Updated December 2020

We’ve long encouraged comments from our customers and discussion with them, and indeed our openness and willingness to listen continues to shape our business and how we operate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the level of media attention, a subject that keeps coming up from our customers is around all-things packaging – though in particular the use of plastic. We’ve previously published our position on plastic packaging, but as we come to the end of 2020 we thought it would be useful to update on where we are – and not least as we’ve made progress on reducing the need for plastic.

Current necessity for plastic packaging for food products

Certainly for our food products and in particular seed, plastic packaging is currently essential. As the main examples of current use, the sacks we use to send out seeds and seed mixes in are a type of plastic called polypropylene. The key reasons for this choice is a) it has great strength and won’t tear in transit (as could, for example, a coated paper sack), and b) the material is excellent at preventing moisture penetration – which is essential to stop seed and seed mixes from becoming contaminated. In addition, the properties of polypropylene make it ideal for not being effected by oil – which is also essential given the nature of products such as sunflower hearts.

Recycling of polypropylene

The recycling code for polypropylene is PP5, and there are an increasing number of local authorities around the country which will take the material for recycling. So if you’re not sure if this applies to where you live, then contact your regional council. In some areas, we’re aware that local authorities won’t take polypropylene as part of their recycling schemes, but will be able to put you in touch with private companies that will.

No current viable alternatives available to plastic sacks for seed

If we only operated from our farm shop, then a possible alternative would be a coated paper sack because the only handling would be into a customer’s car and then the unloading of it when they got home. But of course, the vast majority of the products we supply are delivered by courier to our customers’ homes, and in this respect the packaging has to withstand the rigours of transport, multiple handling and the weather. So on a practical level alone, single large sacks of seed can therefore only currently be safely delivered using a polypropylene sack.

What’s more though, the coating on paper sacks – or ‘multiwall bags’ as they’re often referred to in the trade – mean they’re typically not recyclable anyway. So in this respect, the polypropylene sack is no worse than the paper sack – and some would argue that the polypropylene sack is actually better in an environmental sense because it can be recycled.

A specific question we’re also sometimes asked is why we don’t use a coated paper sack (and putting aside the recycling issue) and then put this in a cardboard box for added protection. There are two reasons for this: Firstly, such an approach more than doubles the amount of packaging – which clearly isn’t a good thing, even though the box could be recycled. Secondly, the cardboard box still wouldn’t be weatherproof or necessarily strong enough to withstand the rigours of transport, given, say, a 25kg sack of feed inside it.

A shift to paper sacks for multiple items

During 2020, we’ve been trialling strong paper sacks as an alternative to the woven polypropylene sacks we’ve historically used as a single outer container for multiple items – e.g. smaller bags of seed and feeders etc. The previous issue had always been that we needed the strength of the woven polypropylene sack to withstand the multiple handling from when the transport company picks up from us, through to being unloaded at depots around the country, reloaded onto smaller vehicles, then finally delivered to you, our customers. In the past we hadn’t been able to source a paper-based sack which was strong enough, but on-going advancements in packaging technology has now made this possible. So we will continue to roll-out a switch to paper-based sacks for this type of delivery during 2021. For clarity, the strong paper sack doesn’t have to 100% weather-proof because the packaging of the seed products inside (e.g. a 3kg bag of sunflower hearts) will still be in a polypropylene bag.

What the future holds for packaging

Our expertise is of course in farming, how to do so in an environmentally and wildlife-friendly way, producing high quality bird food, plus the study of birds and in particular with the aim of reversing the decline in farmland and garden bird numbers. We’re certainly not experts in packaging and how the industry will develop new products in the future, so we’re very reliant on working with specialists who are. As a result of this on-going dialogue, we expect to see new products coming onto the market which will include, for example, polymer substitutes manufactured from fermented plant starch such as potatoes or corn. This example raises another relevant issue though, and this around whether it will make economic or environmental sense to switch farmland for such use, rather than for producing cereals and vegetables for food – in particular if the trend for more plant-based diets continues.

In summary then:

  • As things currently stand, we don’t believe there is any viable alternative to us using polypropylene for food products including seed
  • Polypropylene is recyclable and is classified as ‘PP5’, with an increasing number of local authorities around the country which will take the material
  • We’ve been able to progressively switch to a paper-based sack to hold smaller multiple items, with the roll-out of this change continuing in 2021
  • We very much hope, and indeed expect, other materials will come onto the market in the future which will be more environmentally acceptable, and we will continue to seek advice from relevant experts to inform our decision making

And of course, if any of our customers have specialist knowledge about future alternatives to the types of plastic we currently use, then we’d love to hear from you.