Plastic packaging is getting a good hiding at the moment. ‘It pollutes our oceans! It kills turtles! That whale who was full of carrier bags!’
It doesn’t. It can’t. It lacks the necessary consciousness. The real problem is the humans that throw it away – badly.
Don’t want your plastic getting into the sea? Take it home with you from the beach. Make sure you use the right bin at home. Most plastic is recyclable. Waste-to-energy plants are popping up all over the country in place of landfill sites, though of course recycling it is still much better than burning it.
I’m not a plastic-fanatic – far from it. It takes four times as much energy to make a polyethylene plastic bag than a paper one, using crude oil. And yes, as I said, they can be recycled – turned into plastic granules that are then used to make new bags – but recycling is still a process, requiring fuel and energy.
I’d rather we had those paper shopping bags like they have in the States, and I was happy to see the introduction (not before time, unsurprisingly for a country with a recycling rate 22% lower than Germany’s) of the 5p charge for plastic bags here in the UK. This produced roughly an 80% decline in bag use and, because supermarkets had to make sure the bags were worth 5p, it also meant recycling plants found better quality, and therefore more valuable, plastic coming in through their doors. Since some of these plants are run by local authorities, so the recycling contributes to local economies. I was even happier when Tesco announced they were consigning their 5p bag to history.
So I don’t have an issue with anyone who opposes the overproduction of disposable plastic. But when petitions do the rounds demanding the banning of plastic food packaging by supermarkets, I think many haven’t fully understood the nuanced situation we’re dealing with.
Plastic food packaging is designed to keep food fresh for longer – in the warehouse, during transport and at home. Without it, much less food would make it to the shelves in time to be eaten. And you know, we import so much from far-away countries that it makes sense to not have it go off halfway across the sea, right? It makes sense for the consumer and the producer, right? Actually, it makes sense only because we import fruit.
If you buy out-of-season fruit and veg, you have no grounds to complain about packaging. Take apples as an example. They’re ready for picking in October in the south of England, but most people buy them all year round in supermarkets. Fresh apples. Packaged and loose. Loose fresh apples – in March.
So just how do folk think that trucks deliver the sanctified loose fruit and veg so fresh to the supermarkets? ALL fruit and veg has to be packaged for transport, but prepacked goods doesn’t have to be so heavily packaged in the warehouse or on the vehicle as the loose ones. Loose fruit and veg isn’t rushed to the shelves any sooner by passionate delivery companies devoted to your distaste for plastic packaging. Nor are they delivered individually cushioned in velvet in carts pulled by the muddy horses of virtuous organic farmers.
Fruit and veg (especially stuff with a high water content, like carrots and cucumbers) can last two weeks or so longer in packaging than out of it, and you know what happens when it starts to go soft? CO2 happens. A lot of it.
Food waste is a major issue, both environmentally and economically. According to WRAP’s Consumer Attitudes to Food Waste and Food Packaging report in 2012, “Approximately 60% of household food waste arises from products ‘not used in time’, with a value of £6.7 billion […] and includes 17 billion ‘5-a-day’ portions of fresh produce (more than a fifth of purchases)”. Global food waste is behind only China and America as the leading cause of greenhouse gasses globally.
OK, so maybe people are buying a pack of five apples and only eating two. ‘Curse the supermarkets! They just want to make money by selling us five apples at a time! It’s all THEIR fault!’
No it isn’t. If you know you’re only going to eat two apples, buy two loose apples. It’ll be good for the planet and good for your wallet. If you know you’ll eat all five, buy the pack. Don’t take the packet off until you want an apple. Recycle the packet. If your local council doesn’t recycle them, your local recycling centre probably will. If you can’t be bothered with the work, find a way to make it easier. Store a bag of them under the stairs until you know you’ll be heading to the recycling centre with that old wardrobe.
So here’s the thing: if you don’t like fruit and veg packaging, don’t shop at a supermarket. You’re probably no better off shopping at a greengrocer, either. Around the UK, local initiatives that recognise this problem are popping up. For example, in 2009, Transition Exeter set up the Exeter Real Food Store, which recognised how little access there was to anywhere in the city where people could buy in-season produce. If you want to be truly virtuous about food packaging, you need to buy local, from a shop or a stall that prioritises food that is produced locally – and you need to use your own reusable containers to take it home in. Moreover you must only buy in-season produce. Locally-grown out-of-season fruit and veg will have been grown in heated greenhouses – which are as bad for the environment as many current US presidents.
All that being said, the reality is that people are living under pressure. ‘Shop little and often, and buy local’ is all well and good, but time for most people is so precious now due to the relentless pace of modern living. Most households don’t – can’t – run on one income, and when people aren’t at work or keeping the house clean or managing their children, they don’t really want to spend more time food-shopping than is ‘necessary’.
Moreover, many families find it barely possible to afford a weekly shop on two full-time wages, let alone find the time to cook properly after a long day – either before or after putting the kids to bed. ‘Plan your meals,’ is good advice, but who feels like doing it in their spare time these days?
If you do have the time (and money) then yes, shop local and buy little and often. Ask the butcher to fill your reusable tub rather than using bags. Take your own strong bags to a farmers’ market or your local organic farm shop. Even so, many of these big organic farms better resemble lorry parks for deliveries from organic farms overseas than actual farms themselves these days.
All of us should only buy what we know we’ll eat. Ultimately, how we buy and
consume our food has changed precisely because we don’t have the time (and energy) that people used to have to shop and plan meals properly. We have the incentive, but not the urge.
And while we’re shopping from supermarkets (or even these conglomerate organic farms) and continue to buy out-of-season produce, much of our fresh produce will be coming to us from overseas and will have needed to be packaged in order to stay fresh for longer.
Don’t demand that the supermarkets get rid of their packaging; demand a society in which wealth is more evenly distributed so that people can afford to shop at supermarkets less often. Demand fair wages, a fairer pace of life – the time and money to be able to ensure you’re buying food from local producers, not just local suppliers – food that hasn’t had to be packaged well enough to keep on its long journey to you from the other side of the world.
While people are under so much pressure, supermarkets won’t change their practices. After all, why would they want you to have the time to properly consider and alter your shopping habits? They thrive on the convenience culture that’s a symptom of stressful living.
Supermarkets are only breaking the world in collusion with a host of others intent on maintaining their wealth by keeping people in poverty – poverty of money and of time to consider it another way.
If you feel like signing a petition against plastic packaging, perhaps bear the above in mind. That said, if you see two apples on a polystyrene tray under cling film on a supermarket shelf, give head-office hell.