The Residue of Our Convenience

  | Food For Thought, GM Report

Co-op shareholders, especially the ones who have been around since the very beginning of our Co-op in the mid-70s, are no strangers to reducing their use of packaging. In those buying club days, breaking down large quantities of grains, rice, produce, and cheese, we were focused on access to non-conventional foods in bushel boxes and fifty-pound bags. But even then, we sometimes broke things down into plastic bags.

Our most devoted Bulk customers have a wide assortment of containers for their purchases, a practice that we saw well represented on the 25% Bulk Sale day. It was heart-warming, really, to see the care and preparation evident in grocery cart after grocery cart that morning, filled with boxes of labeled and tare-weighted empty jars. We have brought in more and more receptacles to sell for Bulk goods, including those shapely half-gallon glass jars for oats, granolas, and grains that look so smart in your pantry. We have paper bags available to use as well as the ubiquitous plastic bags in the area. We want to move towards less (dare I say zero?) use of new plastic bags over time in that department, recognizing that we can’t yet eliminate the need altogether, while still considering ways to curb their use. We also know that many of you are irritated at the use of recycled/recyclable clamshells for the dried fruits and sweets, and we are looking hard for another solution. In the meantime, if you wish our Bulk staff to pack some of your own containers with these items, we would love to do so. It works best if you bring them in on your initial trip, and pick them up on your next trip, saving you wait time and aggravation in case we have none of your product in backstock to use.

We are seeking new ways to merchandise lettuce in the produce department, with labeled twist ties instead of plastic lettuce sleeves. Look for a transition to this option very soon.

We hope that you have considered replacing some of your plastic bag use with those wonderful produce mesh bags that are for sale throughout the department, or at least stuff your previously used plastic bags into your re-useable grocery bags for the next trip to the Co-op.

We also are embarking on the process of researching a deposit clamshell container for the purchase of foodservice items: hot bar, salad bar, and prepared entrées. We’ve been wanting to do this for a while, and with the recent information about the use of chemicals to reduce the instance of grease spots on some paper or cardboard containers (which we were using more and more of due to compostability and a resistance to using plastics), it became clear that now was the time to look at a more effective program to reduce the use of those containers. Solving the problem of waste is complicated indeed. In solving one problem, we inevitably wander into another one.

Take aseptic packaging, for instance. Many liquid products, such as kids’ juice boxes, alternative “milks,” stocks, and soups are packaged in these boxes that are bonded layers of paper, aluminum, and plastic. In some ways, these packages solve some problems: they don’t break; they are shelf stable and do not require refrigeration; they weigh less than glass; they ship more efficiently, which consequently uses less fuel to ship. But they require a special recycling facility to separate the various layers. Some of our concerned shareholders actually ship the used packages to facilities on the west coast to recycle, which is clearly a mixed solution. So we are looking to come up with a better one, and you should be seeing something about that soon.

Because co-ops all over the country want to solve these plastic and waste problems more effectively, our national cooperative of co-ops, NCG, is coordinating a “Better Packaging Solutions” team to research and propose more far-reaching ideas to replace plastics with more sustainable options. Happily, we have an informed and motivated staff member participating in that national effort.

We are currently still stumped in a few areas with better solutions, but we continue to look for improvement. There is no doubt that our convenience era has come home to roost, as some of the current memes suggest: a garbage truck full of plastics is ending up in our oceans every minute, or our oceans will hold more plastics than fish by 2050. Every one of us can make better decisions, one by one, and as a movement, our cooperatives can lead the way, once again, to offering our entire society better options, just as we did with organics, local producers, and GMO labeling. Come along!


By Sabine Rhyne, General Manager