As we recently started our journey towards a zero waste lifestyle, we discovered just how many products in grocery stores are packaged in some form of plastic nowadays. Not just in grocery stores though, in all types of stores we see a huge amount of plastic packaging.

In the olden days, you could simply pick as many screws and bolts as you’d like from a basket and take them home in a paper bag. Now you find them packaged in small plastic containers.

In Europe, every person creates an average of 160 kilos of packaging waste each year. 160 kilo’s of pure waste that people buy and discard.

The main reason for food to be packaged so often these days, is to increase its shelf life. This made us wonder though. If we solely want to buy unpackaged products, will this affect the amount of our, and possibly other people’s, food waste?

Curious as to why an increasing amount of products are packaged, we did a little digging.

Organic fennel packaged in plastic whilst normal fennel is unpackaged
Organic fennel packaged in plastic whilst normal fennel is unpackaged
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The function of packaging

Items in our grocery store are not packaged without reason. Although you might not always realize it, when looking at a coconut wrapped in plastic for example, companies really did put some thought into the packaging. Some of them are more honest than others, though.

Here’s a short summary of the main reasons that we could find for companies to package edible products:

  • Increased shelf-life; packaging material can form a barrier that protects products against extrinsic influences such as microorganisms, oxygen or light.
  • Protection against physical damage; certain items damage quite easily when transported (either to the store or to your home). Packaging helps protect them.
  • Hygiene; packaging forms a barrier for mud and dirt.
  • Marketing; we come across thousands of products when we go grocery shopping, brands use packaging to get your attention so you’ll be more inclined to buy their product.
  • Convenience; this can include easy grab-and-go packages, ready-made meals, as well as pre-boiled beans or carrots packaged in tins or glass jars.
  • Information transfer; products are packaged to inform you of it’s content, nutritional value, and preparation instructions. But products also need a barcode to scan at the register, or an indication that allows us to discriminate between organic and non-organic varieties.
  • Presentation; our standards have only but increased over the past decades, packaging products enables a visually attractive store which makes people more inclined to buy their products. You can think of the little windows in packages of pasta that allow you to see the spaghetti before you buy it.

 

Not all products are equal

There is a distinction to be made within the gross of food products. All products should therefore not be treated equally when considering packaging and such. Food can broadly be divided in high risk foods and lower risk foods.

High risk foods mainly include dairy products, meat, fish, and eggs. Basically products that contain many nutrients, combined with a high moisture content and low acidity. These products are highly susceptible to the growth of microorganisms.

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Lower risk foods include items that come in their own natural wrapping, namely fruit, and veg. You could also think of seeds and nuts. They do not only deteriorate less quickly, but there’s an added reason for them being low risk. Their deterioration process is much easier to recognize than that of high risk food. Fruits and vegetables mainly deteriorate due to the growth of molds, which are much more recognizable than buildup of microorganisms. People therefore tend to eat rotten fruit less easily than rotten meat, for example. This lowers the chances of people getting sick from rotten fruit and vegetables.

Although fruit and veg come in their own protective skin, it has been found that certain types of packaging do increase their shelf life. They are wrapped in a tailored package that allows oxygen to flow through at the same rate as the oxygen transmission rate of the given product. The tiny holes in this package allow the vegetable to ‘breathe’, in a matter of sense.

There truly is a whole science behind the packaging of our produce and each product requires its own tailor made packaging material.

 

If we simply extend shelf-life long enough, it will eventually reduce food waste

Well, that’s at least the feeling we get these days. The main reasoning behind the demand for longer shelf-life is so that our produce doesn’t perish before it has the chance to reach our plate.

Decreasing food waste is certainly of utmost importance. We won’t debate that! Extending shelf-life however, does not seem to be the magic formula to do so.

The science and techniques behind packaging have improved drastically over time. We would logically expect that the amount of food waste would reduce simultaneously.

Only if that were true.

Bell pepper packaged by three next to unpackaged bell pepper
Unpackaged red bell peppers next to packaged bell peppers

 

The ‘best before’ date has extended over time; our food waste however has not decreased. Whilst the amount of packaging and plastic waste increased – up to 30 kg per person per year – so did our food waste per capita since 1950.

 

But why?

So our food stays fresh for longer, but we still manage to throw away even more? That sounds odd, right?!

It seems that this mainly comes forth out of the development of general western lifestyle and diets over time.

 

A spoiled society

We found that there is a strong link between a country’s welfare and the amount of food that goes to waste. Food waste alone is already around 10 times higher in developed countries opposed to third world countries! Food waste per capita in developed countries is as high as 95 – 115 kg/year whilst it is only 6 – 11 kg/year in third world countries.

This can partly be ascribed to the fact that people in developed countries tend to opt for animal based products more often. Animal based products tend to deteriorate much faster than plant based products, which makes them more likely to end up as food waste.

Besides animal based products, habitants of the developed counties have also become accustomed to buying what they want, when they want it. 70% of UK consumers in urban areas, for example, expect to have year round access to all fruits and vegetables they desire. This results in the incitement of global transport of products.

bio tofu sealed in plastic and then put in a plastic container
Tofu that is first sealed in plastic and then put in a plastic container for display.

 

A prolonged time between the harvesting and the arrival at the store demands the produce to be fresh for longer periods of time. The products also need some form of protection during the transport from land to store. This ensures some form of packaging, if not for protection, then to keep it fresh.

This doesn’t just include global export, though. In the Netherlands, we can buy Spanish tomatoes. Yet when we cross the border to Germany, we find Dutch tomatoes in their supermarkets. Who could think of a valid reason? We sure can’t.

Another factor that comes into play is the percentage of a household’s income that is spent on food. In third-world countries, money spent on food constitutes about half of people’s income! Whilst in the UK, for example, it constitutes only 8.2%. People tend to throw away stuff more freely when they value it lower, compared to when it cost them half of their monthly income.

 

On-the-go or lazy culture?

Besides shelf-life, convenience also seems too play an important role in the packaging rage. People nowadays have even become too lazy to bring their own shopping bags when doing their groceries. Why would they? Buying new bags each week hardly costs anything.

Just about all groceries are nicely packaged in boxes, tins, glass jars, or plastic containers. Fruit, that comes in its own natural packaging, is peeled, diced, and wrapped in a plastic box. Just so it’s easier for us to consume. Avocados are cut in half, de-pitted, and put on display in a plastic box.

Conveniently packaged mini cucumbers
Conveniently packaged mini cucumbers

 

All of this is extra and unnecessary packaging, just to make it more convenient for us, the consumers.

Besides the fruitless addition of extra waste, the extra packaging can also cause us to buy more than we actually need. Pak choi wrapped per two, or red peppers packaged per three on a small plate with a plastic wrap around it. This inadvertently leads to food waste.

 

To sum things up

So, we have to add more packaging to extend shelf-life to allow us to transport all produce across the globe; we need extra packaging for convenience reasons; animal based products are consumed more often, which have a naturally low shelf-life, which combined with the worldwide transport needs a lot of packaging; we act more careless with the food we buy; and to make our stores look good, packaging is needed to convince us to buy certain products.

It could just be us, but we do not really see the necessity for all that added packaging nor the need to increase shelf-life.

 

Back in the day

Zero-waste stores nowadays act like they are starting something new and revolutionary. In a way they certainly are, but plastic certainly hasn’t been around forever. Once grocery stores switched from service stores to self-service stores, plastic packaging slowly became unmistakably entangled with grocery stores. But people managed to survive before the explosion of plastic. There was life before plastic, it really is possible!

All of this made us wonder whether better packaging is the most urgent solution or a change in mindset is necessary.

The current packaging rage seems to mainly serve our current spoiled on-the-go culture. It atleast certainly does not seem to solve the food waste problem. A few often discussed solutions are:

  • buying locally grown produce
  • buying fruits and vegetables that are in season
  • changing our diet back to eating less animal based products
  • buying what we need, rather than in ‘bulk’
Unpackaged ecological bread
A selection of unpackaged organic bread
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Some last thoughts

Taking a look at the impact on the environment rather than packaging, we wonder whether paper, glass, and aluminum really are better than plastic. They are recyclable and have a natural origin, but we’ve also read that it costs way more energy to produce them than plastic. So in the end, what’s better for our environment?

Transporting good from other parts of the world isn’t always the most harmful practice, either. It turns out that storing of fruit and veg for long periods of time (from summer until winter) can be less environmentally friendly than shipping them over large distances during off-season. So if we solely buy local produce, but still want these products available year round, we might be off even worse!

Luckily, quite some research is done into biodegradable bioplastics as an alternative for plastic packaging. The results seem promising! If packaging really turns out to be a must for most people, hopefully we can at least make the switch to more natural alternatives.

It’s quite tricky to determine how to best proceed with packaging materials. We have to approach the matter from many different angles, before a sound solution can be reached. Perhaps buying products packaged in paper packaged and tins is just as bad as buying products packaged in plastic.

At least it seems that all this added packaging that has arisen over the past few years does not add much value. We can perfectly do without. For now, we have at least excluded plastic packaging when doing our grocery shopping. We would also prefer to visit package free shops, but sadly there aren’t many around just yet.

For some further reading, you should check out this post. It is a lovely story from someone’s mother who talks about grocery shopping back in the 50s.

our grocery trolley filled with unpackaged vegetables
Our grocery trolley that doesn’t contain any plastic packaging

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