By Christine Liu, (Sustainable Home, pg.66-69)
Today’s grocery shops are commonly filed with products wrapped in packaging. Packaging’s primary purpose throughout history was to contain and protect products during transportation, but it has since extended to cater for convenience - customers like to grab pre-prepared meals and snacks on the go, which of course need to be contained in a lightweight, accessible package. As a result, packaging materials and blends such as metallized plastic films (for crisp packets), multi-layered cartons and lightweight packaging solutions were created, all in an effort to more effectively preserve and package foods in a convenient manner.
Yet with the increased use of industrial, plastic packaging came the issue of packaging waste. Ever since the mass production of plastics, there has been an increase in plastic litter as well as a growing mass of non-degradable packaging in landfills. With the lack of end-of-life options for many of these new types of packaging, 91 percent of plastics today are not recycled, and will either end up forever in a landfill or as litter. Due to the increase of lightweight, flexible plastic packaging, wrappers and bags can easily be swept away by the wind, ending up in wild habitats, forests, or waterways and oceans.
In addition, the chemical processes used to manufacture plastics pose many health concerns. The additives put into plastic polymers in order to achieve certain properties have been found to leach toxins, carcinogens, and endocrine disruptors. Even plastics that are thrown into landfills or littered can leach toxins into local water sources and ecosystems, and if incineration is used as an alternative to landfills, their burning can release even more harmful and toxic fumes into the atmosphere.
Though packaging is not always painted in a positive light, it is actually near and dear to my heart, because I studied it for four years at my undergraduate university. It was during my degree that I became aware of the issue of plastic packaging waste, and began taking steps to decrease my personal packaging consumption a few years ago. This next section contains various tips and best practices for waste free grocery shopping, as well as important information regarding packaging recyclability.
Preparing for a package-free grocery trip:
There are several ways to avoid excess packaging in your next grocery haul. Keeping the following items in your bag can prove to be very useful:
- Reusable jars and containers
There can be used at the bulk dry goods section of your local shop (look online to find the one nearest to you). The shop will deduct the weight of your container when purchasing, so be sure to label the lid of the container with the empty weight before you fill up.
Some local butchers, bakeries or deli counters can also place meat, seafood, cheeses, etc. into a container for you. Instead of using several plastic bags, kindly ask the employee to put the product straight into your clean, dry container after weighing.
- Reusable cotton bags and large grocery bags
If your local shop doesn’t have a system for deducting the weight of your container, consider using a reusable cotton bag for loose dry goods. Reusable produce bags are great for storing small, loose fruits and vegetables, avoiding the need for the lightweight plastic variety (the kind often ingested by sea creatures such as turtles when they are mistaken for jellyfish). Also don’t forget to bring a few reusable grocery bags to carry you other food home!
If you need to purchase packaged items, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, opt for bulk quantities of product in recyclable packaging where possible. Packaging products in larger quantities is more efficient in comparison to small, individualised packages. Second, in terms of packaging material, paper, metal, and glass are the best options, but note that these materials have their various environmental impacts (see below). Determine what options are most easily recycled in your locality, and choose materials that are more likely to be recycled than not.
- Paper is natural and ocmpostable, but production can be energy and water intensive.
- Metal boasts easy recyclability in many municipalities, but its extraction requires quite a bit of energy.
- Glass is a great, durable material with accessible recycling options, although it takes quite a lot of energy to recycle due to its high melting temperature.
In some instances, plastic packaging may be unavoidable. Usually all plastic packages or pdocuts are labeled with resin identification codes which indicate the type of plastic it is. These identification symbols are triangular arrows with a number in the middle, and can often be found on the bottom of plastic bottles. The following plastic resins are common for most packages and products, some with easier recyclability than others.
- Plastic #1 is polyethylene terephthalate (PET), commonly used to make plastic soda drink bottles. This is the most common and widely recycled plastic resin.
- Plastic #2 is high0density polyethylene plastic (HDPE), used for heavier products such as laundry detergent packaging, shampoo, or motor oil. This plastic is also widely recycled.
- Plastic #3 is polyvinyl chloride (PVC), used for plastic pipes and medical tubing. PVC is not widely recycled but you can check for local recycling facilities in your area.
- Plastic #4 is low-density polyethylene (LDPE), manufactured for plastic bags and flexible plastic films. LDPE has not been highly recycled previously, but drop off locations at some grocery and retail are becoming more common.
- Plastic #5 polypropylene (PP) is often used for microwavable food packaging, and also plastic caps. This plastic is highly recycled.
- Plastic #6 is polystyrene (PS) often known as Styrofoam. Polystyrene can be found in packaging as a cushioning solution, or for single use cups and food trays. This plastic is not often recycled and will go straight to landfill. However increasing efforts are being made to establish polystyrene recycling centres, so be on the lookout.
- Plastic #7 is any other plastic blend. Some of the plastics included may be compostable plastics such as PLA, or multi-layer plastic film, which is often combined with metals for barrier properties. Due to their blended nature )the materials are difficult to separate) they are not easily recyclable. It doesn’t hurt to contact the manufacturer to ask about potential recycling options though.
(By Christine Liu from Sustainable Home, pg. 66-69)