Post-consumer packaging is a multi-billion-dollar industry and is seen as a necessary and unavoidable part of modern food production. Manufacturing packaging requires raw materials to be extracted from the environment, along with massive amounts of energy, water and oil to process those raw materials. As an #EnvironmentalWarrior and #ConsciousConsumer, it is our responsibility to reduce overall consumption and reduce environmental impact. There is an urgent need to reduce the amount of post-consumer packaging we use, ensure what we use gets recycled, and the biodegradable waste we generate is diverted from landfill, to avoid environmental damage and depletion of natural resources.
In Australia, we use millions of tonnes of post-consumer packaging every year, and this is increasing annually. In 2013, only 64.2% of packaging was recycled – 78% paper, 45% glass, 40% steel cans and 21% plastic. I promote reducing overall consumption, and this is especially true when it comes to packaging. But I realize it’s impossible to completely avoid all purchasing and therefore, to avoid packaging. But we can avoid unnecessary, excess packaging. Packaging uses energy, water and natural resources to produce – paper (trees), plastic (oil), glass (sand) and aluminium, tin and steel (earth minerals). The production and disposal of packaging pollutes the air, water and soil.
Packaging is embodied energy, used once and discarded – resulting in a loss of valuable, often finite, resources. We may think throwing away one tiny piece of packaging is harmless, but consider the cumulative and collective effects of that one action – large amounts of packaging waste making its way into the environment, contaminating the land and harming wildlife. Packaging litter may end up in streams, rivers and the ocean, causing problems for animals and birds when it is mistaken for food and ingested.
We can take active steps to reduce the amount of product packaging we purchase:
- Nature’s packaging – foods with their own biodegradable packaging are the best foods for our bodies and our health. Fruits and vegetables are our number one, no-packaging choice and should form the majority of our diets. Food in its natural state is usually unpackaged, while processed foods tend to require packaging. The more fruits and vegetables we eat; the less processed products required. Fruits and vegetables come pre-packaged in edible or inedible skins and peels that can be eaten or composted. Instead of disposing of organic waste in rubbish bins and landfill, start a compost heap in the backyard, or invest in a Bokashi system.
- Re-usable cloth bags – many foods can be purchased whole, packaging-free and transported home in a cloth bag. Fruits and vegetables with their wonderful built-in packaging can be packed loose. Loaves of bread can be purchased whole, freshly-baked and preservative-free from a bakery. One of my favourite meals is lightly toasted organic sourdough bread from Firebrand Sourdough Bakery, covered with thick slices of avocado and organic vine-ripened tomatoes, sprinkled with sea salt and garnished with fresh organic basil. Bliss. Taking our cloth bags when we go shopping for food means we don’t need to use plastic bags.
- Recycled packaging – a great alternative when purchasing products in packaging is to choose products with packaging that has been made from recycled materials. Using recycled paper, plastic, metal and glass means additional raw materials don’t need to be taken from the environment to produce that packaging. Sourcing raw materials requires destruction and alteration of the natural environment. Many materials can be recycled more than once, so choose recycled packaging that is able to be recycled again and again. Recycling prevents waste ending up in landfill or in the ocean, contaminating ecosystems and harming wildlife.
- Minimal, recyclable packaging – if we can’t purchase products with recycled packaging, we can choose products with packaging that can be easily recycled. Check your local government or council for their recycling services for paper, plastic, metal and glass. These services will usually only recycle hard plastics, but there is now an alternative in Australia for recycling soft and flexible plastics through REDCycle. You can find their recycling bins outside most supermarkets – check their website for locations. Plastic and glass jars and containers can also be kept and used for storage.
- Reusable mesh produce bags – Our priority is always to reduce the amount of plastic packaging we are using. Avoid buying fruits and vegetables pre-wrapped in plastic. Buy whole fruits and vegetables that can be cut up and used immediately or cooked and frozen in portions if necessary. When buying fruits and vegetables, avoid using plastic or paper bags to weigh and to carry them – or at least re-use these bags as much as possible, and then recycle them instead of disposing of them. Or invest in some reusable mesh produce bags – I like the ones from Ever Eco, and they can be put through a washing machine when needed. Every little change we make helps.
- Buy grains, beans, flours, nuts, and seeds in bulk – Search for shops that sell items that can be purchased loose, in bulk, and weighed at the point of purchase. The University of Melbourne Student Union Food Co-op offer this service. I know of only one other store where I live where goods can be purchased loose – The Staple Store – and taken home in BYO jars and bags. Unpackaged is a fantastic concept store in the UK using this business model. We need more of these concept stores in every community – in Australia we now have The Source Bulk Foods franchise.
There are many ways to reduce consumption of excess packaging. Nature’s fruits and vegetables come pre-packaged in beautiful, bright and colourful skins and peels that can be eaten for maximum nutrition or composted and allowed to biodegrade back into the Earth. Ensuring the majority of the foods we eat are fruits and vegetables is better for our health. Use cloth and mesh bags when shopping to avoid plastic and paper bags to carry our purchases home, or we can choose recycled and minimal, recyclable packaging. We can make the commitment to refuse, reduce, recycle and reuse everything we can.