The state of plastics
Many Co-op owners and shoppers have shared their interest in reducing plastic usage in the store. From bioplastics, to compostable plastics to recycling options, the Ashland Food Co-op continues to research what works best as we move towards our goal of being a zero waste store. Here is where we stand.
Right now, there is a trade-off in terms of food and plastic waste. Plastic is extraordinarily unique in its ability to preserve food and prevent spoilage and waste. But the trade-off is its very long lifespan.
Reducing plastic waste - by using alternative storage materials, or going package-free when possible - results in more food spoilage and waste, which can sometimes have a bigger ‘carbon footprint’ than plastic use alone.
The best way to summarize: as of March 2019, no perfect solution for plastic alternatives exist.
This isn't meant to make excuses for waste - as you may know, we already divert over 80% of our waste from the landfill. But it is important to know where things stand, and what some of the many decision-making factors are, that go into this debate about containers and plastic. Let’s break it down:
Bioplastics often come from unsustainable sources - for example, monocropped GMO corn that could be used to feed people, or is grown on the other side of the country and requires a large carbon input to deliver.
As the name implies, bioplastics often have lifespans as long as petroleum plastics - they’re still plastic! The “end of life” assessment for bioplastics is not much better than petroleum plastics. For example, a single-use plastic fork made from GMO corn will still end up in the landfill.
Though there are recyclable and compostable bioplastics, they often require specialized machinery at waste disposal sites to be broken down. Our region does not currently have that infrastructure, and the additional carbon footprint to ship these materials elsewhere can quickly outweigh the ‘bio’ benefits.
The Co-op continues to explore options in this area: more readily compostable bioplastic bags are hitting the market which we will continue to test.
Alternatives to plastic
AFC has brought in cardboard packaging for some produce, like cherry tomatoes and strawberries. And yes, they are completely recyclable!
However, it can be difficult for customers to visually connect with the product - can you tell how juicy and ripe those strawberries are through the cardboard? Without that visual connection, a shopper may be hesitant to buy the product, inadvertently leading to more food waste (because the product stays on the shelf longer).
Cardboard also leads to more spoilage because of the lack of light and its ability to carry moisture (leading to molding).
Is generating more food waste an acceptable trade-off to having recyclable and compostable packaging? This is another instance where analyzing production inputs and requirements, instead of just ‘end-of-life’ issues for packaging, gives a better idea of the sustainability of a packaging type.
Many plastics are no longer being accepted by local waste management services. Generally, white, rigid plastics (example: yogurt containers) are still being recycled; clear, non-rigid plastics (soda bottles, salsa containers) are not. So buy smart!
Clamshells are a common area of concern. The Co-op is very lucky to be able to recycle plastic clamshells from products that were purchased at AFC. You can bring those clamshells back into the store for recycling. Even better, this recycling is more carbon neutral because the clamshells hitch a ride back to Eugene on existing truck routes (rather than a one-off transit run).
If you're purchasing greens, you can also bring your own container to fill from the bulk spinach and baby greens bins. Alternatively, OrganicGirl salad clamshells are made of 100% recycled plastic.
It’s easy to see that with the options available right now, there’s always a trade-off. In our own store and through the National Co-op Grocers network, we continue to look for a solution that is not petroleum-based, non-GMO, and that can be recycled or composted fully. When that solution arrives, we will be ready!
Right now, you should aim to reduce your overall plastic consumption when making purchasing decisions; choose reusable packaging when you do have to purchase plastic (clear salsa packages make great storage for leftovers); and choose recyclable plastic (white plastic and clamshells) if you think you’ll only get one use out of the packaging.
For some additional reading on the topic of plastics and packaging, check out this report put together by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
More Co-op News
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Check out a quick tour below:
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No purchase necessary. Giveaway is not endorsed or sponsored by AIFF. US residents only. Entry will be closed at 5pm PT on Monday, April 15.
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