Why can't we shop without garbage?

Why can't we shop without garbage?

I wanted to write an article called – “How to walk into a conventional grocery store and not leave with a cart full of garbage.” Surely I must have enough knowledge to help guide the average consumer. I really wanted to, but I couldn’t. There is no straightforward way to do it. Sure, I have tips and hacks, but very few of them work in a conventional grocery store. Which got me thinking. Why DO people shopping at a major grocery chain have to leave with carts full of packaging garbage?

The problem is well outlined in a recent CBC article about how slow Canada’s largest grocery chains are to remove plastic waste from their products. But the issue goes much further than just plastic waste; it is all packaging waste. So I dug a little further.

I went looking for what the packaging industry has coming down the pipe – maybe change is here, it just hasn’t landed in the stores yet? If the Packaging Consortium of Canada’s website is anything to go by, they’ve figured out that sustainability is a marketable term to a general public who care – but they have no plans to stop over-packaging products. One read through their newsletter and you’ll see ‘sustainable’ disposable straws and ‘reclaimed ocean plastics’ packaging right next to glowing industry awards for individual yoghurt cups, and over-packaged alcohol. Can anyone say “greenwashing”?

Case in point: One company created plastic food packaging labeled with the term “circular economy” and recycling symbols. The fine print goes on to explain the package can be made into new plastic shopping bags (?!), plastic decking etc. These are both examples of down-cycling, not the infinite reuse that a Circular Economy requires. That decking will photo-degrade and not be recycled. That is not a circle, it is a slightly longer trip to the landfill. But on the off-chance that you have heard “Circular Economy = good” They’ll use that phrase to sell it to you ... all the way to the landfill.

Some companies are piloting a different route with returnable, reusable packaging initiatives like Loop by TerraCycle. It is perhaps a step in the right direction, but it still smacks of greenwashing. For example, one of the test products for the loop appears to be disposable wipes sold in a returnable container. Manufacturers are still just trying to appeal to customers’ increased awareness of the need to save the environment, without actually changing their business model or product to save the environment. 

With all that said, what does real change look like?

In my opinion, it starts with a complete zero-waste philosophy at the heart of business itself. If you want a world leader in that, have a look at Patagonia. For a more local example, a new store opened in Saskatoon that offers all their products package-free. Over 700 different things, and you can bring your own containers for all of them. I don’t need to write a guide for how to shop waste-free in that store (called Bulk Basket), I just need you to go there. They’ll guide you through the rest.  They had package-free shopping  sorted out in A YEAR. Grocery stores have no excuse.

Bulk Basket has one location in one city in one province. There are no others like them here – yet, though there are plenty of people eyeing the business model. I would like to think  they will make it past a few years in business, but many like them have started and closed due to low sales. Grocery retail is a slim margin business at best. 

So, if you don’t want to leave a grocery store with a cart full of garbage, here’s your answer. Don’t. Don’t go IN them. Search out stores, farmers, and markets that offer food without all the extra packaging. Vote with your dollars. You are the almighty consumer, my friend.

Over-packaged products that sit on the shelf will send a message, but only if you let them know why. Fill in the feedback form on your last grocery receipt (there’s always a link at the bottom) and tell them why you will be shopping elsewhere, and then go do it.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease — let’s make them stop the car to find out what’s making all that noise. My challenge to you is this: pick a product you love and take the time to tell them why you don’t agree with their packaging. Once you do, tell us your story in the comment box below.