Image for Package-Free Eating, Week 3

Presented by Gail Graham, Mississippi Market General Manager

I took on board chair Heather’s package-free Zero Waste Shopping Challenge with an aspirational attitude. I knew I wouldn’t be 100% successful. While I haven’t been doing as well as I hoped, it certainly has raised my awareness level about just how much packaging pervades modern grocery shopping.

I have been fighting a loosing battle with myself when it comes to package-free shopping. This last week, along with all of my jars of bulk grains and reused bags of bulk produce, I purchased grape tomatoes and baby arugula (both in plastic tubs), and a glass jar of mango lemonade. I could have chosen regular bulk tomatoes, but the grape ones can be sweeter. I could have chosen something besides packaged arugula; usually the co-op has it available in bunches too, but frankly, I didn’t even look. And the mango lemonade? I had the grandkids coming over and I knew they would enjoy it, and that one I didn’t have an unpacked replacement for. And I must admit, all three items happened to be on sale.

At least I have remembered to keep a much-used recycled bag stuffed in my purse. When I handed it to the cashier at Target the other day I was thrilled when he said, “Great, you brought you own bag! I have been reminding people how easy it is to carry one!”

The fact that most of the packaging I am purchasing is recyclable is small consolation. For one thing, composting trumps recycling when it comes to the environment. Also, the market for recyclables has been struggling for the past few years and is quite tenuous. Cardboard recyclables are generally in a state of flux, with oversupply and depressed markets. Commodity prices (yes, recycled materials are commodities!) have been dropping and are at their lowest point since 2009. Prices for mixed paper sources are at their lowest point in 25 years. One of the factors is that for many years, China has been one of the largest importers of recyclables. Recently, they tightened up their import polices, banning some commodities and implementing a stringent 0.5% contamination limit.

More and more municipalities have also introduced “single-stream” recycling, so we don’t have to bother sorting items into separate glass, plastic, and paper bins. However, this makes recyclables less valuable, and more likely to be contaminated and thrown away instead of recycled. Recycling is still important, and all of us need to learn to do it better and avoid “wish cycling” – placing incorrect items or materials into recycling bins with the hope that they can be recycled. Wish cycling also contributes to recycling stream contamination and batches of potential recyclables being rejected and sent to a landfill instead. We can also get better at avoiding packaging.

Our individual choices do matter. Buying in bulk is great, especially when we use our own containers and bags. But some of our food is going to come packaged. What can and is driving substantive change are advances in high-tech packaging technology. Businesses want to reduce their amount of packaging because it’s not only good for the environment, it saves them money. When manufacturers drive change in the way they use packaging, it can be a win for all of us. An April 15th Star Tribune article titled, “Boxboard Savings Slash Waste”, gives an excellent look at a slice of the packaging industry and reviews some new initiatives. It also gives statistics that should give us pause. For example, while we tend to think of cardboard as “earth-friendly” because it is so easy to recycle, the sad fact is that 30% of it ends up in landfills instead of being recycled.

At the co-op, we too must continue to work on driving change together. Many years ago, Mississippi Market discontinued offering plastic grocery bags at the registers in favor of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper bags. We also switched to compostable cups, soup containers, cutlery, and most recently, compostable straws, in our delis. We now have composting at all three locations and we compost as much of the waste that we generate as possible. Still, we know we can do better. There are numerous places we can look to reduce plastic in our co-op and we will continue to weigh our options. However, alternative packaging often doesn’t stand up to the rigors of the marketplace, and it can be considerably more expensive, requiring us to balance our environmental and financial bottom lines. We also know that efforts to further reduce the use of plastic packaging in our stores requires the support of you, our shoppers. We all have habits to change.

Meanwhile, I will refocus on reducing my packaged purchases. Right after I pick up some cheese—because I did finally run out.