Packaging Update: A Plastic Lament

Long before your kale, eggs or chicken breast makes it to your front door, someone at Elmwood Stock Farm was plotting its course. From seed or egg to the packaging in which it leaves the farm, each detail has been considered, often multiple times by multiple people

At this point, you know Elmwood Stock Farm stands for sustainable, regenerative agriculture. Putting that to work in the fields is simple but not easy, as Mac likes to say. Putting that to work in other areas of operation is less easy and less simple. Packaging is one complicated area.

“Post-harvest shelf life and product quality are related to how it is, 1, handled after harvest, 2, packaged, and 3, stored. We can control No. 1 and No. 2. We cannot control No. 3 after the food has left the farm. When we don’t bag greens, we hear right away that they don’t last as long. When we used a different type of packaging for microgreens and shoots, we heard right away that they went bad much faster,” says Ann Stone, Elmwood Stock Farm co-owner.

We hear your feedback about wanting less plastic and more reusable/recyclable/compostable options, and we take that seriously. We have a special disdain for single-use plastic, too, and after 27 years of providing fresh, wholesome food directly to our community, we are doing our best while following national food-safety rules and our food-quality standards.

Food Safety

Elmwood Stock Farm holds US Department of Agriculture Good Agricultural Practices food-safety certification, which tells you your food is handled using the best food-safety practices and that our processes are documented.

“Under GAP, products have to go into new or properly sanitized containers. We cannot reuse packaging that cannot be sanitized,” says Ann. “And under USDA Organic rules, products cannot go into a container that possibly housed conventional, pesticide-laden products.”

Plastic Alternatives

Here’s a rundown of other packaging options we’ve tried:

In the past, we delivered CSA shares in waxed cardboard boxes. They were expensive back then, and now their cost has increased dramatically. While CSA shareholders pledged to return these boxes to us, many (75%, to be exact) did not return them, making the cost of these boxes to us and to shareholders too much to bear. For example, a 1/2 bushel waxed cardboard box (this is the smallest size) costs $2.20. Multiply this by a 21-week CSA season, and we’ve spent $46.20 on one shareholder’s box alone. Some boxes that were returned to us were in bad shape—damaged and dirty—and weren’t reusable. The staff time spent tracking which customers were and were not returning boxes was also unsustainable. And waxed cardboard boxes are not recyclable in our area, so they also end up in the landfill.

Speaking of non-recyclable options, “compostable plastic bags only work in industrial composting systems. In addition, these plastic bags pull moisture out of the item inside, causing the vegetables to decay faster,” Ann explains.

Plastic bags made from corn or soy seem to hold up OK, but these are made from genetically modified corn and soy, which is something this farm can’t support.

“Paper bags were used with varying degrees of success, though moisture makes them less strong,” Ann said. Farm customers are understandably unhappy when their bag splits open, spilling organic veggies all over the farmers market.

The bring-your-own-bag approach always worked at farmers markets and for on-farm pickup—or did, before COVID-19 changed our procedures—but BYOB isn’t possible with most of our CSA pickup locations.

Where We’ve Succeeded

There are areas where we’ve reduced our plastic use.

Tomatoes and berries are packaged in cardboard pint and quart containers. We use paper bags for peas, okra and Brussels sprouts. We transitioned our dried herbs to glass packaging. All of our egg cartons are cardboard-like paper pulp, not styrofoam or plastic.

“For meats, we are moving away from styrofoam to a custom-made reusable, insulated liner,” says Ann. “Now it’s up to the customer to return the liner to us for it to be a sustainable process.”

COVID Challenges

It really is true that the challenges of COVID-19 have touched every area of our lives, even availability and handling of packaging.

“Most packaging resources tightened up, including those for bags, making bags of all kinds harder to purchase in bulk. Just one manufacturer is making microgreens clamshells now. Glass jars and jar lids are in short supply. Even egg cartons are in short supply,” Ann says.

For local meat delivery, we used to be able to reuse the insulated container, but now we can’t take those back, either.

Your Options

“I reuse or recycle all my Elmwood Stock Farm bags. The CSA bags are very thick, so they can be used over and over again or for something more heavy-duty, like a trash can liner,” says Betsy, who handles many of your customer service needs. “All of our bags, including the ones for greens, can be recycled at numerous locations: Kroger, Walmart, Lowes, Meijer, and Target.” 

“If you have a creative mind, there are other ways to reuse plastic bags. I recently gave my stash to a friend who wove them into an outdoor yoga mat,” Betsy continues.

In a few weeks, we’ll post more about how to recycle and reuse your packaging.

What’s Next

“All groceries, retail stores, etc. in the world have this same issue,” Ann says. “If the customer demands better packaging, then the manufacturers will address it.”

Options we’re looking at right now include water-resistant paper bags, which are available in Europe but apparently not the US, and washable cloth bags for on-farm and home-delivery CSA shareholders. (Here, too, is the quandary of how to have these returned from shareholders. Only a handful of our CSA Farm Share pickup locations can store packaging from week to week, so how do CSA shareholders return their boxes or bags to us?)

“Ideally, Elmwood Stock Farm’s actions toward more environmentally sound packaging would be part of a larger change. Maybe if there was more demand for non-plastic packaging, then it would be cheaper for us to order. If Kentucky invested in an accessible and modern industrial-composting facility, we would be able to use other types of containers. There seem to be few affordable alternatives out there,” Betsy says.

Maybe you know of an alternative or a systems approach that we haven’t considered. While we always like to hear your feedback, we’d also like your grace. Plastic is not ideal, yet it’s the best we have to safely, efficiently and cost-effectively package vegetables for you.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email