Plastic at the grocery story is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma ... or is it?
Plastic bag bans seem like the most common sense thing in the world. Surely, our food is wrapped in plastic only to cater to consumer tastes and our throw-away culture? Surely, if single-use plastic bags are banned, then the environment will be better off for all of our reusable hipster cotton bags? Surely, if the grocery stores stop offering plastic bags at checkout, we can just count up the number of plastic bags that used to be provided and say that the world has been spared that number of plastic bags? Wrong.
A lifecycle analysis of commonly used grocery bags ranked reusable PET bags, single use HDPE bags, biodegradable bags, paper bags, and cotton bags, from least carbon intensive to most, in that order.
Of course we want to reduce the number of plastic bags that are being sent to landfill or ending up in our oceans, but some of the alternatives have a big carbon footprint. The ubiquitous ‘eco’ cotton bags being pushed on us are anything but (note: I am not exploring linen, tencel, or bamboo in this post). Just because it looks like a hippie from the 60’s would have carried it, doesn’t mean it’s good for the environment. We can do better; let’s explore the options.
Paper bags can’t be reused more than three or four times and we all know what trees need to breathe. Let’s keep trees in the ground. Meanwhile, choosing a multi-use plastic bag, and actually using it multiple times (every week for at least a year) would have been better if considering CO2.
The bags that people were getting at checkout had additional uses in the home as well. Such as bin liners or cleaning up dog poo. While this post may serve as a tempting reason never to clean up after your dog again, I don’t think any of us like to step in it (literally or metaphorically speaking). As a result of plastic bag bans, we’re seeing an increase in the purchase of plastic bags. Do not fret! The increases in plastic bag sales do not offset the reduction in tonnes of plastic at check out. We still realise a 90% reduction in tonnes of plastic in one of the studies I looked at.
My suggestion: use a bag you already own. I bet you already have a cotton tote in your house that is just begging to cross the 20,000 use threshold. PET reusable carrier bags only need to be used roughly 50 times to start realising the benefit, so if you absolutely must buy a new one, buy one of those. Better yet, buy one made of recycled materials. You can wipe them down periodically to keep them clean. Most importantly, remember to bring your bags with you.
If you use grocery delivery services, you still have control over carrier bags. Ocado will collect and properly recycle their single use plastic bags. However, it’s important to reduce and reuse before turning to recycling. Farm Drop unpacks all of the food from their crates without the use carrier bags at all and most of the food they sell is sourced locally and ethically.
It turns out that the plastic packaging keeps food fresher longer which, in turn, cuts down on food waste. As such, less food turns into methane (a potent greenhouse gas) in the landfill. Cucumbers are often used as an example, since they will only last days in the open air but will make it roughly a week before spoiling if wrapped in plastic.
Removing plastic from grocery stores will require them to think hard about how they handle inventory. It will also have an impact on how you handle inventory, since your food will spoil faster. Only buy what you need and don’t waste what you have. Eat your leftovers or freeze them. Buy food regularly, rather than stocking up and letting it spoil. A little awareness of food waste has resulted in many a delicious loaf of banana bread from overripe bananas.
I encourage everyone to buy odd-shaped fruit and veg. The stuff that doesn’t go into the stores because it doesn’t look sexy, often turns into food waste. That is, unless we rescue it! Remember Baywatch? Rescuing things is fun. So go to your local farmers market. Sign up for an odd-shaped fruit and veg delivery service like OddBox (see prior blog post). Buy the ‘a little less perfect’ range from Waitrose.
Don’t take my word for it. Links to several illuminating articles and studies on these topics are found below. If you do take my word for it, hopefully I have saved you a bit of time and I’ll see you in the grocery store with a beat up multi-use plastic bag.
Resources for Curious Minds
Are Plastic Bag Bans Garbage? (NPR)
How to Read Plastic Recycling Symbols (Good Housekeeping)
Plastic Bags, or Paper? Where’s What to Consider When You Hit the Grocery Store (The New York Times)
Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags (UK Gov’t)
Household Sustainability by Chris Gibson, Carol Farbotko, Nicholas Gill, Lesley Head, and Gordon Waitt
How to solve the plastic packaging paradox (BBC)