After a successful Plastic Free July campaign, more consumers are wisening up to the effects that plastic packaging is having on the environment. These consumers are adjusting to the ban on plastic bags in supermarkets in time for next year’s country-wide ban on single use plastic bags, and next in their sights is plastic containers at food retail outlets.
There are a number of businesses that already cater to the plastic free packaging model. Customers are used to the bring-your-own (BYO) coffee cup system when purchasing their morning coffees, and bulk bin stores like GoodFor encourage them to bring your own jars and containers to purchase kitchen and laundry staples. Ecostore has a network of refill stations across the country where customers can reuse containers to purchase liquid products such as laundry and dishwashing liquids. Even St Pierres customers can purchase sushi with their own containers.
Plastic-free alternatives are slowly becoming the new norm. If this is the case, then why are supermarket delis and other food retailers pushing back on the BYO container system that waste-free advocates are campaigning for?
Touted as a health and safety issue, some say that the decision not to accept BYO containers at supermarket delis is instead a business decision.
So, what are the risks that businesses could face if they accept BYO containers for takeaway food? The Food Act 2014 says that retailers have an obligation to sell food that is safe and suitable. Food is deemed unsuitable if packaging is damaged or contaminated to the extent that it affects the food’s reasonably intended use. If retailers transfer food they have purchased into a new container for sale to consumers, they are unable to exercise a legislative defence if charged with particular offences under the act.
While these rules are helpful, The Food Act is still silent on the matter of BYO containers, and MPI leaves it up to individual businesses to make a decision on implementing BYO systems. Naturally, food retailers are wary of the risks that can occur with cross-contamination, and do not want to be liable. They should therefore seek advice before implementing a BYO container plan to ensure that all boxes are ticked.
Interestingly, customers themselves are major culprits of contributing to food safety hazards, for example by using non BPA-free containersfor food containers. They can also be unwitting contaminators when heating food at home – they are not bound by the strict food safety regulations that retailers must adhere to.
When implementing a BYO plan, food retailers should make it clear to customers that the customers are responsible for their container hygiene and quality of the containers, including bringing leak-proof lids. Retailers should also refuse containers that are impractical or appear unfit for their purpose. They won’t want to spend time washing a customer’s container if it appears unsuitable. New World Howick recently carried out a trial for BYO containers for meat, where customers were responsible for the suitability of their containers.
It is also possible that retailers could adopt the concept of a ‘boomerang’ container system. Here, the containers could be used and returned by customers in exchange for a new container the next time they purchase an item. If retailers are concerned about containers going missing, customers could potentially pay a one-off bond or fee. The boomerang containers would need to be made of material such as glass to ensure that the customer could not wreck them at home, making the container unable to meet basic food safety standards.
Ultimately, if businesses don’t research, seek advice and come up with sensible BYO container options, they will face the wrath of angry customer feedback and look like they don’t care about the environment. Hopefully, MPI and New Zealand Food Safety will recognise this shift and issue robust guidelines in due course.
Disclaimer: This article does not constitute legal advice, only information. If you are seeking legal advice, please consult a legal professional.