The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 13

Last updated on February 14, 2021.

Trash littered beach
Image by H. Hach from Pixabay

Welcome to this part of my Packaging series! If you read my last post, you learned about refillable options for personal care items. Today, we will look at food packaging.

I honestly cannot say enough about food packaging because there is so much encasing our foods. Sometimes this is to make packing and shipping easier. Other times, food is overpackaged to create a false sense of sanitation, as mentioned in my first post in this series. BASF, a chemical company in the business of making such packaging, argues that “good packaging can enhance the cleanness and freshness of food, while offering branding opportunities for food manufacturers.”1 This is a false notion, and I believe plastic packaging causes more health problems than not using packaging.

“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” —Robert Swan, author and explorer

The Produce Section: Bagging

Produce in plastic bags
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

The produce section is where I spend most of my time in the supermarket. When shopping produce, we are encouraged, even prompted, to bag the items. When I starting going plastic-free, I bought my own reusable produce bags and continually use them at all grocery stores and farmers’ markets. You can buy bags like these, or even make your own:

Cloth mesh produce bags
Cloth mesh bag
Mesh produce bags
Mesh bags made from polyester or plastic. These aren’t ideal but they are infinitely reusable. Photo by Amazon
Cloth produce bags
Organic cotton muslin cloth bags

In her book, plastic-free expert Beth Terry notes that most fruits and vegetables have their own packaging.2 Produce like bananas, lemons, onions, garlic, and a host of others, have natural peels removed before eating. These do not require extra packaging.

Plastic bags have always been marketed to us as more sanitary. So much so, that you, dear reader, most likely cringe at the idea of not bagging your fresh produce. The truth is, that’s debatable and it comes at the cost of polluting the environments we live in. I wash most of my fruits and vegetables before I eat them anyway, whether they were bagged or not. 

Man holding unbagged produce over shopping cart
Image by CYNICALifornia from Pixabay

The Produce Section: Overpackaged

Plastic wrapping on produce can be extreme, and I’ve seen it in every type of grocery store. Such packaging is wasteful because it is so unnecessary. Here are numerous examples of overpackaged produce:

Bulk Foods

Person filling jar from bulk bins at store
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

When I mention bulk purchasing, I do not mean the oversized packages of coffee, peanut butter, and toilet paper from Sam’s Club or Costco. I am referring to the bulk bins in grocery stores and other food product shops. You can fill your own containers, just have them weighed at customer service first so you are not charged for the weight of the container. You can buy foods like beans, flour, granola, candy, dried fruit, etc. from these bins. Use glass jars or reusable cloth bags and avoid packaging altogether. Also, avoid bulk foods sold in “convenient” pre-weighed plastic containers like the ones pictured below. They defeat the purpose.

Prepackaged bulk food items.
Photo by Kurt Cotoaga on Unsplash

There are companies nationwide that offer refillable food items, such as Whole Foods, Fresh Market, Sprouts of Colorado, Rainbow Grocery in California, and Sustainable Haus in New Jersey. You can find shops that sell bulk items by searching Zero Waste Home’s app3 or by searching Litterless.com.4

Jar filled with item from bulk bins at grocery store
My own jar that I filled at the grocery store. Photo by me

No bulk in your area?

If there are not bulk bins available in the stores where you live, you still have options. Always choose glass instead of plastic packaging, since glass is 100% recyclable and plastic is recycled at a rate of under 10%. If a Container Deposit system exists in your state, use it because it ensures a much higher recycling rate for all types of materials. Look for brands of dried pasta that do not feature a plastic window (and if you buy that, please separate the plastic from the cardboard and only recycle the latter). Reuse Ziploc bags from deli meats and cheese. Avoid individually wrapped snacks, as it’s cheaper and better for the environment to buy a larger package and separate the food into small metal containers or reusable snack bags.

Loop

Created by TerraCycle, Loop is a closed-loop model that partners with consumer brands to put products in specially-designed durable and reusable containers. This is a take-back program, or a container deposit program, which we learned about in Part 7 of my Packaging series. Here’s a two-minute video explaining the business model and one way we can solve the disposable problem:

For a while, this was only available in parts of the U.S., but now it is available nationwide. While I love this business model, it still encourages consumers to buy some of the same products without changing their habits much. As Tom Szaky mentioned in the video, “let them experience a throw-away mentality but be doing the right thing from an environmental point of view.” This does eliminate single-use disposable packages, but as a consumer culture, we need to rethink how we spend, how we buy, and what we purchase.

I have attempted to purchase items from Loop several times, but I find it expensive. I don’t mind the container deposits because I’ll get those back. But the products have an upcharge and unfortunately, I cannot fit these into my budget. This makes it inaccessible to many people who want to support the cause. The upcharge to buy products in reusable packaging should be absorbed by companies, not put on consumers.

“Reusing an object saves time, energy and resources and does away with the need for waste disposal or recycling.” -Loop

Convenience vs. Environment

Our desire for convenience, driven by marketing and busy lifestyles, is killing the environment with packaging alone. Many argue that consumers have to change the way they shop; others argue that companies must change the packaging for items consumers buy. I think both are right – companies and consumers must change. Chris Daly of PepsiCo. believes that the convenience of packaging will continue because it is less work for the consumer. “Because these habits will be slow to change, we must continue to focus on improving the packaging that consumers take home and planning better for what happens to it,” he wrote in The Future of Packaging. Additionally, stores have to implement expensive infrastructure including the bins, scales, and systems for quality control and shrinkage.

But others disagree. In a well-written article, Karine Vann wrote that the use of bulk sections in grocery stores are not maximized to their full potential.5 These sections need promotion, normalization, and stores should educate consumers on how to use them. I believe this is entirely possible! We must do all we can to eliminate packaging waste.

“To truly reduce waste, advocates believe bulk must be more than just an aisle in the store—it must become a deliberate system that starts at home and continues seamlessly into the supermarket.” -Karine Vann6

Solutions

For more ideas, refer to my page on “11 Ways to go Plastic-Free with Food.” There are some great tips on how to shop and avoid packaging on the internet and I’ve included some articles under Additional Resources below. Last, don’t underestimate the power of growing your own food in your backyard or on your balcony.

Salad bowl with vegetables from garden
Photo by Elias Morr on Unsplash

Remember, we can all make a difference in how we consume and how we generate waste. We’re all sharing this planet and its’ beautiful and valuable resources, and we have nothing to lose by working together to create change.

If you’d like to read my Packaging series in full, please see this quick guide highlighting the contents of each article. And if you’ve already read it, I thank you and please subscribe! I’ll see you in my next post.

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Additional resources:

Article, “How to Grocery Shop When You Can’t Bring Your Own Containers,” Treehugger.com, updated March 20, 2020. There are some great tips on how to shop and avoid packaging when you can’t bring your own containers.

Article, “Eat your food, and the package too,” by Elizabeth Royte, National Geographic Magazine, August 2019.

Article, “The cost of plastic packaging,” by Alexander H. Tullo, Chemical & Engineering News, October 17, 2016.

Article, “Grocery Stores May Soon Offer Your Favorite Brands in Reusable Containers,” Treehugger.com, updated February 21, 2020. This features information about Loop.

Video, “Closing The Loop: The End of Disposable Plastics,” Fortune Magazine, June 12, 2019.

This post does not contain any affiliate links nor did I get paid to promote any of the products in this post.

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 7

Last updated on February 28, 2021.

Bell pepper and green beans in convenient plastic packaging
These food items do not require this much packaging. Photo by me

In my last post, I introduced take-back programs. Today we will continue that topic and look at programs that are a bit more successful, meaning that the rate of recycling is high.

Snack bag found on the beach in South Carolina. Photo by me

“Plastic packaging for food makes up the majority of municipal waste in America.” -A Plastic Ocean

TerraCycle programs

I love TerraCycle’s entire concept of making new things from waste, and I think their mission of recycling everything and eliminating waste is brilliant. Many companies sponsor take-back programs through TerraCycle at no cost to the consumer.1 These are awesome for waste streams in which there is no recycling option. There’s one for instrument strings, pens and writing tools  (which has a waiting list), and Brita filters. I participate in Bausch + Lomb’s free program to recycle contact lenses and their blister packs (and they accept all brands, not just Bausch + Lomb).2 This particular program has drop-off sites all over the place, usually at eye care offices. I love this one because I have to wear contact lenses for vision correction.

Though these programs encourage recycling and keep waste from littering the environment, they actually discourage companies from exploring new packaging options. A company can sponsor a recycling stream, such as waste from applesauce packets, juice pouches, snack bags, cosmetic and personal care items, and pay TerraCycle to recycle the items. In this way, the companies can take a passive approach and not have to deal with the problem directly. It gives consumers the impression that those companies are taking sustainable actions, but it really makes waste the consumer’s problem. It takes a lot of time and effort to clean, save, and ship the items; and even if the program is free, not everyone can or will voluntarily do it. These programs are a band-aid for the gushing wound of pollution.

Again, I love what TerraCycle is doing! But I think it gives companies a reason to not be more active in their sustainability efforts. I think it’s a way for companies to take a NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) approach but not have to do much more than cover the minor costs. TerraCycle should be used for things people cannot avoid using, such as Brita filters, contact lenses, laundry detergent waste, shoes, and school supplies. But there are alternatives for things like snack bags, applesauce pouches, and coffee pods. Consumers should seek alternatives for those rather than trying to recycle them.

Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay

Glass Bottle Exchange

Homestead Creamery returnable milk bottles
This type of milk bottle used to be commonplace. Photo from Homestead Creamery

Historically, the bottled beverage industry used take-back programs during the twentieth century. This system of using returnable glass bottles for milk and soft drinks was better than recycling because it was truly a circular economy system. Bottles were washed and refilled as many as 20-50 times. While a few companies use this system today through a deposit program, like Homestead Creamery (sold at some Kroger’s grocery stores), this system of glass bottle exchange has largely disappeared in the United States. However, you can check Drink Milk In Glass Bottle’s website to see if there are any options in your region.3

Glass Coca-Cola bottles in red carry cases
Remember these? Image by SatyaPrem from Pixabay

Container Deposit Programs

A very successful type of take-back program is the container deposit program. While controversial, they reduce litter and environmental pollution and improve recycling rates. The consumer is charged a deposit fee of 5 or 10 cents per bottle or can. When the consumer returns that item for recycling, they get their deposit money back. This can include glass, plastic, and aluminum bottles and cans. Some call this system a tax, but it is clearly a deposit – when you return the container you get your money back, unlike with taxes.

Soda can with container deposit information engraved.
Many cans and bottles feature container deposit information as shown here. Photo by me

Benefits

The Container Recycling Institute (CRI) promotes the bottled beverage deposit system internationally.4 There are so many benefits to this system, as CRI President Susan Collins noted:5

      • Dramatic reductions in litter and marine debris
      • Reductions in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions due to fewer containers that need to be made from virgin materials
      • Additional jobs in recycling
      • More high-quality scrap for manufacturers
      • Extra income for consumers, charities, and community groups

Here’s a great short video from CRI explaining the system:

These systems are not meant to replace curbside recycling, but to supplement them to increase overall recycling. Curbside recycling is still not available to 50% of the American population, and curbside doesn’t address away-from-home consumption. Even where it is available, recycling rates have gradually dropped. “This decline is due in part to the increase in consumption of beverages away from home, and in public places where there are few available collection outlets for recycling. The drop in the recycling rate is also due to the shift away from aluminum to PET, which has a lower recycling rate,” according to Bottled Up: Beverage Container Recycling Stagnates (2000-2010).6

“Using only single-stream curbside recycling (blue bins) fails to achieve even half of the recycling rate of container deposit laws. While curbside programs should be part of the recycling equation, because 30 percent to 50 percent of beverage containers are consumed away from home, residential programs alone can’t possibly be expected to produce high recycling rates.” -Susan Collins, CRI President

Container Deposit Programs are Quantifiably Successful

The first US beverage container deposit laws were passed in the early 1970s in Oregon and Vermont. Currently, this program exists in 10 US states and Guam, and 30 other countries around the world. The participating US states are successful at keeping recycling rates higher than states that do not participate. These states include only 28% of the US population, yet account for 46% of all beverage containers recycled nationwide. The overall recycling rate for bottles and cans with a deposit is 59%, compared to only 22% for bottles and cans without a deposit. Clearly, this system works well. The graph below shows the rates:

Graph from the Container Recycling Institute (CRI)

The participating states are California, Connecticut, New York, Vermont, Michigan, Maine, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, and Oregon. Sadly, there are no states in the southeast or states that border the Gulf of Mexico that participate. These are missed opportunities to protect our oceans and rivers.

Container Deposit Programs as Law

Legislation for this system is commonly referred to as “Bottle Bills.” A national bottle bill could be implemented as part of the recently proposed Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020. This would make the collection, redemption, and recycling of bottles and cans regulated and consistent and could increase the recycling rate to 80%!

“For the sake of our climate, our oceans and our future generations, we must do more to collect high-quality recyclable bottles and cans that can be used to produce new products. A national container deposit-refund law can make that happen.” -Susan Collins, CRI President7

Unfortunately, bottlers are usually against such bills because they do increase costs for them, though only slightly. Elizabeth Royte, the author of Bottlemania, wrote that every time a new Container Deposit bill is introduced or an expansion is proposed for an existing one, “Coke, Pepsi, and other bottlers hire lobbyists and run ad campaigns designed to stop them. And they usually do.” But the companies making so many single-use disposable containers need to step-up and be part of the solution.

Containers as Litter

I personally grew up in a container deposit state that also had curbside recycling, and never even thought to question it. It was just what we did (in addition to curbside recycling). Our family brought back bottles and cans to the grocery store each week, and we’d receive either the cash or a credit on our grocery total. I continued this practice into my adulthood. I didn’t see as much litter on the sides of the roads. In Tennessee, I feel like I see trash on every street, playground, and parking lot; much of the litter is from single-use beverage containers. According to CRI, beverage containers comprise 40-60% of litter.

Image of plastic container art dolphin shaped to represent percentages of plastic containers recycled.
See this and additional plastic art projects by clicking on the image. Photo from CRI

“There are many quantifiable but just as important benefits of increased container recycling: the cleaner roadways, the healthier waterways, the growth in local jobs and green businesses and the satisfaction that we are doing what’s right not only for the planet but for future generations.” –Bottled Up: Beverage Container Recycling Stagnates (2000-2010)8

Solutions

Some companies use greenwashing and ‘sustainability’ to make consumers buy more. However, as long as packaging remains the responsibility of the consumer, we must consume less and buy more consciously. Companies must invest in better packaging and establish Extended Producer Responsibility programs. States must implement Container Deposit Programs to curb the impact of single-use disposable beverages. These systems reduce litter and increase recycling rates. Ultimately, though, ceasing the use of single-use disposable containers is one of the most impactful things we can do for the environment.

Thanks for reading! Here’s a link to the first post in this series in case you missed it. In my next post, I’ll explore companies that are already making recycling and reduction part of their mission.

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Note: There are no affiliate links in this post; all links are for informational purposes only.

 

Additional Resource:

Publications, Data Archive, Container Recycling Institute, accessed February 28, 2021.

Footnotes: