We have two major environmental concerns just now: our use of plastic and our sale of peat. Here’s what we’re doing about them.
Plastic is one of the biggest challenges we currently face in our business. Wood briquettes need to be kept dry and so their packaging is almost always plastic. This means our priorities are:
- To find an effective, sustainable alternative to the plastic wrap used on individual packs of briquettes.
- To address the plastic wrap we use to protect the pallets on their journey to your home.
- To ensure that the plastic we do use is responsibly recycled
Individual Product Packaging
The packs of briquettes we sell are all manufactured elsewhere, by the companies that produce the sawdust, and the briquettes arrive already wrapped in plastic. This is usually a shrink-wrap type plastic, which can be difficult to recycle in some areas. Discussions with producers about alternative means of packaging have not be fruitful, with most producers understandably prioritising the quality of the product and being unwilling to package them in a way which might expose them to our high levels of atmospheric humidity.
Working on Alternatives
However, some of our suppliers have taken their environmental responsibility very seriously and have put in a huge amount of time and expense to try and develop a sustainable alternative to plastic packaging.
For the last two years, we’ve worked with one UK supplier to get the product into a cardboard box and at first it worked very well. However, the briquettes quickly start to swell as they are susceptible to the high atmospheric moisture we have in the UK, so they have had to try alternatives. This has included lining the cardboard bags with a thin, recyclable plastic, wrapping the exterior of the boxes in a thin, recyclable plastic (neither of which proved suitable), and using a heavy duty waxed cardboard. Unfortunately, none of these options have worked well enough to be rolled out fully, and they are still experimenting.
When we’re preparing your pallet for dispatch, we have to ensure that it is packaged in a way that gives it the best chance of arriving at your door in prime condition. To do this, we have to consider:
- How the pallet is likely to be handled. Your pallet will be handled a lot on its journey. It will be lifted on and off lorries with a forklift, and moved around warehouses and yards, before finally being wheeled to your kerbside by a pallet truck. Once it’s left our yard, it might well be handled by forklift drivers who are rushing or not quite as careful as they should be with someone else’s property.
- Weather. While being moved on and off lorries, our pallets are inevitably exposed to the elements, which are not always kind in the UK. They also have to survive potentially being left on the kerbside outside your house in the pouring rain.
We prioritise ensuring the briquettes reach our customers in the best possible condition, so for now we use plastic straps and a plastic stretch wrap to secure the pallet. For the last two years, we’ve been attempting to replace the black stretch wrap with a compostable, or at least bio-degradable, alternative. This has been harder than we could ever have anticipated.
The availability of compostable plastic alternatives is not good in the packaging industry yet, with only one supplier being able to provide a stretch wrap. This is a biodegradable wrap, which we’re currently testing but it’s not looking very hopeful, as it’s expensive, more difficult to use and has the added problem of requiring a different sort of disposal to the rest of our packaging, which we have no way of replacing with biodegradable alternatives, because there aren’t any available yet.
We are now exploring providing our customers with a recycling service.
For our local customers in Dumfries and Galloway, we already offer a plastic recycling scheme, where they can bring back all their plastic packaging and we take it to a company that recycles it into a variety of products (www.solwayrecycling.co.uk) . This is quite an expensive process for us but we feel it’s important.
What we now plan to do is roll this out to our national customers as well. This won’t be a free service, but a small optional disposal charge will be available at checkout. Those customers who would like to return their plastics to us will be provided with a prepaid bag (made from the same recyclable plastic), which they can fill with the plastic they remove from our products. This is then returned to us, and we send it to Solway Recycling.
Why do we currently sell peat?
When we started the Wood Fuel Co-operative in 2011, we debated selling peat and did a poll of our members. They voted overwhelmingly for us to stock it, and were almost unanimously unconcerned with the environmental impacts of it. Last year, we revisited this in light of growing awareness of the unsustainability of peat and looked seriously at our books to work out if we could cut peat out of our product range, in line with our own personal feelings on the matter. However, our peat sales contribute the equivalent of our annual rent bill to our bottom line and as a very small business we simply cannot sustain this level of loss all at once.
Peat bogs can be rich habitats and also a popular choice for people who need a cost-effective fuel. It’s cheaper to use than either logs or coal, so is a more affordable alternative. We’ve discussed raising prices to encourage people to move away from peat but are aware that if we do, it will be these customers, who can’t necessarily afford to pay more, who will suffer most.
Our plan is to reduce the peat we sell in a way that is sustainable for us as a business. We aim to stop selling peat by 2021. This is not as radical a change as we’d like but it is the only way we can do it without risking the business’s livelihood and that of our staff. It’s a difficult choice but one we have to stand by.
What’s the problem with peat?
Peat is natural product and has been used as a heating fuel for thousands of years. It is no longer just harvested by crofters cutting their own turf though – it’s commercially harvested in vast tracts, at a rate which far exceeds the 1mm per year it forms at. Commercial harvesting releases vast amounts of carbon
“When bogs are drained to harvest peat, or for any other use, such as agriculture, grazing, or forestry, exposure to oxygen jump-starts the decomposition of the stored organic matter, releasing carbon into the atmosphere. A 2013 study of Irish peatland carbon emissions, published in Irish Geography, found that each hectare of industrially drained and stripped peatland emits 2.1 tons of carbon per year—the equivalent of driving a car 30,000 kilometers. And that’s before the harvested peat is burned.” 
- Peat is one of the most effective carbon stores in the world. Ecologically, peat lands are our rainforests.
- The habitat provided by peat bog is invaluable for species such as curlew and heath butterflies.
- Burning peat releases even more carbon into the atmosphere, thereby increasing its environmental impact
- Peat is formed at an excruciatingly slow rate – about 1mm per year.
Find out more
Here are some useful resources to learn more about peat as a fuel: