Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Shopping with waste in mind

So this is Day 1 of my attempt to create Zero Waste and I decided that there was no better place to start than a morning at the supermarket, researching grocery options that will incur the minimum impact on my black bin.

Since signing up for the Zero Waste programme, I've spent some time pondering the whole residual waste issue, i.e. the waste that goes into the black bin after other alternatives such as recycling and composting have been exhausted.

What has become immediately apparent is the relationship between what we buy and what we waste. Generally, the terms of this relationship are simple. The more products we buy, the more packaging we have to manage, whether it's boxes, cartons, food bags or carrier bags. The problem is that not everything can be recycled and there belies a key contributor to residual waste.

So my first challenge was to take a look at my shopping habits and assess where changes could be made. Here are just some of the highlights.

1. Carrier Bags

I know this is an obvious start to a habit-changing blog but carrier bags are the bane of my life. Most won't biodegrade and can't be recycled and as I hate putting them in the black bin to lie in landfill for decades, they tend to pile up in a bag in a kitchen corner. I try to be good and use shopping bags and bags for life, but I am human and have my lazy days and sometimes forget. Having now signed up for Zero Waste Week, I promise to make a better effort and with that in mind I set off to the supermarket with my reusable bags, including some of those rescued from the kitchen corner.

2. Packaging

In our consumer-centric world where the standard is perfection, the suppliers in the food chain seek to create an end product with minimum opportunities for damage and fewer returns and complaints. Consequently, walking through the aisles of every supermarket the consumer is faced with over-packaged produce. I really believe that this is driven by supplier merchandising goals rather than consumer-led demands. Whatever the cause, a Zero Waste programme needs to consider the context of packaging and whether or not it can be recycled, re-used or preferably eliminated altogether.

Even though I am a proactive recycler I did my shopping today with a fresh eye. I spent some time looking at the packaging information and was surprised to see what could and what couldn't be recycled. I deliberately chose Waitrose as I am a regular customer and I believe the company is making great progress in the area of packaging and waste issues. The particular sections where I paid most attention today were fruit and vegetables, meat and dairy produce and fruit juice.

Fruit and vegetables ~ although you can't beat the regular market for products with minimum packaging, if you buy with care at Waitrose, I discovered it is possible to buy produce with very little packaging being destined for the black bin.

a) Where the produce is large enough to handle without damage, e.g. bananas, grapefruit or oranges, they can be placed into the trolley without packaging into separate bags.

b) If bags are required for smaller items e.g. tomatoes or mushrooms, Waitrose offer paper alternatives, which can be recycled or composted. This avoids having to use the flimsy plastic option, for which the only destination is landfill.

c) Where produce is prepackaged, it is worth looking at the packaging information to see if the packaging is biodegradable or can be recycled. It surprised me how many fresh products didn't have this kind of labelling and how I'd taken for granted that I could just put the packaging into the recycling bin.

It was encouraging to see how packaging technology has moved on in some areas, including the introduction of biodegradable plastics, which I found had been used to package the organic pears and apples that I'd bought. Okay, it isn't quite clear how long this kind of packaging will take to decompose but it should be quicker than normal packaging and it also looks like I can add it to my compost bin, so that's another tick in the box.

On the other hand, if it has been produced using an oil-based resource, according to Wikipedia if placed in a landfill, its degradation will contribute to global warming "through the release of carbon as a main end product". So be warned if you don't have a bin for compostable waste. If there are any experts reading this maybe you could provide further comment on the benefits of biodegradable plastics.

Dairy: This is an area to which I had not given much consideration previously. I have my milk delivered by our local milkman in reusable glass bottles, so milk packaging is not a problem. However looking at the other packaging in the dairy aisle highlighted a number of issues, including:

a) Cheese packaging, where the majority of prepackaged cheese uses waxed plastic and this cannot be recycled. This made me think twice about buying my usual products and as a result I selected cheese from the deli counter. Even though it was wrapped in a small plastic bag, at least it was much flimsier than the standard cheese packaging. It would be a big improvement if Waitrose used paper bags for this purpose and it is something I would like to suggest to them.

b) Yoghurts ~ where I normally buy yoghurt in packs of four small pots, I realised that even though the plastic tubs are recyclable, the lids are not. Consequently I have replaced my usual product with one single but larger tub of natural yoghurt to which we can add fresh fruit to enhance the flavour.

c) Butter packaging has proven to creep up on me with a big "Boo"! A few months ago I switched from buying butter in plastic tubs to blocks of butter wrapped in paper, in favour of using less packaging. However as the paper used for packaging butter has a special coating, this cannot be recycled. So if I want to reduce my residual waste it looks like I will have to go back to the plastic tubs which can be recycled.

Meat ~ Choosing prepackaged meat today, I was very encouraged to see that Waitrose products were generally packaged using recyclable materials. I have got into the habit over the last few years of putting the the plastic meat packaging into the black bin on the understanding that it couldn't be recycled. However, with my new-found knowledge I am happy that this is one area which will help me to slim my bin.

Fruit juice ~ Now here is a real juicy topic to get my teeth into. Apologies for the terrible pun here, but I couldn't resist. The problem that I have with fruit juice is this. It comes in those awful waxed cartons. Even though they can be taken to recycling points in St Edmundsbury they are also allowed to be put into the black bin. As a busy mother, you can probably guess which option is popular in our household...and yes, you're's the black bin (that's if they are not rescued beforehand for junk modelling projects)!

With Zero Waste in mind, there is the option of gearing up to take the waxed cartons down to the tip. However, I know they would just pile up in the corner, creating one big general annoyance, before I found the time to recycle them. So instead, I implemented some lateral thinking and decided to opt for buying fresh fruit, from which we can make fresh juice if needed. What better than a bowl of fresh grapefruit and oranges, which come neatly packaged in their own skins and can be composted after use!

3. Too much food

After the problems of packaging, the issue of food abundance is probably the most difficult area to tackle in my Zero Waste challenge. Cooking with fresh food is the norm in our house and as a result it is easy to let use-by dates fall by the wayside as well as the food with it. Planning meals is not a particular strength of mine and what I cook normally depends on how we feel and what other activities fill up the day. My usual strategy is to select two fresh fish\meat products and use these as the basis of two meals, which can be enjoyed over four days and supplemented by vegetarian meals for the remainder of the week. Although this issue was at the forefront of my mind whilst shopping, this subject is very much deserving of a post of its own, which I will address very soon.

So in conclusion, today's excursion to the supermarket was enlightening and worthwhile. It was a very useful exercise in reinforcing my existing knowledge as well as raising issues which I now need to tackle if I want to make Zero Waste a reality. I am confident that many of my choices today will contribute positively to the challenge. Of course, if anyone has any suggestions that are relevant to this topic, please feel free to send in your comments.

Further information:

Waste Online's Guide to Recycling Packaging Symbols


Karin said...

On carrier bags: keep trying to give them up. It took us two or three years of forgetting to put them in the boot or forgetting to take them out when in the supermarket carpark, but we're much better at it these days.

I have several large jute or hessian bags and at present I keep 2 or 3 reusable plastic bags in each of those, but I hope to phase those up in favour of cotton bags.

For a handy bag to have on me at all times I've recently invested in a couple of onya bags, which fold up very small and are very light.

I've just taken a load of carrier bags to the library as people often ask for one if they have more books than expected. Charity shops seem to give out use carrier bags, too. We seem to accumulate them even if we don't take them from shops. teenage son brings them home and parents and others seem to feel the need to give us things in plastic bags.


Hi Karin - you're right, it does take a bit of practice to become a habit. I've now got them dotted everywhere and the system's really working well. I love the idea about the library keeping some, I wonder if our library does the same.

Karin said...

I'm glad to hear you've now got a system that works for you.

We recently had a talk by two local woman who want to encourage us to stop using plastic bags altogether, although the local supermarkets don't seem too keen to stop making free plastic bags readily available.

One new thing I learnt from their talk is that biodegradable plastic, or was it degradable plastic, whichever one is meant to break down most quickly, is still not very good because it then means small pieces of plastic are released into the environment and they can do plenty of damage, including when they are swallowed by small animals.

Since reading your blog I've been thinking about my plastic bags - not the carrier bags, which I usually avoid, but the smaller ones that many products come in. I'm not sure the thicker bags my rice and oats come in can be put in with carrier bags for recycling and although they come from Suma, they didn't say a word about whether they could be recycled or not.

No wonder so many people still don't bother to recycle very much, it is extremely complicated.

One more thing that might interest you, someone was selling onya bags at this talk, and one of the options is a bag of thin but strong, resuabel, washable nylon bags for fruit and veg and bread rolls etc instead of using the flimsy plastic bags provided by the supermarkets.


Hi Karin - Those Degradable bags are a nightmare. As they are not bio-degradable they can't be composted and my opinion is that they cause much more confusion for consumer recycling.

Thanks for the tip about the Onya bags. Will use that.

Anonymous said...

Hi fellow eco warriors, I'm always on the look out for how to improve my green warrior - but some company's are listening! I recently placed an order with The Soap Cauldron & received my goodies in minimal packaging & everything was recyclable Gr8 news.
Check them out at:


Hi Lisa - thanks for the link. The Soap Cauldron sounds familiar. I'll pop over for a gander. :-D

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