Fruit & vege co-op switches to returnable cloth bags

October 2 – New Zealand’s largest community fruit and vegetable co-op is switching from plastic bags to returnable cloth bags, which is expected to save 114,000 single-use plastic bags every year.

Today the Wellington Region Fruit and Vegetable Co-op started rolling out the change at two of its 10 packing hubs in Cannons Creek and Titahi Bay.

The co-op’s regional co-ordinator from Wesley Community Action, Sallie Calvert, says customers are excited at the prospect of the change.

“This is just a first step towards making the co-op more environmentally sustainable. We will also continue to explore options with the other recyclable materials that come from our produce suppliers”.

The co-op distributes 9 tonnes of produce to 1400 households every week and is run as a partnership between Wesley Community Action,  Regional Public Health and the 10 host communities. The co-op began as a community-led pilot at Wesley Community Action’s Cannons Creek site in 2014 to provide access to cheap, fresh produce in an area with no local supermarket.

Regional Public Health is sponsoring four returnable cloth bags for all the co-op’s existing members.  Each week members receive one bag of fruit and one of vegetables for a total cost of $12. Under the new system, they will return two bags each time they pick up new produce.

The co-op has spent many months developing and refining the process to enable the continuous use of the returnable bags.

“We know it can be hard for people to change their behaviour but we also want this initiative  to succeed,”  says Emmeline Haymes of Regional Public Health. “We don’t want a situation where all we’re doing is switching from using lots of plastic bags to using lots of cloth bags.”

She says the environmental benefits of getting rid of plastic bags can only be realised if the returnable bags are used multiple times. “We expect each returnable bag to be used at least 26 times, but we think they will last longer than that.”

A pilot programme at the co-op’s Kāpiti hub has helped the co-op prepare for the rollout. Kāpiti hub co-ordinator Ben Wakefield says it took a few weeks for people to remember to bring back their bags but the return rate is now close to 100%. He says they’ve tried to make the process as easy as possible and introduced a few fun ways of encouraging people to return their bags, such as a “bag amnesty”.

“We told people that that they needed to bring back their  bags or give me or the other co-ordinator a chocolate or a coffee. We had about 20 bags returned.”

Mr Wakefield says since the Kapiti hub made the change it’s gained another 10 members.

“People really want to start using fewer plastic bags, and it’s great that everyone in the co-op has been able to work together to make this happen.”

Find out more about the Wellington Region Fruit and Vege Co-op