Purge the Plastic: The Detriment of Food Packaging & How to Shop more Sustainably

Words: Amanda Saxby
Purge the Plastic: The Detriment of Food Packaging & How to Shop More Sustainably

The Pestilence of Plastic

Between California and Japan, beginning only miles off of the coast of North America, floats a five metre-deep concentrated soup of microplastic and debris. Albatrosses circle the trash, dipping down to snatch up small red micropellets indistinguishable from food; turtles trundle through the murky stew swallowing whole plastic bags they mistake for jellyfish; and a ghost net ensnares a small pod of seals. This is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is a 1.4 million mile square site at the centre of the North Pacific Gyre, and it’s slowly killing our marine life and ocean food chain.

What’s more, there are an additional four ocean garbage patches in other gyres around the world. And we’ve known about them since 1997. So what have we been doing? How did this happen?

Every time we tie up our empty Keurig pods, disposable solo cups, and takeaway wrappers in a plastic bag and send it off to landfill, we’re making the patch bigger. Out of the 311 million metric tons of plastic the world produces every year, 10 percent makes its way to the oceans. And the worst bit is that once it’s there, we can’t do anything about it. Plastic is non-biodegradable; it photodegrades. This means that despite the length of time it sits in landfill or in the ocean, plastic will continue to break down into smaller and smaller pieces, but it will never fully decompose. These microscopic plastic particles sit in the ocean and soak up toxic chemicals, get sucked up by filter feeders and threaten our entire food chain.

But plastic isn’t only endangering our oceans. Plastic production causes a myriad of other environmental issues including carbon emissions and excessive oil usage and energy consumption. Around 4 percent of the world’s oil is used in plastic manufacturing and approximately 1 to 5 ounces of carbon dioxide is released per 1 ounce of plastic during production. Given that the world produces 311 million tons of plastic every year, that means we’re releasing 311 million to 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year as well. While that number may seem like peanuts next to the 35.7 gigatons of CO2 leached into the atmosphere in 2015, plastic production remains a critical contributor to greenhouse gases.

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The Zero Waste Movement

If you’re stunned by this imagery and these figures, you are not alone. The birth of the zero waste lifestyle in the early 2000s was triggered by these environmental issues. At its core, living zero waste is the practice of creating as little trash as possible in your daily life. This involves buying unpackaged foods, upcycling and thrift shopping, creating DIY beauty and cleaning products and rejecting unnecessary items.

The zero waste lifestyle depends on the pyramid of six R’s:

Refuse to buy products you don’t need, are harmful to humans or the planet, that you can make yourself or come in plastic packaging.

Reduce the amount of things you use and purchase, including takeaway meals in plastic and styrofoam containers.

Reuse products and containers repeatedly instead of buying disposable items.

Repurpose items you already have by upcycling them into something new.

Recycle only when you have no other option and before you throw it in the bin.

Rot/compost or incinerate food and other waste where you can instead of sending it to landfill.

Supermarket packaging is one of the top contributors of plastic waste. Plastic shopping bags, cellophane-wrapped produce, biscuits packed in plastic trays and covered in plastic casing – the amount of plastic we consume on a daily basis rises annually and we do little to curb it. We need to reasess how we buy food to initiate a positive change for the environment, for ourselves and for our children.

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The Rise of Zero Waste Grocery Shopping

The amount of plastic food packaging and the damage it’s effected on our environment has ignited a secondary movement: unpackaged grocery shopping. It began in the UK. In November of 2007, Catherine Conway founded Unpackaged, a small shop in Islington, London that sold food and other products package-free. Unpackaged was the first of its kind, and it sparked a slow-paced trend across Europe with more zero waste shops popping up in Italy, Spain, Austria and Germany over the next seven years. In 2012, in.gredients launched in Austin, Texas, becoming America’s first zero waste store, and Canada’s Zero Waste Market opened in Vancouver, BC just last year.

The story of Unpackaged opens with an objection. In 2006, Conway was irritated with how much packaging she was disposing of after shopping, so she decided to build a better solution. “There was no ‘zero waste’ movement [in 2006],” she begins. “No one was talking about the Waste Hierarchy or Circular Economy. Now it’s much more common, but back then there was very little for me to base the shop on other than the idea in my head.” But the idea was persistent. With the launch of the 400 square foot Islington shop in 2007, Conway was able to turn her unpackaged shopping dreams into reality. They sold over 700 different bulk foods and refillable products which customers could purchase in reusable tared containers.

Customer response to Unpackaged in the first five years was incredible. “[Early adopters] were very receptive to the idea,” Conway recalls. “The other part of our customer base, people who didn’t necessarily know they wanted to refill, were still willing to understand the concept and listen to us communicate the benefits to them.” The public were beginning to jump on board the Unpackaged train – a customer survey revealed that over 60 percent believed shopping with Unpackaged made them think about how their food is packaged and refuse overly packaged products in other shops. In 2012, Conway moved Unpackaged to a larger facility and opened a restaurant bar to supplement rent costs.

Fortunately, zero waste grocery shopping seems to be catching globally. 2011 welcomed America’s first package-free grocery store, in.gredients. Joshua Blaine, who has been involved with the store since 2012 and stepped into management in 2013, claims that in.gredients and similar stores are crucial as a model for how things should be done.

“[The grocery industry] is inherently wasteful on so many levels,” he says during interview. “Our store creates a sustainable scenario and a player that represents a way to move the zero waste conversation forward.” in.gredients seeks to amplify the message of food waste and get people thinking about their waste by providing people with alternative options.

“Nothing like us exists in Canada,” says Brianne Miller, founder of Zero Waste Market, who recently pioneered zero waste grocery shopping in Vancouver last year. “We performed a lot of market research before opening – our customers want a solution to the complications and inconvenience of shopping zero waste.”

All three experts agree that inconvenience is a prevailing factor when consumers choose to forgo zero waste shopping. “People don’t have time to drive to several different places to shop,” Miller expresses. Instead, they want a one-stop shop. A place they can go and get everything they need for the following week. This is the service stores like Zero Waste Market, Unpackaged and in.gredients are trying to provide. But being completely package-free does present its challenges.

“For the first year and a half [in.gredients] was entirely package-free,” Blaine says, “but we had to step back and reevaluate our ethos due to consumer demand.” The in.gredients manager claims that while their customers appreciated their original zero waste plan, they were more likely to purchase conveniently packaged goods. In 2014, in.gredients re-marketed and greatly reduced their bulk foods to accommodate packaged products, such as 6-packs of canned craft beer from local breweries.

“We originally had craft beer and wine on tap so our customers could refill their growlers,” Blaine explains. But this presented three challenges: customers had to remember to bring their growlers, the refill was a higher price point than a pack and the store could only provide a limited selection on tap. in.gredients’ platform now focuses on sustainable business practices, providing Austin’s community with locally made food and products and getting their community involved with the store through formal and informal gatherings.

Conway’s story ends similarly; Unpackaged closed its doors in January 2014. “It was heartbreaking, but it enabled me to rethink the future direction of Unpackaged,” she says. Conway knew that supermarket chains accounted for 75 percent of grocery sales in the UK, so to make any real environmental change she would have to restructure. Conway continues, “The advantage to not having our own shop was that I could really look at how to work within a mainstream, and it was this that led to our collaboration with Planet Organic.” Unpackaged now operates as a self-service bulk division within the Planet Organic chain in London. Conway hopes to transfer this concept into the larger supermarket chains across the UK in the near future.

However, despite her predecessors' restructured business models and her own entrepreneurial challenges, Miller remains optimistic about Zero Waste Market’s future. Through the success of her pop-up markets, country-wide zero waste Facebook groups, support from the Vancouver community and various grants and media coverage, Miller believes that “people are ready” for an exclusively zero waste shop.

The Sustainable Shopping Shift

So how can we make the switch to more sustainable grocery shopping? We can start by buying more food in bulk. Bulk foods average 89 percent cheaper than packaged goods since consumers are only paying for the product; there aren’t any extra costs associated with fancy packaging, production or distribution, which keeps money in our wallets. It also helps reduce packaging waste and prevents more plastic from going to landfill and polluting our oceans. Furthermore, when we purchase the exact amount of food we need in bulk instead of buying a large packet, we decrease our food waste as well.

North America has plenty of bulk shopping options. There are stores that specialise in bulk foods, such as Bulk Barn, Bulk Nation and Whole Foods. Even larger supermarket chains such as Sobey’s, Overwaitea, Wegmans and Safeway have sections of their stores dedicated to bulk foods. Sadly, bulk only yields about 3 percent of the average North American grocery store’s daily profit.

Miller shared a few objections she’s heard consumers give to avoid buying from the bulk section. “Cross contamination is a big one,” she explains. “With open containers, you can’t be sure allergens haven’t been in contact with the product.” Reservations about products’ cleanliness and freshness and the convenience of grab-and-go packets also made the cut.

“Remembering to bring things [containers, reusable bags, etc.] is an issue,” says Blaine. Conway has been working on an innovative solution to this problem – Unpackaged is developing a text messaging service that will remind patrons to bring in their reusable containers and bags.

While bulk food shops may not be so readily available in the UK, there are plenty of other options to help you shop plastic packaging free:

  • Farmer’s markets are a fantastic alternative to supermarkets. Not only can you purchase all of your groceries package-free, but you’re also supporting local farmers, artisans and makers in your community. Most cities have markets open year round – we’ve done some of the heavy leg work for you below.
  • Getting your milk delivered in recyclable glass bottles significantly decreases the amount of plastic cartons sent to landfill. It’s also convenient to have this staple delivered directly to your door.
  • Buy your meat, poultry and fish from your local butcher or fishmonger instead of in styrofoam and clingfilm wrapped packets at the supermarket. Most shopkeepers are generally accommodating about wrapping up your purchase in beeswax wrap or a Stasher bag if you request it.
  • Rain barrels are a sustainable alternative to plastic water bottles. If you live in a particularly rainy area and have some outdoor space, you should look into installing one. There are various DIY tutorials available online.
  • Cooking whole foods at home produces much less packaging and food waste than takeaway, dining out or reheating a freezer meal. Take a moment right now and reflect on why you don’t cook at home. Are you too busy? Here’s a long list of 15 minute meals. Do you not know how to cook? There are so many different ways to learn. Universities, colleges and cookery shops offer cheap cooking classes; you can ask a relative or friend to teach you; try watching Food Network, search YouTube or read a cookbook; and if all else fails, just get stuck in and try. You may be surprised at how well you do.
  • Finally, do a little research. Zero waste Facebook groups are a clever way to snag new ideas and places to shop from like-minded folks. Check if there’s one available in your city and consider joining the conversation.

Industry Experts

Catherine Conway
Unpackaged, Founder

Catherine is an activist and social entrepreneur who set up Unpackaged in 2006, having worked in the private, public and NGO sector. With nearly a decade promoting Unpackaged and refilling in retail, Catherine is at the forefront of the zero waste movement. 

Joshua Blaine
in.gredients, Store Manager

Josh has been a core member of the in.gredients team since April 2012 and the store manager since 2014. in.gredients champions a different kind of food system: one that focuses on locally produced goods, less food-related packaging and waste and more community/customer involvement.

Brianne Miller
Zero Waste Market, Founder

Brianne is a marine biologist who is passionate about ocean conservation. She’s on a mission to find practical solutions to some of the many problems that the oceans face, including plastic pollution, overfishing and habitat degradation. With Zero Waste Market, Brianne hopes to empower customers to think about the impacts of their food choices and how to reduce food waste by buying only what they need.


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