For anyone trying to avoid waste, supermarkets seem to be the last place you’d want to shop. It’s like a packaging waste horror show in there.
But the relationship between packaging and waste is complex.
If we could see the amount of resources and environmental degradation that goes into food, we’d be shocked. It really is quite mind boggling how much water, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution goes into producing something as innocent and natural looking as our food. One of the purpose of packaging is to prevent this being wasted, as the impact of the packaging is quite small compared to the impact of the food itself. This is the reason that the Green Alliance, along with circular economy NGO WRAP, are basically in favour of plastic packaging for food.
But, as most of us know, there is more to it than that. Packaging can also increase waste by encouraging people to buy more than they need, like multipacks, or by using packaging to promote products. Then there is also the waste of the packaging itself,* and the fact that some packaging really is quite bonkers.
When questioned as to why they put cucumbers in plastic wrap, the Co-op explained that they had done a full scale trial and found that this was the best way to reduce food waste. I’m willing to believe them, especially for the food on the shop floor – the loose fruit and veg in supermarkets often look more beaten up than the ones in plastic wrap. After all, losing food this way would mean a loss of revenue for the business.
I’m still not entirely convinced, though, whether supermarket-style packaging always helps to reduce food waste at home, which is where most food waste happens. The most common type of food wasted is fruit and veg, and the number 1 reason for this is ‘I didn’t eat it in time.’ So packaging could be making this worse, by encouraging people to buy more than they can eat in multipacks, or it could be helping, by prolonging the life of fruit and veg. It’s difficult to say, and probably varies, depending on the size of the household, individual lifestyles and the type of food.
And what about the food that doesn’t even reach the shop shelves? Supermarkets have enormous power, because they are so big, and they can use this to bully their suppliers. I’ve heard several stories, (from credible sources) of supermarkets rejecting veg from farmers because they don’t fit into packets, or because they’ve overestimated how much they need, and forcing the suppliers to waste them. Then there’s the issue of fruit and veg being thrown away because it isn’t beautiful enough.
Zero Waste Shops
Experts who reviewed the concept of zero waste stores were impressed by their potential to reduce food waste, mainly because they don’t try to tempt customers to buy more food than they need. The idea also scored points for reducing waste in the supply chain, improved diets, and engaging consumers with food. Their main concern was that selling fruit and veg without packaging could cause more waste due to shortened shelf life, so if you buy unpackaged fruit and veg, consider storing it in sealed containers, perhaps in the fridge.
For me, one of the main attractions of zero waste shops (apart from the environmental benefits) is that it’s a more pleasant shopping experience. It’s less rushed, and there are no harsh lights, adverts and branding shouting at me from the aisles.
However, unlike the larger corporations, which usually have qualified sustainability managers to help them achieve their environmental targets/greenwash their operations, zero waste shops don’t seem to really do serious environmental impact assessments on their business. Many have an ‘anything is better than plastic’ philosophy mixed in with their waste avoidance strategy, which means that some of the environmental savings made by many zero waste shops are then offset by practices like handing out paper bags, promoting the sale of cotton products and kitting out their premises in metal and glass – quite possibly the least sustainable way you could do it.
Of course, zero waste shops vary a lot – some furnish their stores with second-hand kit, others encourage customers to donate plastic bags and jars for reuse, and one even offers discounts to customers who arrive by bike. The individuality and independence of zero waste shops are part of the appeal for many people, but it makes it more difficult to make general conclusions about the way they are run compared to supermarkets.
So it seems that shopping at zero waste stores is a good way to reduce waste, assuming that the people who run them and shop there are conscientious about avoiding waste. However, I’m not sure that we can simply demand that supermarkets follow suit and ditch food packaging, especially for fruit and veg, since research finds low levels of public awareness about the problem of food waste, and that for most people, environmental concerns are not enough to motivate them to avoid it. So packaging-free food shopping would need to be adapted in some way if it was to become mass market without increasing the waste of food.
These have many things going for them. Shopping here will reduce food miles and packaging waste, and you can have more confidence that the producer is not being exploited. They tend to offer good food, as well as more transparency – you often get to speak directly to the person who produces your food. Keep in mind, though, that food miles are not the only thing that determine whether produce has a high environmental footprint – it has a lot to do with the way that food is grown. I’ve written more about that here.
‘Every time one tells a lie a fairy dies. Every time one buys the lie of cheap food a flower or a bird dies.’
This is according to the farmer and writer, John Lewis-Stempel. He’s right. There is a reason that well-produced food is more expensive, and it’s not just because it has a premium slapped on it (although that can be part of it). It’s because that’s how much food costs, if you don’t exploit people and planet.**
Of these different types of shopping, farmer’s markets are famously pricey, while zero waste shops vary – some things work out cheaper than supermarkets, some are more expensive. Supermarkets are generally the cheapest.
The problem, of course, is that many people rely on the cheap food available in supermarkets, especially people on lower budgets. The number of people who can afford to buy all their food exclusively from farmer’s markets and independent shops is limited. How much you are able to spend on food will play a big part in how you shop.
A well as price, how we shop also depends on convenience. Buying unpackaged food means bringing your own bags and containers with you. Shopping at eco-friendly, independent shops and farmers markets is particularly tricky for people who don’t have any close by, or for people who work long hours. Lots of extra driving around to reach the shops is not only a hassle, but also an ineffective way to reduce the carbon footprint of food, as this last mile – from shop to home – is the most inefficient of all the food miles.
One way to reduce the impact/hassle of driving to eco-friendly shops could be to stock up enough longer-shelf life foods to last for a while, and pick up fresh stuff more locally in between. You can also take bags to refill with dry goods, rather than containers, which are less hassle to carry with you. Also, some zero waste stores are beginning to do home delivery, often with electric vehicles – a great idea.
What to do if the supermarket is your most realistic option
Shop Yellow Label
Discounting food that is reaching it’s use-by date is one of the ways that supermarkets try to reduce waste. Buying this will save it from being thrown out. Yellow label shopping is especially good for people on a low budget or who work long hours, as it is much cheaper and is often available later on in the evenings, after the post-5pm rush. Josephine Liang is your heroine here.
Arrange home delivery
If you can take advantage of home delivery services that come in electric vans, do so. Yes, the whole thing does look a bit greenwashy when you consider how much fossil fuels goes into the rest of the supermarket system, but the bottom line is that if everyone had their groceries delivered to them by electric vans (assuming that they were full) it would be far better for the environment than everyone driving to the shops individually in their cars.
Look out for eco-friendly products
Although supermarkets may not always be run on the strictest ethical principles, they can be good at offering a range of eco-label goods, especially in larger branches. So if this doesn’t bust your budget too much, look out for products certified by the Soil Association, the Rainforest Alliance, Marine Stewardship Council, or the Fair Trade Mark. Sainsbury’s and the Co-op also sell eggs certified by the RSPCA. You can also find things made from recycled materials, like toilet paper, or some places do the Ecover range. Some stores sell loose fruit and veg that you can buy in your own bags, and some also sell wonky veg.
Choose more earth-friendly foods
Consumer expectation that shelves should always be fully stocked, with the same range of choices all year round, puts extra lorries on the roads and planes in the sky. How does there come to be strawberries in the shops, in a British winter? How much oil does it take to get fresh veg and flowers from Kenya, chopped and packaged, in your local store? Come to think of it, how does a country with one fifth of the available water supply per person of the UK, irrigate vegetables and flowers for export anyway?
It’s not always possible to get locally grown, seasonal produce in the supermarket, but we can always say no to some of the more crazy things on offer. Diversifying your diet to include more plant-based proteins, rather than meat, will also help reduce the environmental footprint of your food shopping. Choose wisely.
*Some people are concerned about plastic packaging getting into the ocean, but I’m not sure how likely that is to happen if you dispose of it properly in the UK. If you are not sure, you can always contact your local council to find out where your waste and recycling goes to. I’ve written before about whether we need to avoid plastic and how to reduce your plastic use without going insane.
**Researchers looked at the problem of how you can improve the sustainability of food without raising prices. They found it needs improvements in farming practices to be accompanied by changes in the way we consume. Interestingly, they found that if policies to improve agriculture were accompanied by a reduction in the consumption of meat, it would simultaneously reduce environmental impacts and food prices. It’s because meat production takes up so much land. So while I’m not promising that if you give up eating meat tonight, the farmer’s market will suddenly become more affordable, it’s always worth a try……?