Saturday, 20 January 2018

Reducing fruit and vegetable packaging: an easy win!

So many people go shopping for fruit and vegetables without thinking. We've all done it, putting everything in a separate plastic bag: pumpkin, cucumber, leek,… and why? 

I bought a spaghetti squash the other day, at a local greengrocer. I was carrying my own bags, he could see that. Yet, he wrapped the squash in a plastic bag before handing it to me.

Another thing: my husband came home from the supermarket the other day, with a picture of a plastic tray, the size of more or less half a litre of water. In it was a piece of ginger of 80 grams. It was priced at 1.99 EUR, the price of ginger being 24.88 EUR/kilo!!!

The shop next door, a local greengrocer, was selling ginger in bulk at 2.95 EUR/kilo.

Putting 2 and 2 together, this means 80 grams of ginger (the price in bulk being 2.95 EUR/kilo) costs 0.236 EUR, the price of the packaging being 1.754 EUR! And we are all buying it (pun intended)! Why?

So much for the price we are willing to pay for waste. 

How about the volume of plastic? The packaging of fruit and vegetables, meat, poultry and fish takes up most of our bin space.

To compare it on a weekly basis, I went shopping for fruit and veg in the supermarket. I brought back this lot:

I admit, they do look yummy. Then I took out all of the food and left the packaging on the same table:

Not that yummy anymore, is it? You are looking at 131 grams of waste, 75 grams of which is plastic (for a family of 2). That is 3.406 kilos of waste per year per person or 34.06 kilo per person per 10 years!

One week later, I did the same shopping at the greengrocer around the corner:

And this is only the packaging:

Better! You are looking at 18 grams of waste, 9 grams of which is plastic (for a family of 2)! That is 0.468 kilos of waste per year per person or 4.68 kilo per person per 10 years!

I also compared the price. For 2 avocados, 1 kg of kiwi fruit, 1 cucumber, 1 kg of nectarines, 1 bunch of radish, 400 grams of lettuce, 760 g of vine tomatoes, 3 peppers, 500 grams of red onions, 500 grams of white onions and 1 kg of mandarins, I paid 27.01 EUR at the supermarket and 18.78 EUR at the local greengrocer’s. The supermarket is 43% more expensive!

What issues have I encountered shopping at the local greengrocer?

1.   In the supermarket, I can buy leaf lettuce ready for consumption. The lettuce from the greengrocer’s I have to clean myself. I don’t mind washing my own lettuce but I love the young lettuce leaves, which are only sold in plastic bags, sometimes even in a plastic box and then wrapped in a plastic bag! During the summer, I might try growing my own young lettuce leaves on the rooftop, although we live in a fairly polluted part of town. I might not be doing us any favours. I will think about it.

2.   The tomatoes on the vine need to be put in a bag or they will roll all over the counter when you check out. The reason is that the local greengrocer’s vegetables are a lot riper than those of the supermarket. So, the first time I passed the check out, it was quite embarrassing. But a solution has been found! See below. The fact that all vegetables are a lot riper also means that I cannot always buy vegetables for a whole week. I might have to shop twice.

3.   The local greengrocer doesn’t always have what I want. For ordinary food shopping, that is acceptable. For dinner parties, I might have to go a shop where I know I will find what I need. This may need some planning in advance, but that’s OK.

4.   The local greengrocer’s assortment of goods is limited. I can do all of my weekly shopping at the supermarket. I can’t do all of my shopping at the greengrocer’s. For instance, he doesn’t sell meat and fish, the spreads we are used to. I will still have to visit other shops to do all of my weekly shopping.

So how did we solve the problem that some fruit and vegetables, like beans, vine tomatoes, mandarins still need a bag to keep them together?

One of my neighbours came up with the solution. She is a blogger herself and blogs about all sorts of things, including the environment. You can find her blog here. She showed me the vegetables shopping bags that she had bought online. I bought a packet of 5 bags.

They are nylon, that’s not so good, but they can and will be used a lot more often than the single-use plastic bags you find in the shops themselves. We started using them but we do have to remind ourselves not to forget them before we leave the house. It is a habit we have to grow into.

And we have left the house without these bags, and it will happen again. But we are slowly getting there. When we forget the bags, we try to put as many fruit and veg into the same bag. In the supermarket, if you have to weigh your fruit and veg, we put the stickers all on 1 bag or even on the packaging of another product we buy.

If they sell cucumber individually wrapped in plastic, we’re not eating cucumber that week, full stop. If they don’t sell aubergine without plastic, we will try another shop first. On some weeks, all the greengrocers only sell packed aubergine, on some weeks they don’t. I guess they all buy at the same wholesale market.

By doing this, we have been able to hold onto our bin 3 times longer than before! We used to put out a 60 litre bin liner every week. Now, we put one out every 3 weeks!

That has also required us to find a solution about food waste itself, because that makes the bin smelly. My kind neighbour Monique has offered her green container and compost barrel for us to put our degradable food waste in.  More about that in another chapter.

So the balance of this project:

Environmental impact
On a yearly basis, we used to produce 3.4 kg of waste per person or 6.8 kg for the both of us.

Now, with my little fruit & veg nylon shopping bags, I buy basically plastic-free, with the exception of young lettuce leaves and mushrooms (which you can hardly find without plastic). I don’t know how much that will be but let’s take a conservative 0.4 kg/year per person or 0.8 kg/year for 2 people.

That is a total reduction of 6.0 kg/year for 2 people.

Financial impact
Based on this one experiment, fruit and veg is 43% cheaper. This will not always be the case. It very much depends on the season and what I need that week but on average, the local greengrocer is much cheaper. Let’s assume a comfortable 30% difference.

The 5 little bags were an investment of 12 EUR. I don’t know how long they will last, but they don’t show any signs of wear and tear yet. When they are worn out, I will buy cotton ones.

The investment not included, this is a positive balance (at a price difference of 30%) of more than 400 EUR /year.

Space impact
We gain the space of the empty (and always messy) plastic bags stock.
We lose the space of the 5 fruit & veg bags...

Time and effort impact
We lose time because we cannot do all of our shopping at the local greengrocer. I still have to go to the butcher, the baker, the fishmonger…

Also the fruit & veg sold at the local greengrocer doesn’t always last a week, which means I might have to shop more frequently.

Another “loss” is that the local greengrocer does not always have what I want or need when I want to cook something special. I sometimes have to go back to the supermarket for special mushrooms, fresher beans, etc.

Balance: apart from the effort, a big “win”.

Next post: coffee and tea! 

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