New front on the war on plastic opens as sustainable packaging trials launch.

'Plastic' packaging able to decompose in the back garden may soon be common in New Zealand stores.

Supermarket operator Foodstuffs is testing a range of compostable bags, films and containers in selected stores – all with the aim of reducing the amount of plastic used in fruit and vegetable packaging.

The company, which runs New World, Pak'nSave and Four Square stores, is undertaking the trials hard on the heels of the government ban on single use plastic bags (SUPs) which took effect from July 1.

They also come following a Government decision earlier this month to provide $3 million in funding to Australian-based Pact Group to develop New Zealand's first 100 per cent recycled plastic food packaging plant.

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Among items being trialled by Foodstuffs are fibre-based netting (for onions and citrus fruit bags), sustainable punnets for grapes, plant-based cellulose bags for salads and sustainable fibre packaging for smaller fruit such as avocados.

Compostable netting. Photo / Supplied.
Compostable netting. Photo / Supplied.

Brigit Corson, Foodstuffs Produce and Meat merchandise manager says all of these will easily break down in a home garden or compost, landfill and worm farm – some items as quickly as three months.

Although it is awaiting the outcome of the trials before deciding when, or if, they will be introduced permanently Corson says the moves are part of the next steps in the company's "mission around sustainability".

"Our packaging suppliers are scouring the world for suitable options and we are leaving no stone unturned to find solutions," she says.

The trials come not only as all New Zealand retailers have been banned from using SUPs (most supermarkets stopped using them last year) but as similar initiatives overseas continue to put the spotlight on reducing the amount of plastic going to landfill or leaching to waterways and, ultimately, the world's oceans.

In the United States, the Department of Agriculture is working on packaging made from milk proteins which, in theory, are edible.

A World Economic Forum report has revealed a Bali-based company, Avani Eco, has developed a 'plastic' bag made out of cassava, a vegetable root. Fully compostable, the company says it dissolves in water and will cause no harm to animals who might eat it – and is so safe even humans could swallow it.

In Amsterdam in the Netherlands, organic supermarket chain Ekoplaza opened the world's first plastic-free aisle earlier this year while in Britain the Tesco chain began a month-long trial to remove plastic packaging from its fruit and vegetable aisles in stores in Watford and Swindon.

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Foodstuffs head of sustainability, Mike Sammons, says the produce department trials are among a number of "bold" initiatives the company is taking towards achieving its goal of having 100 per cent of its retail and private label packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

The company is awaiting delivery of the netting bags from Europe and expects to begin trialling them in late August or early September.

Corson says the cellulose salad bags can also be composted and will be trialled in selected stores in the lower North Island while the small-fruit packaging - able to be composted or recycled - will be tested in all stores from the end of this month.

She says compostable and recyclable pulp grape containers will be packed with Californian grapes at source in the US, transported here and examined to see how the fruit stands up to the journey before a decision is made on their use.

Sammons says all the initiatives are the end result of extensive research and product development – and most are customer driven.

"They've told us they want their local supermarket to be more focused on sustainability and we're happy to look at ways of achieving that," he says. "Everything we're doing adds up to reducing packaging waste and is totally where we should all be heading."

Foodstuffs has previously banned microbead products, plastic stemmed cotton buds and plastic tampon applicators.

It has also introduced a system where customers can bring their own BYO containers for use at the butchery, bakery, seafood and delicatessen counters at all North Island stores and an Ecostore product refillery concept at New World Durham St in Christchurch.

Foodstuffs has also expanded its 'Food in the Nude' programme - in which no plastic wrapping is used for produce - rolling it out to 15 New World stores in the South Island.

The company is also investigating the use of different packaging for wrapping pallets and is encouraging a greater use of paper and card where appropriate as an alternative to plastic.

Sammons says the company is also talking packaging options with many of its suppliers and is actively trying to encourage them down the same sustainability route.

Foodstuffs is a signatory of the New Zealand Plastic Packaging Declaration through which it has pledged to achieve its 2025 goal of being 100 per cent reusable, recyclable and compostable with its own brand produce.