The only way is ethics: sustainable packaging

Categories: Behind the stalls

Nick Stokes of Gourmet Goat on their ongoing mission to tackle waste packaging

At first, it seemed easy. Recycle your foil. Carry a water bottle. Use your leftovers. Yet as the pressure mounted upon us all to ‘green up our lives’, both as individuals and businesses, the grey areas of uncertainty and complication crept in. Was clingfilm really so bad, if it helped you reduce your food waste? How recyclable is recyclable packaging? Is local always more sustainable? We knew the principles of environmentalism, of course—plastic is choking the oceans; greenhouse gases are choking the atmosphere—but the practice seemed increasingly baffling.

Which is why it comes as something of a relief to hear Nick Stokes open up honestly about Gourmet Goat’s sustainability programme—as yet, one of the most comprehensive in the Market. “The hierarchy is reduce, reuse, recycle. But we don’t have much option when it comes to single-use packaging.” Of course, Gourmet Goat are already high in the sustainability stakes having put waste products at the heart of their business: surplus veg, kid goat and dairy calves which would all be discarded were it not for the likes of Nick and his partner Nadia. Yet packaging, particularly the packaging of the takeaway boxes their customers buy their lunch in, remains a challenge for them and other traders mindful of plastic in our seas.

“Where we reduce packaging is in our supply chain, by buying in bulk,” says Nick, “so 25 kilo bags of wheat, rather than two kilos.” One of their meat suppliers uses a form of packaging which is reusable: “there’s a cardboard outer, which we can recycle, and a foil foam inner we can send back to them.” As for plastic water bottles, “the Market has got rid of that with the introduction of their public water fountains. We refill bottles and sell recyclable glass bottles of juice.”

Composting facilities
Their halloumi supplier reuses his packaging, they recycle wherever possible, and design their salads to keep for three days without any deterioration of quality, to reduce food waste still further. The issue of takeaway packaging is more complicated—not through want of effort on their part, but because “the most sustainable form of packaging we could find is compostable, and the UK is just not equipped when it comes to composting facilities.”

Of all the compostable, plant starch-based containers and cutlery sold in the UK, only around 10 per cent will be composted. The rest will be sent to incinerators or landfill. “You could throw it on your compost heap, but it would take well over a year to disintegrate,” Nick explains. “To compost it properly, you need proper facilities.” These composting plants are on their way, we’re told—and when they arrive, Gourmet Goat will be ready. In the meantime, however, the compostable packaging they currently use remains the best option. “It burns cleanly in an incinerator, without toxic emissions like there is in plastic, and in landfill it will break down easily.”

Of course, some people might ask why Gourmet Goat doesn’t serve in re-suable containers that can be returned after a customer has finished eating. “It’s a possibility, but the amount of time and space which would be required to clean and dry them properly would be challenging at this stage,” Nick tells us. “You’re welcome to bring a Tupperware box, and we will fill it up for you”—a practice you’ll find being increasingly adopted by the Market’s lunchtime customers—“but it is your responsibility.”

Chipping away
In short, as with any seemingly simple sustainability solution, there are complications and legal hiccups. But Nick remains positive. “It’s never straightforward, but we keep chipping away and keep reinventing.” Come summer, they’ll resume using cheese made with whey (a waste product of cheesemaking), while their adventures in pickling (“any veg which is second rate we pickle before it goes bad”) continue apace. Over in Enfield, near where Nick and Nadia live, a composting plant is being built. “It’s supposed to take three years,” says Nick, “so it will be interesting to watch develop.”

In the meantime, they will continue to meet the challenge of sustainable food production much as a billy goat might: head on.