Over the last few years I’ve noticed that more and more of my produce has been packaged into neat little containers at the grocery store. Plastic bags contain four different coloured peppers. Tomato packages carry the name of the supplier and contain eight perfect tomatoes. I can’t buy a bundle of herbs that isn’t in a plastic case. The latest produce to fall victim to the packaging craze is grapes—they now come in convenient plastic bags with grab and go handles. To make life easier for the harried home cook, squash comes pre-cut and packaged, and chopped vegetables are conveniently packaged for stir fries or soups.
I’ve also noticed a significant increase in pre-chopped fruits and vegetables made into salads or veggies for dipping, and ready-made meals. In fact, A.T. Kearney released a study in 2013 predicting that convenience-packaged foods in supermarkets would grow by 6-7% compounded annually between 2012-2017. Despite the increase in cost versus the unprocessed version, these prepackaged fresh foods have quite an appeal to consumers.
From the grocery stores’ perspective I can see the advantages of packaging produce and creating more ready-made meals:
1. Convenience for the customer. A customer usually wants to be in and out of a grocery store as fast as possible.
2. Marketing: The rise of “cuties” (clementines from California), Savora tomatoes, and potatoes from The Little Potato Company shows that branding gives producers an advantage as appealing packaging raises their profile.
3. Less waste for local stores: This is debatable because, while there is less waste in the produce aisle, more waste might be produced in the food prep area. However, grocery stores and food processing companies are now packaging green beans, snow peas, and loose leaf lettuces. By packaging produce in tidy containers, there is less need for sorting through individual bins by store employees, saving time and money for disposing of waste. The cost of produce waste disposal has been off-loaded to customers, and ultimately the municipality.
The disadvantage of this trend are more of a tragedy of the commons, and therefore, likely to go unnoticed.
Additional packaging waste:
In addition to the produce waste, there is the increased packaging waste that municipal waste systems now have to absorb into its system. When grocery store chains report on waste management efforts in their sustainability reports, none of the reports I looked at mentioned the increased amount of packaging they or their suppliers were producing for this new convenient shopping trend. They produce the waste, but they don’t have to deal with it because their consumers take it home.
What are we going to do?
Consumer Reports did a study that compared the cost of “fresh” prepared versus homemade prepared foods and found that among other issues, the increased cost for the prepared foods varied from two to four times the price of the homemade version. Despite the waste drawback, prepared meals are likely here to stay, and, as much as I hate to acknowledge it, probably packaged produce is, too.
The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) recognizes that packaging is a problem, as indicated in its Waste Management Action Plan and is intending to address packaging in phase 2 of the plan. Our waste streams are clogged with unnecessary packaging at every turn, and most of it is neither recyclable nor compostable, and even when it is, it isn’t always put in the correct bins by consumers.
The CCME needs to work with cities, grocery stores, food processors, and packaging companies to develop solutions that are acceptable to all parties. This won’t be an easy task, but they can look at a few different options such as:
1. Mandating that appropriate foods are sold in compostable containers while working to ensure that every municipality in Canada has access to commercial composing facilities.
2. Mandating that grocery store freshly prepared foods are sold in easily recyclable containers (#1 and #2 plastics) where compostable options are not available.
3. Mandating deposits on single use beverage containers to get them out of the waste stream and into recycling programs.
4. Developing a communication campaign for consumers so they can make more informed choices about how they choose their food.
5. Charging grocery stores a “tax” on prepared fresh food and produce containers to help alleviate the cost of the added waste to the waste stream.
6. Encouraging an industry-led Environmental Handling Fee similar to the EHF added to new electronics purchases. This type of program could be run by a consortium of interested parties such as produce handlers, distributors, grocery stores, and packaging companies.
7. Support research and pilot projects that are looking into packaging made from rapidly renewable materials. Right now there are biodegradable six-pack rings, utensils made from sugar cane, and single-use plastic glasses made from corn.
Additional packaging in grocery stores will only work against municipal solid waste goals of decreasing waste initiatives. However, with a coordinated effort between government and industry, the upward waste generation trend can be handled in a manageable way.