Elaine Butler explains how we have ended up with so much extra packaging on food, and how to avoid it going forward…
How on earth did we end up with so much waste? It just seems to have increased exponentially over the past few decades, with the typical household drowning in it after every grocery shop.
Statistically we produce more packaging waste per head than any other country in Europe, except for Luxembourg and Norway. Why is this? I don’t remember any issues around food packaging growing up and it certainly wasn’t the case in our grandparents day. What changed?
I grew up in the 70s and 80s and although plastic packaging definitely existed it wasn’t ubiquitous like today. It was mostly confined to processed food like cakes, crisps and chocolate, which didn’t appear in our house very often. Bread came package-free from our bread delivery guy, fruit and veg in the supermarket was largely sold loose and soft drinks and milk came in returnable glass bottles.
Slowly all these goods transitioned to single-use, non-recyclable, non-reusable plastic packaging. Yes, you could still hunt out package-free options if you looked hard enough, but it stopped being the norm. Today we’re so habitualised to food packaging some of us even put a bunch of bananas or a single onion in a plastic bag without thinking.
What precipitated this move to single-use, non-recyclable, non-reusable plastic packaging?
The answer partially lies in the lengthening of our supply chains. Over the past few decades the percentage of Irish-grown fresh food sold in Irish stores has been on the decline. Today our mangetout comes from Kenya, our blueberries from Argentina. On the customer side this means we have access to a diverse range of fruit and veg all year round. On the retailer’s side, being able to import food from far away allows them to pick from a wider pool of suppliers in the chase for lower prices. Unfortunately the knock on effect of this long supply chain is increased packaging. Simply put the further an item is shipped the more protective packaging is needed.
Packaging also allows retailers to extend the life of fruit and veg, either by protecting it from damage, or sealing it in a container with modified atmosphere made from a range of gases that delay decomposition. I’ve read multiple studies and reports about how packaging prevents food waste, but they all seem to focus on waste reduction prior to purchase. I’ve yet to read a report on how packaging prevents food waste on the customers’ side. Personally I have found that packaged fruit and veg degrades far faster when opened than unpackaged.
If packaging on fruit and veg does indeed reduce food waste dramatically, why is it largely non-existent in supermarkets on the continent? Peruse the social media account of any environmentalist and eventually you’ll find a photo of the fruit and veg section of an Aldi or Lidl in Spain or France, all sans packaging. If they can do it there, why can’t they do it here?
Perhaps it’s down to being able to source fresh fruit and veg locally that does away with the need for the packaging in the first place? If this is indeed the case, then the fact that only 1.5% of farmland in Ireland is dedicated to growing fruit and veg could be the root of our waste problem.
Another benefit of packaging for the retailer is speed at the checkout, which is so legendary in some discount supermarkets there are now meme’s about it. Some supermarkets even have a leaderboard to encourage and reward staff that process purchases quickly. The quicker a cashier is, the more customers they can serve and the more profit the company can make. Scanning a labelled and barcoded packet of tomatoes takes a fraction of the time required to weigh a bag of them and input that information.
So really there’s no incentive on retailers to minimise packaging, in fact it’s going to cost them if they do. Some argue that forcing retailers to go package-free will inevitably put up the cost of food, but in reality, we’re already paying to deal with this waste, just indirectly, through our taxes. Who do you think is funding the clean-ups, collection and disposal of all this packaging, plus the fall-out from storms, droughts and fires caused by all the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions arising it’s manufacture in the first place? We are.
Yes, retailers subsidise the cost of the collection and disposal of packaging through their waste membership organisation Repak, but as we can all see from our bin charges it doesn’t cover all of it. Also, membership of Repak doesn’t offset any GHG emissions or remedial actions required to mitigate their impact on climate change.
One route to rectifying this conundrum is to bring in legislation that incentivises shorter supply lines and less packaging, and that is certainly coming down the track thanks to pressure from citizens and leadership from the EU. The second, and faster route, is to support businesses that already prioritise short supply chains and reduced packaging.
For me, that means shopping in local independent stores or farmer’s markets for fresh food. It’s true that buying from independent stores, or direct from farmers, is more expensive than buying in supermarkets, but by less than you’d think, particularly if you go to a proper farmers market and not to one of those weekend-brunch affairs.
Dropping into a separate greengrocer/ butcher / fishmonger or visiting a farmers market might sound very time consuming but I’ve found I’m in and out in ten minutes most times. I also buy meat in bulk and freeze it so I only have to visit every four weeks or so.
I know Covid has had a huge impact on the use of reusable packaging, but I have never had an issue with my local farmer’s market and although my own butcher isn’t yet back to taking customers’ own containers, I’ve heard others are, so ask.
If you don’t have such stores in your area then you have the option to order online. Some fruit & veg suppliers offer boxes of seasonal fruit and veg but for others, you can just order what you’d like exactly as you would from a supermarket. You can find a list of suppliers for organic fruit and veg here, and meat and dairy here.
Also some suppliers tie in with the Neighbourfood network of pick up points (see neighbourfood.ie), allowing you to support local artisan suppliers of other foods too.
As I write those suggestions, I’m fully aware that not everyone will be in a position to change where they buy their food, and that’s fine. We can only do what we can, with what we have, where we are.
For those of us who can vote with our food purchases, we must. Not to do so is just wasteful.