Nerd Alert: Let’s talk packaging 3/18/2021

Quick things:

 

(*Radishes are currently in short supply but I’m told more are on the way; software woes mean chicken noodle soup will hit the website on Friday afternoon, but it is available in-store now; most test breads are coming out of the oven mid-day, and are here until they’re sold out — they’ll never be on the website until they’ve graduated from “test” to “production”.)

 

If you’ve been around here for a couple of years, you might remember our discussion back in the spring of 2019 about why we continue to use plastic bags. (If you don’t remember and you’re curious, you can find the link here, though the formatting is pretty ugly thanks to the website migration since then.) Think of this as part two of that post, I guess.

Also, truth: I wish I’d written this post last week! Thanks to Australia’s recent announcements about their plans to ban biodegradable plastic, you may have read several similar articles over the past week. They’re probably better researched and informed than mine, and their very existence makes me feel less contrarian (I like feeling contrarian).

But the real truth is, Dusty and I think a lot about plastic and packaging and sustainability, and have spent many many hours over the past years and months researching (well, reading things online) about options for shopping bags, produce bags, soup containers, and pretty much everything else that wraps or contains anything you might take home from R&R.

The trend these days is “biodegradable” or “compostable” plastics. Many of these are “bio-based” — made from sugar or corn, mostly — making them seem even more eco-friendly. There are now a ton of options in this space.

We’re eschewing all of those options. We think they’re not just not-so-great, but actively worse than many conventional plastic options. Why?

  1. There is little to no evidence that “biodegradable” plastic actually biodegrades, whether it’s made from petrochemicals or from plants. It falls apart, sure, until it can no longer be seen by humans, but increasingly it’s believed that these plastics degrade into microplastics faster than conventional plastics do (making the biodegradables harder to clean up), and persist in that form for as long as conventional plastics do.
  2. “Biodegradable” plastic cannot be recycled in the same stream as other similar products, and is considered a contaminant when mixed with these materials. Given the visual and tactile similarity of these plastics with recyclables, there’s a high risk of them being “wishcycled” by the well-intentioned but ill-informed, which is in turn detrimental to overall recycling efforts. In other words, there are no end of life disposal options for biodegradable plastics other than the landfill or incinerator. In addition, under these conditions, bio-based plastics may release methane, which is much worse for the climate than carbon dioxide.
  3. “Compostable” plastics mostly aren’t, at least not yet. Though the term is more regulated than “biodegradable”, nearly all compostable materials require controlled composting environments and high temperatures, which won’t be achieved in a home compost pile. Commercial/industrial compost facilities capable of breaking down these materials are few and far between, and increasingly those that do exist are refusing “compostable” plastics because they take longer to decompose than traditional organic matter, and they contaminate the end product, reducing the viable market for selling the finished compost. (Like, one article I read said organic farmers can’t use compost that includes “compostable” plastics.) These materials are also considered contaminants in most recycling streams. In other words, there are very few, if any, end of life disposal options for compostable plastics other than the landfill or incinerator (and see above note about methane).
  4. Many of those “compostable” plastics, particularly the molded fiber bowls, are treated with PFAs to prevent them from breaking down prematurely (while they’re holding your food). These are “forever” chemicals that will persist in the environment, contaminate compost and soil, and may be linked to health issues.
  5. There are some difficult-to-quantify ethical questions about land and pesticide use if we are growing food to turn it into plastic. These crops are nearly all conventionally grown, and so are contributing to pesticide use and run-off. The manufacture of conventional plastic is less problematic than its disposal; with bio-based plastics (which may only be 20% plant matter anyway), the externalities of the manufacture may be greater.

It may be worth revisiting my assertion just above that “the manufacture of conventional plastic is less problematic than its disposal”. We don’t talk a lot about the manufacturing process, and I’ve had a hard time finding the data I’m most interested in — how much oil drilling and fracking is really driven by plastic manufacture? Again, I can’t find any good numbers, but my impression is — almost none. This is because plastic is made from byproducts of the refining processes, so those raw materials will exist whether or not they’re being made into plastic. The contrarian in me might argue (honestly without any real knowledge) that perhaps plastic actually serves to temporarily sequester carbon that would otherwise be burned off during refining. But I’m way out of my depth there, so take me with a grain of salt.

Mostly I’d like to call your attention to the beautiful spring produce starting to come in, but also — all those black bins are recycled plastic!

Regardless! The only arguments I can find against the manufacture of plastic are that it takes fossil fuels to transport the materials that will become that plastic (that is true of pretty much everything we produce and at least plastic is incredibly lightweight compared to much of what it replaces), and that it releases carbon if incinerated (again true of almost everything, and maybe further evidence that until the plastic is incinerated it’s sequestering some carbon!).

I’m off the rails here. I’m obviously not trying to defend rampant plastic use. My main point is — our primary concerns about plastic should be about its disposal, and the most common alternatives to plastic on the market today are, in many ways, worse options than plastic when it comes to disposing of them because landfill or incineration is the only viable option, whereas the infrastructure to recycle conventional plastic already exists.

The other option, of course, would be to switch to returnables for more products, but we, Radish & Rye, simply don’t have the kind of infrastructure (or space for that infrastructure, or time to maintain that infrastructure) to wash and sanitize any quantity of returnables. It would also dramatically raise the price of products packaged in that way, running counter to our desire to be as accessible as possible. (I would note this is even harder for us, pre-packaging things to put on the shelves, than it would be for a restaurant packing only to order.)

So what’s a grocery store (or a person) to do?

If you’re a person (I think you are), it’s maybe a little easier — as a grocery store, our options for reduce and reuse are somewhat limited. We try not to package things unnecessarily, but we’d rather use a little plastic than dramatically reduce the usable life of the food we’re offering. And then there’s stuff like the soups and hummuses that are coming out of the kitchen these days that would be pretty much impossible to sell without packaging them in some way.

We’re already focused on reducing, and reusing is not much of an option (I mean, we do reuse stuff internally to the extent that it’s practical and food safe), so that leaves recycling.

I have long been convinced — and the more research I do the more convinced I am — that the number one thing we can do beyond reducing our personal materials usage (because it’s not about throwing away all your existing plastic containers and replacing them with glass, right? it’s about not replacing things that don’t need to be replaced? anyway!) is buying things made from recycled plastic. Recycled anything, really, but especially plastic.

By buying recycled materials, we help create demand for that material to be recycled. We help fund development of recycling infrastructure, we help fund collection efforts, and we send a message to the manufacturers that we are willing and even eager to buy products made from recycled materials.

The only real challenge there is finding things made of recycled materials, particularly when we’re talking about a need for food-grade plastics.

We haven’t (yet) found recycled clear plastic bags — I think they actually don’t exist yet, but I’m keeping an eye out. If you learn of any, let me know.

We were able to find produce bags (like the thin kind on the rolls) that are made from “plastic collected off the beaches in developing countries where trash collection is not available”. Holy cow! Unfortunately, after hours (and I mean HOURS) on the phone with the manufacturer and many different distributors, we can’t actually find anyone who can sell us these bags, even if we were willing to buy a pallet of them at a time. Do they actually exist? We can’t tell. If you have any ins with a Crown Poly distributor, please let me know about that, too.

We also haven’t been able to find any good coffee cup options (did you know we’re brewing coffee?), so we opted for the most functional cups we could find. They’re very attractive, too, though maybe my least favorite thing about them is that they *look* like they should be made from recycled paper, but they aren’t. (I like this aesthetic, I just worry that it’s bordering on dishonest.) The only recycled paper options we could find are lined with “compostable” plastics, and not only do we think this is BS, we’ve got some concerns about the safety of those plastics at coffee temperatures since cups made with entirely with the same material (PLA) as the lining are not usable for hot foods, but coffee is…hot. I don’t get it. You are more than welcome to bring your own coffee cup.

We have made some progress though — here’s what we’ve got:

  • All the black plastic bins that our produce is displayed in are made with 100% post-consumer recycled plastic. We were thrilled to find these, and especially thrilled that not only are they recycled, they’re way more cost effective than the fancy bins designed for the purpose.
  • Our plastic shopping bags are 100% recycled, as are our paper bags. The paper bags “feel” better, but they’re much much much more resource intensive to manufacture and transport, so we try to reserve use of paper bags for those occasions where doing so will save multiple plastic bags. Also! You’re welcome to bring your own bags.
  • And speaking of your own bags, we’ve got a plastic film recycling bin. Bring those plastic bags back!
  • The square deli containers the hummus, soups, and crackers are packed in are 50% post-consumer recycled plastic. They’re also recyclable! On the downside, while they are food safe, they aren’t heat safe, so we cool everything before packing them and you’ll need to transfer them to another vessel for re-heating (where applicable). We’re also a little worried about the lids. Please be careful.

 

These are big/small steps. We look forward to new innovations in materials and additional options that come available in time. What we don’t want to do is select whatever’s being marketed as “green” just for the optics of it, particularly if we believe that its impact is actually worse than that of the product it’s replacing. I was really heartened by Coca Cola’s recent announcement that they plan to transition to recycled plastic bottles over the next few years — I suspect this will be a major driver of ramping up manufacture of recycled plastics, and that the availability of those materials will then trickle down to the rest of us.

Ultimately, I’d love to see a service like Portland’s GoBox launch in Harrisburg, enabling us to offer reusable options. In the meantime, I’m open to ideas about how we might be able to incorporate more reusables without having to build a whole additional facility to accommodate them (and, like, how many containers do you have to wash how many times to break even on the impact of building that space and buying all that equipment?).

And in the meantime meantime — please be careful with those soup lids.

-Julia

P.S. You’ve read all the way to the bottom and you still want more? Here are some of the articles I’ve read over the past few years that have informed my thinking (and I enjoyed enough to bookmark):

https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2017/12/13/the-truth-about-bioplastics/

https://theconversation.com/a-type-of-biodegradable-plastic-will-soon-be-phased-out-in-australia-thats-a-big-win-for-the-environment-156566

https://www.uts.edu.au/sites/default/files/2021-03/Infographics.pdf

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/environmental-impact-of-corn-based-plastics/

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/are-bioplastics-made-from-plants-better-for-environment-ocean-plastic

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/corn-plastic-to-the-rescue-126404720/

https://thecounter.org/dig-reusable-container-canteen-pfas/