The Plastic Problem: Our Commonsense Packaging Journey

June 1, 2019 at 5:16 PM

packaging waste-free

Updated 17th September 2020

Our ultimate aim at Commonsense is to keep all our packaging out of the landfill and to ensure it is part of a circular economy by being reused, home composted or genuinely recycled.  This includes packaging of products that we sell to customers and packaging that we generate in the course of running our business. 

Packaging is a difficult issue for any ethical retailer, and at Commonsense we’re committed to using best practice – that means working out what is best practice in a constantly changing environment!  However, it’s such a hot topic we want to share where we're up to and update you as we find ways to innovate.

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Our packaging choices

Last time we updated this blog we were moving towards the use of home compostable packaging. We are delighted to share that our packing room now uses only certified home compostable packaging for the products we package ourselves. Our Commonsense Pantry products are packaged in cellulose or plant based plastic, both of which which will break down in a home compost. Our labels are made from removable sticker stock for easy removal prior to composting.   

For our Commonsense Kitchen take away foods we have moved from biodegradable containers to home compostable sugarcane packaging with No 1 plastic lids.  No 1 plastics are the best of the straight plastics – they are collected in the home recycling schemes and they are recycled locally in Petone.  They just need to be well cleaned and the labels removed.

Our next step is to explore preprinting some of our labels or finding a compostable label and compostable sellotape, so that there is no need to remove anything – instead the whole packaging can go straight to the compost heap.

 Our soup cups are commercially compostable. Unfortunately Wellington City Council decided last year that they will no longer accept commercially compostable packaging, so it all goes to landfill.  We find this very disappointing.  But we are  delighted to be working with the Compostable Packaging Stewardship Scheme in our Mt Eden store.  This is a pilot project to collect and process certified compostable packaging. 


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Reducing Waste

Our goal is for you to be able to shop with us without creating waste that can’t be composted at home.  We’re not there yet but here’s what we’re doing at the moment: 

We have a large food refill section and we are always looking for ways to increase our variety in this area.  You can bring in your own containers, buy some Onya bags or Rethink bags or use our paper bags. We also provide refills for personal care and homecare products.  To make easy use of the refill section we have now put dedicated workspaces - our Refill Stations - in all our stores. Our latest initiative is to provide a refill section for frozen fruit and vegetables. This is gradually being implemented in all our stores.

We supply alternatives to assist with the reduction of single use plastic such as stainless-steel drink bottles, straws and meal containers, reusable food wraps, wooden brushes for dishes, bamboo toothbrushes and silk dental floss. We also sell cotton masks as Covid-19 has now produced a flush of new plastic waste in the form of disposable masks.

We are working with all our suppliers to send us goods packed with compostable packing fill instead of polystyrene and we challenge any supplier sending us over-packaged goods - it is one of the reasons we may decide not to stock a product. 

However, many of them like Bostocks, Kokako and Trade Aid are already using home compostable packaging and have been showing us the way.  Most of our other suppliers are trying to do the right thing but there is such confusion that some are using packaging that claims to be part of the solution but is actually adding to the problem. We will be working to support suppliers to change to home compostable options.

All our stores separate waste into compost, recyclable waste and landfill waste. We have reduced our landfill waste from 7271kg in 2016 to 5694kg in 2020.

Re-using packaging

We provide recycled boxes for your shopping and also sell a variety of reusable shopping bags including our own organic, fair trade cotton one.  

We offer free pallets to customers – great for standing gardens and other things.   

All our vegetable scraps are re-used as organic compost – they go to Kaicycle, an organic egg farmer, a few hungry pigs and John the Chicken Man.

Recycling packaging

The major problem with recycling is that you just about need a degree to work out what you can and can’t recycle.  But here goes! 

Plastic is creating the worst waste problems.  Theoretically plastics that can be recycled are given a number.  But it’s hard to find out which numbers you can put in your kerbside recycling - councils often don’t tell you which plastics they accept by numbers – they just have descriptions and pictures.  In general Numbers 1 -2 will be recycled in New Zealand, but numbers 3 – 7 will end up in landfill, as there is no market for them particularly now that China will no longer take them.  So our ideal would be if all our products were packaged in home compostable packaging or Number 1 – 2 plastics.  

Degradable, Biodegradable and Compostable Plastics

Degradable plastic – most of us have had the experience of storing something in a plastic bag and when we haul it out of storage it suddenly disintegrates – this is degradable or oxo-degradable plastic and it is the plastic that most needs avoiding.  It is made by adding chemicals to the plastic to make it break down into tiny shards over time, but it doesn’t disappear – it just gets smaller.  Its only advantage is that it doesn’t strangle or suffocate marine life– but instead the fish eat it and we eat the fish and... well, you get the picture.  It’s also present in the air we breathe and the soil we grow our crops in. This is not a good solution but is commonly misrepresented as an environmental option. 

Biodegradable plastics - refers to materials that break down over time through the use of bacteria and fungi.  They may be made of plant material or they may be petroleum-based with biodegradable additives and there is currently no requirement to measure their toxicity levels.  There is also no requirement to measure the length of time it takes them to break down.  

This is really important because some people argue that it is better to send biodegradable plastics to the landfill because they break down.  But landfill waste is often anaerobic which means these products are unlikely to break down.  If and when they do break down in these circumstances, they release methane which has a global warming potential 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide.    Some of the methane is captured, but we have formed the view it is better to avoid biodegradable packaging. 

Compostable plastics are biodegradable, but it also means something more: they will degrade within a specified amount of time, under certain conditions.  They are made from plant materials, not petrochemicals and they return to the earth forming part of nature’s carbon cycle. 

There are 2 types of composting – commercial composting and home composting.  Commercial composting uses a hot composting process and the temperature can be controlled to ensure proper break-down of the materials.  Most of the ‘eco’ or ‘bio’ packaging is only compostable in a commercial facility, but not in most home compost heaps which work by cold composting.  

Because home compostable plastic is quite new we are still figuring out the best way to break down the packaging in the compost heap.  There is a danger that our gardens suddenly look as if someone is dropping litter through them – with bits of sellotape, half-decomposed cellulose and a few labels that we forgot to remove!  One solution is to just remove these as you garden, which will give you an incentive to remember to remove them before you put them in the compost! Bostocks recommend adding soil to help keep the balance in your compost heap right.  

A global response 

The biggest issue that we’re up against is that plastic – the most environmentally harmful substance – is often the cheapest and easiest option for manufacturers.  This is because plastic manufacturers do not have to take responsibility for the disposal of the products they make.  This problem is becoming more urgent as oil companies diversify from petrol into petroleum-derived products like plastic.  Their $180 billion investment in the plastics industry is estimated to lead to a 40% increase in plastic in the next decade

It is imperative that the plastics industry is required to take responsibility for the waste it generates globally; this will mean that the price of plastics will rise to take account of the clean up process.  

We can do our bit but what is desperately needed in this area involves leadership on the responsible treatment of our waste on a national and global scale. 

We commend the government for introducing a product stewardship scheme.  This will mean regulations are used to put more responsibility for a product’s life-cycle and waste management on manufacturers, importers, retailers and users, rather than on communities, councils, neighbourhoods and nature. Plastic packaging is one of the product areas which is a great start.

Really, it's just Commonsense.


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