After exhaustive research into the life-cycles of different materials, we have a good idea of the pros & cons of various types, but we haven’t found any perfect solutions. Note, this is a fast-changing area so our choices will change as we learn more and new alternatives emerge, but where we can, we are likely to be encouraging no-use and re-use above all else.
On the tills
- Reused carrier bags. Happily though, people are using fewer new bags these days, so the supply has dwindled.
- Reused cardboard boxes & wooden crates generated from unpacking our deliveries.
- Cotton & jute bags from Jutexpo.
- We no longer offer any new plastic carrier bags. However you can borrow a cloth bag off us using our ‘bag deposit scheme’!
- Most produce is sold loose – you can use a paper bag or one of our re-usable cloth bags if you prefer, but we’re happy to receive it loose at the tills. We aim for paper bags with as high recycled-content as we can get hold of but recent industry moves away from plastic towards paper has put pressure on supply and we sometimes struggle to source these.
- Some veg (usually leafy greens) are bagged in plastic to conserve their freshness. These bags can be recycled at most large supermarket chains. Read more on storing your fruit & veg to keep it super fresh.
On the deli
We can pack your deli purchases into any container you provide (thereby avoiding the charge for tubs and cups), as long as they are clean, dry and fit-for-purpose! And here’s what we provide at the counter if you aren’t able to bring your own…
- Sturdy plastic tubs. Not recyclable in Manchester but we’re prioritising re-use, based on the age-old waste hierarchy of ‘reduce, re-use, recycle’. The re-use rate is over 40% at the time of writing (summer 2019), and we’re doing everything we can to increase this, including having made the pots a purchase in their own right (18p per pot).
- Paper bags (with as high a recycled-content as we can source), same as you find in the veg section.
- Paper bags with plastic film for more oily snacks (the brown film-fronted ones are made with home-compostable cellulose film, but we can’t always get hold of these).
- Paper soup cups with plastic lining and lids (sadly non-recyclable), or re-useable soup cups ‘on deposit’.
- Card cake boxes with thin plastic lining.
For our packed goods
- We are gradually rolling out our ‘Unpacked‘ range, so you can bring your own containers and cut out the packaging altogether.
- For bagged products, for now we use “biodegradable” polythene bags. We have used these for many years, on the understanding that they were better than regular plastic. Now we are much less sure. They cannot be recycled, there are no local facilities for them to be industrially composted and the evidence seems to suggest that the micro-plastic particles that these break down into are just as harmful as conventional plastics. So, we are likely to be moving to conventional plastic which can at least be recycled (and we hope to provide a collection facility for this).
What should you do with your waste packaging?
- Several of our skincare suppliers offer money back if you return the containers – just hand them in at the till. Currently applies to Fit Pit deodorant tubs, Heavenly Organics jars and Little Green Cream skincare jars & bottles.
- Reuse deli tubs, veg bags, and packed goods bags as much as you can. Each re-use considerably reduces its environmental impact!
- Paper bags (if clean) can go into the paper recycling.
- Brown film-fronted bags from the deli can go into home compost. The white ones go in the bin.
- Soup cups, cake boxes (due to lining) & spent plastic tubs go in the bin, sadly.
- For now, the plastic bags should be re-used for sandwiches etc. then go in the bin.
And remember, you can fill up your water bottles at any time of day or night from our (tap) water refill station in the front garden!
If you want to learn more, the government campaign Recycle Now is an up-to-date source for information about recycling and waste, including recycling symbols and the location of nearby disposal points. For national waste management strategies, see relevant policy documents for England, Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland .