Coles new 'sustainably' packaged item costs twice as much: Here's why

Yahoo tested the Coles claims about a new recyclable offering with surprising results.

Left - the Coles Bondi Junction storefront in Westfield. Right - Fruit packaged in the new paper bags.
A new 'recyclable' mandarin bag has been unveiled by Coles. Source: Yahoo

Australia’s supermarkets are regularly criticised for wrapping fresh fruit and vegetables in soft plastic, so a decision by Coles to trial a new paper alternative mandarin bag has been cautiously welcomed.

Launched this week, the retailer claims the new bags will avoid the use of 11,700 kg of soft plastic, a substance that can no longer be recycled in Australia. The product comes with a hefty price tag that not all consumers will be able to afford during the cost of living crisis — but despite what you may assume it's got nothing to do with the packaging, and everything to do with what's inside.

The bag itself is mostly made of paper and can be placed in your yellow bin, but it’s far from being completely sustainable. It’s not made of recycled material, and the manufacturer hasn’t been able to gain the all important FSC logo – a sign the paper is certified as sustainably sourced.

There’s also a thin layer of plastic coating inside the bag to prevent it from breaking – a common customer complaint about paper shopping bags.

And despite the bags being made of a composite material, the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO), which manages the Australian Recycling Logo (ARL) scheme, told Yahoo they are “both technically recyclable and widely accepted at kerbside”. This means at least 80 per cent of yellow bins can take them.

“There is a thin plastic coating inside the bag, which both helps in strengthening the integrity of the material and acts as a moisture barrier to protect the food; this amount of plastic is within fibre recyclability thresholds hence the Recyclable ARL on pack,” it said.

Related: Coles and Woolworths risk 'losing credibility' over misleading advice on packaging

Vegetables at a Woolworths store that are covered in plastic.
Coles and Woolworths (pictured) are under pressure to reduce their use of plastic. Source: Supplied/Yahoo

The rapidly rising global use of plastic has resulted in fragments invading our food, environment, animals, and even human tissue and breast milk. The supermarkets are under pressure to reduce their use of the substance, as it is suspected of causing health complications in people and wildlife.

Coles is “working towards” making all of its home-brand packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by next year. It's a worthy goal, but achieving it will be a major test for the company, because since the collapse of the in-store REDcycle scheme last year, most Australians have had nowhere to recycle their soft plastics.

The mandarin packaging initiative follows a supermarket trial of paper bags to hold grapes in Victoria and Tasmania.

Related: Woolworths called out for launching PLASTIC sticker in war on waste

Left - close up of the mandarin price. Right - A look at the fruit peeled.
While the sustainability mandarins are expensive, they are delicious. Source: Yahoo
Left - fruit in plastic. Right - the new paper bags.
The new bags will replace soft plastic netting. Source: Yahoo

Sustainability expert Lottie Dalziel welcomed the new Coles bag as a “great step” in making their mandarin packaging more readily recyclable than traditional options. But as the founder of an online eco-product store called Banish that offers consumers tools to reduce their waste, she’s not sure the bags are needed at all.

“The best thing is always to reduce our consumption as much as possible, and opt for loose fruit and vegetables. As consumers we have the power, by voting with our dollar," she said. “By purchasing loose mandarins over those ones packaged in anything, we're showing that we want less packaging.”

The fruit inside the paper bags is actually excellent. That's because there's a hierarchy of citrus fruit quality sold in supermarkets and these ones are the absolute best.

So if you’re wanting to purchase these special mandarins, you should expect to pay a premium and this has little to do with the packaging and everything to do with the fruit that's inside — loose imperial mandarins retail in Sydney for $3.50 kg and the ones in the paper bag are $6.88 kg.

Coles says the paper bags contain a “carefully curated” selection of fruit with “enhanced growing processes and farming conditions” and it's probably worth paying the extra cash if you can afford it.

The “I’m Perfect” range, which contains imperfect fruit, retails for 4.50kg and were dry and inedible, the loose imperial mandarins were quite good, but those in the bag were as advertised, the sweetest and juiciest.

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