Potato Chat February 2020: Plastic-free frontiers

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Plastic-free produce: the next frontier?

Naked produce. No, it’s not a dodgy search term (though I wouldn’t even try Googling it, just in case); it’s the next new thing in supermarket shopping.

Countdown is trialing a plastic-free produce section in three of its stores for the next ten weeks, as a test to see if the supermarket chain can save more plastic and get Kiwis into the habit of shopping for fruit and veges, plastic free.

I met a nervous but excited Kiri Hannifin, Countdown’s GM for Sustainability, in the produce section at Countdown Ponsonby, one of the stores taking part in the ‘Unwrapped’ trial, on the first morning of the experiment.

It’s been a lot of work, she says, to get to this point, but the store is looking good. The produce section looks like an abundant farmers’ market, with colourful fruit and veges in paper bags and boxes or simply piled, ready to be plucked up by shoppers. It’s so appealing to the eye, it takes a while to notice the usual rolls of plastic bags are gone, replaced by signs telling customers about the change, along with bins of re-usable mesh bags for sale.

““Like all Kiwis, we are incredibly passionate about the environment and reducing the amount of plastic and packaging in our produce section is something we, along with our customers, are keen to see”, says Hannifin.

“We’re giving it a go; we’re removing about a ton of plastic over the next ten weeks in three stores”.

Hannifin is particularly grateful for the co-operation of growers, like potato supplier Wilcox.

“They have completely changed the way they are going to supply potatoes to us for this trial”, she says.

“They are changing their packing for us. I know the Wilcox business is just as keen to see plastic removed as we are”.

It’ll be a change for shoppers, something that might take a while to get used to. We watch as one bemused man picks beans from several ready-packed boxes, not realising they’re a pre-portioned replacement for the plastic-bagged versions that were there before.

And Hannifin admits there could be a temptation for some shoppers to top up their containers with a few extra tomatoes or strawberries from another punnet.

But most people I watched shopping were unfazed by the change, either putting produce loose into their trolleys or using the mesh bags. “This is great”, said one man. “It looks so good, like it’s made for Instagram!”

If the trial goes well, this could be the way of the future for Countdown.

“We’ve gone to the extreme”, says Hannifin. “In ten weeks we will see where we land. But we’re hoping for a really great outcome for our customers and our country”.

WATCH: Kiri Hannifin talks about the plastic-free trial, what it means for consumers and producers in this video.