Recycling is not enough. Zero-packaging stores show we can kick our plastic addiction

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Wrapped, sealed, boxed, cling-filmed and vacuum packed. We have become used to consumables being packaged in every way imaginable.

The history of "packaging" goes back to the first human settlements. First leaves, gourds and animals skins were used. Then ceramics, glass and tin. Then paper and cardboard. But with the invention of plastic and the celebration of "throwaway living" since the 1950s, the of an overpackaged world have become manifest.

Plastic now litters the planet, contaminating ecosystems and posing a significant threat to wildlife and human health. Food and beverage packaging accounts for almost two-thirds of total packaging waste. Recycling, though important, has proven an incapable primary strategy to cope with the scale of plastic rubbish. In Australia, for example, just 11.8% of the 3.5 million tonnes of plastics consumed in 2016-2017 were recycled.

Initiatives to cut down on waste can initially be strongly resisted by consumers used to the convenience, as shown by the reaction to Australia's two major supermarket chains phasing out free single-use plastic shopping bags. But after just three months, shoppers have adapted, and an estimated 1.5 billion bags have been prevented from entering the environment.

Can we dispose with our disposable mentality further, by doing something to cut down on all the packaging of our food and beverages?

Yes we can.

The emergence of zero-packaging food stores is challenging the idea that individually packaged items are a necessary feature of the modern food industry. These new businesses demonstrate how products can be offered without packaging. In doing so they provide both environmental and .

The zero-packaging alternative

Zero-packaging shops, sometimes known as zero-waste grocery stores, allow customers to bring and refill their own containers. They offer (cereals, pasta, oils) and even household products (soap, dishwashing powder). You simply bring your own jars and containers and buy as little or as much as you need.

These stores can already be found in many countries across the world. They are more than just individual trading businesses making a small difference.

They are part of an important and growing trend promoting an environmentally sustainable "reuse" mentality. Their way of doing business shows we can change the current 'linear' economic system in which we continuously take, make, use and throw away materials.

Rethinking the system

Food packaging is part and parcel of a globalised food market. The greater the distance that food travels, the more packaging is needed.

Zero-packaging stores encourage sourcing locally. They can therefore play an important role in enhancing local economy and supporting local producers. They can help break globalised agribusiness monopolies, regenerating the diversity of rural enterprises and communities. The book Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market illustrates the benefits of reclaiming back the food industry.

Packaging also contributes to another problem with the current industrialised food system. It doubles as an advertising tool, using all the psychological tricks that marketers have to persuade us to buy a brand. These strategies appeal to desire, encouraging people to buy more than what they really need. This has arguably exacerbated problems such as obesity and food waste. It has given multinational conglomerates with large marketing budgets an advantage over small and local producers.

Next steps

Not all of packaging is wasteful. It can stop food spoiling, for example, and enables us to enjoy foods not locally produced. But what is driving the growth of the global food packaging market – expected to be worth US$411.3 billion by 2025 – is rising demand for single-serve and portable food packs due to "lifestyle changes". Most of us recognise these are not lifestyle changes for the better; they are the result of us spending more time working or commuting, and eating more processed and unhealthier food.

Zero- stores show, in their own small way, a viable and healthier alternative to the current system. Both for ourselves, local economies and the planet.

While these shops are still niche, governments interested in human and environmental health can help them grow. Bans on plastic bags point to what is possible.

How easily we have adapted to no longer having those bags to carry a few metres to the car and then to the kitchen show that we, as consumers, can change our behaviour. We can choose, when possible, unpacked products. There is, of course, a small sacrifice in the form of convenience, but we just might find that we benefit more, both personally and for a greater environmental, economic and social good.

Explore further

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Citation: Recycling is not enough. Zero-packaging stores show we can kick our plastic addiction (2019, January 17) retrieved 17 July 2019 from
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User comments

Jan 17, 2019
Most packaging was invented to improve the shelf-life of products first. For example, keeping your apples in a plastic bag prevents them from spreading around ethylene gas which is a plant hormone that causes other fruit and vegetables to ripen and rot early.

The question then becomes, which is worse, a gram of cling film or bag, or throwing away a larger portion of your food, which was grown on the same oil as what made the cling film.

Likewise, if you really wanted to help the environment, you wouldn't ban plastic shopping bags - you'd re-use them. One canvas bag consumes as much oil to make as 40 plastic single use bags, so if you just fold them and re-use a couple times each, you'll easily save more resources.

Jan 17, 2019
Well-stated, Eikka. And a significant percentage of "single-use" bags end up being re-used: as trash bags and to store and carry things.

Some packaging doesn't make sense, though, and could be done with fewer resources or completely done away. In a free market economy, competition tends to ultimately yield more efficient use of resources; no nanny-state diktats required.

Jan 19, 2019
Some packaging doesn't make sense, though, and could be done with fewer resources or completely done away. In a free market economy, competition tends to ultimately yield more efficient use of resources; no nanny-state diktats required.

Unfortunately people are somewhat poor in evaluating efficiency over multiple orders of magnitude. Things that cost pennies are treated differently from things that cost dollars, because when you're dealing with dollars on a day-to-day basis, anything that falls in the last percentage point is treated as irrelevant.

On a resource management point, that is warranted because banning plastic bags really isn't a question of saving oil. One plastic bag takes about 0.5 MJ of energy (oil) to make. That's enough petroleum to drive your car to the end of the street, so the trip to the store is going to consume the effect of 100 plastic bags already.

The issue is that cheap plastic bags are thrown away onto the streets and in the woods.

Jan 19, 2019
To put things into context, the average American family uses about 1,500 plastic shopping bags a year. That is equivalent to about 1/7 of a barrel of oil, or about 6 gallons.

Out of those bags, about 15 are recycled properly, as in, made into new plastic. The others may get re-used but are ultimately thrown away into landfill or into nature, or in the better case they are burned in waste incinerators for energy.

The amount of oil used for the plastic is somewhat negligible - it's the amount of trash that results that's really the problem. The narrative we're having right now is to tackle the problem at its source - if you don't have plastic bags, you can't throw them away - but that's a cynical approach to the issue.

It's more of a "This is why we can't have nice things!" approach - plastic bags are nice, they're useful, they're really not wasteful, but the "social managers" want results so they're willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Jan 19, 2019
A better approach to the issue is

1) mandate all shopping bags to be made out of the same single polymer that is easily reconstituted
2) mandate no prints or logos on the shopping bags to improve recycleability. Embossing graphics (like watermarking) is okay.
3) institute collection points where people can put their used shopping bags once they've served their purpose. These may be like public ashtrays but inside stores, so you take your bags back with you and either re-use them, or stuff them in the can if they're too tattered to use.

Jan 19, 2019
The free market provides work for idle hands

to put all those migrant fruit packers
who have come
half way round the world
to pack our fruit
Out of work

Fruitless packing is one way to help cure the migration problem

Jan 19, 2019
I collect all my shopping bags... in a shopping bag, and the issue is that I sometimes run out because I need them somewhere else. Bin liners, carry-ons, bike seat covers, backpack liners, a rain hat, floor cover for paint drips... my grandmother used to cut them into strips and weave rugs out of them for use in the yard and garden, and I still have one of those in the back of my car to throw on the ground if I need to change the tire.

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