Produce producing too much plastic

Published in The Sault Star Nov. 25, 2021

Usually I put out my recycling bin only every six weeks or so, because I live alone and seldom drink from a can or bottle that can’t be redeemed at the beer store.

But last summer the bin was filling up almost weekly.

My problem? I was eating far too many fresh fruits and vegetables.

And plastics are taking over the produce department.

Much of that delightful and delicious produce from “nearby” (supermarket slang for “780 km away in Niagara”) now comes in hard plastic containers.

Anything that used to be displayed in wooden or cardboard baskets — peaches, plums, nectarines, carrots, cukes, peppers, potatoes — might now be encased in hard plastic. 

Even those lightweight plastic bags that contained too many grapes for one person have largely been replaced by hard plastic cases containing too many grapes for one person. Now you can’t cheat by dumping some out before heading to the checkout.

Lettuce, once naked, now exposes itself through a window of really big, hard plastic, especially if you like the “live” kind that single seniors hope might not wilt as quickly as they do.

Yellow and green beans, formerly scooped from bins, now wax within thick plastic envelopes.

An alien or small child (or a preschool-aged alien) might think fruits and vegetables have evolved to grow their own plastic containers.

Oh, you can buy some produce items in their birthday suits. But it seems to me individual items cost more, though I haven’t conducted a consumer investigation to find out how much more.

And though I dutifully send hard plastic containers to the curb (three kilometres away, in my case) and hope they’ll be recycled, I know the little triangle on the back of plastics might be one big liar. 

Less than 10 per cent of plastics used in Canada are recycled, according to one advocacy group, and many are difficult to recycle even if we’re willing. Hard plastic containers might be clogging our landfill for many half-lives to come.

So these days I’m doing my best to avoid pre-checkout supermarket plastics, higher cost be damned. 

I’m hoping Sault Ste. Marie city council, along with other levels of government, will make environmental friendliness easier and perhaps cheaper. At a recent meeting council directed staff to come up with a process to ban single-use plastics by next July.

Trouble is, the news reports I read about council’s actions didn’t mention hard plastic containers. Instead they dwelt on the usual suspects, plastic grocery bags.

Let’s hope city staff don’t approach the problem from the wrong end of the food chain. 

As the avalanche of hard plastic in supermarkets suggests, Canada’s plastic proliferation is primarily the product of business practices. So that’s where the solution to the problem lies.

Consumers didn’t demand hard plastic containers. We may have welcomed them, but because of our growing awareness of the environmental damage plastics cause, that welcome is wearing thin.

The food industry’s love for plastic might be because it’s superior at limiting spoilage and contamination, easier to handle, cheaper than what it replaced.

In fact, if plastics significantly reduce food spoilage, the environmental benefits of banning them outright could be offset to some extent by an increase in food waste.

Foods aren’t the only products being plasticized, of course.

Ever buy a plastic flashlight? Chances are it comes encased in plastic packaging, plastic so hard that you might cut your hands opening it, either on the plastic itself or on the utility knife you use to cut into it. That knife also came encased in plastic.

Purchase something indestructible online and it will be delivered in a too-large cardboard box, swaddled in plastic bubble wrap and swimming in a sea of Styrofoam beads. All except the cardboard will outlive you.

Who among us is eager to possess large boxes full of foam beads and bubble wrap? Who welcomes the challenge of disposing of those things in an environmentally friendly way, if that’s even possible?

I have to think tackling overpackaging could put a huge dent in the world’s plastics problem with little pain for consumers. 

But simply banning certain very useful plastic items isn’t as painless. 

The onus should be on industry to find environmentally friendly substitutes for the myriad of plastic products in their stores. It’s a challenge, but they should be up to it.

The food industry came up with a great way to replace the “single use” of grocery bags, offering multi-use grocery totes at a very reasonable cost.

But it’s unfortunate that government has chosen to fight the war on plastics on the grocery bag front. In my household, and I suspect in many others, “single use” grocery bags always get reused. 

They hold kitchen waste, previously enjoyed wood screws, wet bathing suits, disgustingly dirty diapers, library books, leftover parts from Ikea furniture assembly, doggie poo, other plastic bags — the list is endless.

Just last week a food bank in the Sault appealed for people to bring in old grocery bags, because it needed them badly.

Clearly industries will have to come up with a host of environmentally friendly products to handle the uses most of us make of used grocery bags.

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