1 April 2018

Should I leave my plastic at the counter?




The other day, a few friends shared with me (Oberon) a UK viral video about plastic, and it got me thinking. In the video, a group of supermarket shoppers collectively do their grocery shopping, but when they get to checkout they all remove the plastic packaging from the bought items and leave it on the counter as a sort of plastic protest. The video describes how the group wants supermarkets to take more responsibility for the overuse of plastic packaging in the products they sell. I find it interesting to think about the issue of ‘who takes responsibility’ when it comes to packaging waste. So, who is responsible for single-use waste plastic packaging? I thought I’d ‘unpack’ (pun intended) the issue a little.

There are four main players (probably more) to consider – governments, producers, retailers, and individual shoppers. You could also add other players – media, insurance companies, packaging designers (note the saying ‘Waste is a design choice’), oil companies, plastics manufacturers, waste and recycling managers, industry regulators, and more – but I’ll set these others aside for now.

Let’s look at each of the first four players I mentioned:

GOVERNMENTS

Each level of government (local, state, federal, plus international obligations) has different responsibilities and capacity to influence single-use plastic packaging. The Australian Government regulates and manages waste at a national level and administers the Australian Packaging Covenant, which is a sort of ‘soft’ regulation, requiring big businesses to report on the steps they are taking to reduce and better manage packaging.

State Governments have responsibilities around pollution and managing all sorts of aspects of community health and well-being (and waste), but regulation around plastic packaging is not generally offered, unless there is lots of pressure from elsewhere (e.g. peer pressure from other states, or strong lobbying from individuals/communities/local govts). State governments do have the potential to enact fantastic positive change around single-use plastic packaging, but they have to have the will.  

Local government is where (I believe) the greatest in-roads can be made in terms of regulating use or sale of certain types of plastics, but the sphere of influence is limited, to the municipality, and also to limited certain business contexts – e.g. Hobart City Council are banning single-use plastic packaging for takeaway food, but are unlikely to be able to ban all the single-use plastic packaging that lines every aisle of a supermarket.

PRODUCERS

Producers (the people who grow the food and make the supermarket products) vary greatly – some give attention to environmental impacts, whilst others completely avoid them. Some will give the impression of addressing environmental concerns, such as by calling something ‘eco’ or ‘natural’, whilst continuing to sell harmful products. Producers often sit between a rock and a hard place – they are bound by governmental regulation (e.g. food packaging laws) as well as retailer contracts that may demand certain products be packaged in plastic (e.g. spinach leaves or strawberries), in order for the product to work within the long supply chain of a supermarket. Many foods in Australian supermarkets have had to travel long distances, and with that comes additional requirements for certain types of packaging to keep food fresh and undamaged. Whilst producers can look for ways to avoid plastic packaging of their products, the alternatives may be cost-prohibitive or a legal nightmare – just look at the struggle Elgaar Dairy (both a producer and a market retailer) have had to go through to provide milk in returnable glass bottles.  

RETAILERS

Retailers also vary enormously, from the massive multinational corporations, down to little Jimmy selling lemonade on the nature strip. But all retailers choose which products they want to sell, and this includes choosing which items they will sell that are wrapped in single-use plastic. Plastic is cheap, and so many retailers are reluctant to avoid its prevalent use. Big retailers will run the argument that customers demand certain items be wrapped in plastic, or they will say that they are simply offering customers the variety of options that they desire. They have control over packaging of home-brand lines, but rarely do anything to reduce the plastic in them.

Big supermarkets now have automatic electronic checkouts, (which, as an aside, cuts jobs), and (say they) require additional plastic packaging to appropriately use the automated checkout system. This is partly why you’ll often see the organic produce in supermarkets is plastic-wrapped. Big supermarket chains will continue to sell what the customer buys, and are strongly driven by their profit margin, with only tokenistic attention given to things like waste and environmental impacts. They will continue to respond to the dollar signs, and rarely to complaints to their social media walls. A couple of years ago, I initiated and worked on a #PlasticFreeProduce campaign to encourage supermarkets to reduce the plastic packaging of their fruit and veggies – but it was like water on rock, as the supermarkets have strong bureaucratic defences, sending out a lowly customer support person to respond to our concerns, offering the same stock standard (weak) responses, and demonstrating very little to no positive change at their end.  

Fortunately, there are some retailers who prioritise packaging and waste – these businesses deserve higher support and their business models encouraged. They are not the focus of the viral video I mentioned above, but they are relevant to the solutions to the problem.

INDIVIDUAL SHOPPERS

Individuals have more power than they know. Whilst we each appear to be a mere drop in the ocean of customers that frequent big retail stores, our influence (including our absence from those stores) is apparent. When you abstain from buying a certain plastic-wrapped product from a major chain supermarket, and choose instead to grow your own or support a small, ethical and local producer, then you are sending multiple positive messages. You will both reduce the sales of harmful items from supermarkets (which can lead them to discontinue items or consider alternatives) and also promote local businesses to flourish, or (if you grow your own) demonstrate self-reliance – which is a fantastic way to reduce waste.

But what about the fact that it is still just a drop in the ocean? Well, my family have limited out waste over the last two and a half years to little more than would fill a medium-sized glass jar. We’ve also stopped shopping at supermarkets and now source food from local, ethical businesses, grow our own, and barter. The (roughly) $250 per week that we used to spend at the supermarket each week is now supporting a healthy local economy. That equates to around $30,000 that we have taken from the sales of major supermarkets, and divested into businesses that prioritise or support zero-waste approaches. Doing this helps to those smaller ethically-driven businesses to offer items at more competitive prices. Also, supporting local is also great, because it is generally easier to open up a dialogue about waste and improved waste-management, because you can speak directly to the person who can influence production and sales.

That is not to mention the 5 tonnes or so of landfill that we have avoided (compared to the average household over 2.5 years), and the numerous tonnes that would have previously gone to recycling (which we now avoid, compost or burn for heat). And then there is the influence of this ‘passive’ activism – others have been prompted to make changes in their habits, upon seeing that living with much less waste can be possible, cheaper and more convenient that the supermarket trawl. There are now around 7000 people in Zero Waste Tasmania, and other zero waste groups that have started in response to this group. Many others are enacting positive change in their area and discussing ways to reduce waste. Maybe it’s not a drop after all – maybe it’s the start of a wave.

It should be mentioned that neither individuals, producers, retailers or governments, hold all responsibility for waste. But each group have things that they have high influence over, that they could be doing more about, especially when they are informed about the harmful impacts of existing practices. I will also add that none of these four players act completely independently – there is an interplay within and between all four – and I believe that effective, positive outcomes are more likely if the dialogue remains open, informed and courteous. But remember, governments don’t have to keep single-use packaging legal, producers don’t have to keep wrapping everything in plastic, retailers don’t have to keep buying plastic-wrapped goods, and individuals don’t have to buy plastic-wrapped stuff. The responsibility is indeed shared amongst all these groups.

So, back to the viral video mentioned at the beginning of this rant. Those shoppers who bought plastic-wrapped items, only to remove the packaging at checkout? They want to absolve themselves of responsibility for the packaging and put the onus back onto the retailer. My problem is that those customers are still choosing to buy the plastic-wrapped products in the first place. The retailer’s bottom line is unaffected. The cost to remove the discarded plastic packaging is minimal (whether they landfill it or recycle it). Mountains more plastic is used in the bundling up of goods on pallets at the back of the store, and during other steps in production and transport. The plastic around the product is merely the tip of the waste iceberg for most items in a supermarket. And the customers have the option to simply not buy those plastic-wrapped items. Most fruits and vegetables can be bought unwrapped at supermarkets, and basic needs met by buying items elsewhere, from local grocers, shops, bulk food stores, markets, community gardens, co-ops, butchers, delis, etc.

The viral video does not offer solutions, nor does it demonstrate willingness by those customers to actually change their own behaviours. But many people CAN change how they shop, get their food, and meet their own needs. The viral video shows does have the effect of showing off just how much plastic is wrapped around items that supermarkets sell. But just filming items on the shelves will do that, right? – you don’t need to buy and remove the packaging to see what it is made from.

We can’t keep hand-balling responsibility around. Seeing supermarkets argue that they are merely responding to customer demand (by offering plastic options), whilst ignoring those who argue to remove plastic, is simply exhausting. Conversely, demanding change from supermarkets when there are perfectly valid and do-able ways to live without them (e.g. see our book ‘Bountiful: A family guide to waste-free living’ to be released later this year! *nudge, nudge, wink, wink*) by following any number of ‘zero-waste approaches’. The short- and long-term solution is for individuals and local communities (including businesses and governments) to adopt new, and environmentally-much-less-harmful paradigms – ones that do not rely on multi-national corporations who demonstrate little care for environmental impacts. If they did care, the supermarkets would have stopped selling single-use plastic products decades ago.

Good in-roads to broad, positive change (e.g. community level and bigger) can be made in various ways. But first, we should take a little time for self-reflection – what can we do as individuals and households to reduce our own waste? Once we are informed about the waste we produce, and take steps to reduce it, then the barriers to further waste-reduction becomes more apparent. You may find that you can live without supermarkets, but that you hit waste barriers when you start focusing on the waste associated with clothing, electrical goods, or travel. For each wasteful item, there can be a number of ways to address it. If you have the time, learn about their production system, business ethics, supply chain, and their organizational context. It may be worth writing to them to highlight a concern, but if you do this, offer solutions as well. Refer them to other businesses who are leading the way on a particular issue, so that they may aspire to improve practices.

Also, write letters and emails to your local government aldermen or members of parliament – people who are in positions to vote on motions for positive change. If you’re in the know on and issue and you think the council member is not, then inform them!
You may also want to let retailers know why you’re opting out of their products, but in the case of big multi-national corporations, don’t expect to see much more than a scripted, copy and paste response from them. In the case of the viral ‘plastic protest’ video, the customers aren’t really opting-out of the products, so the argument for leaving the packaging on the counter is confused.  

Leaving plastic product packaging at the counter is, in my opinion, akin to leaving a big steaming turd on someone’s doorstep – it is only going to incite annoyance and anger, but does not offer any solutions to the waste problem. It is an act of despair, of waving hands in the air and saying ‘What can we do, it’s all your fault!’ At best, such action might prompt discussion, albeit confused discussion.

Activism can be a useful strategy to push for broader shifts towards low-waste lifestyles and processes, but such actions will be more effective if they are solutions focused and not simply buck-passing. A great example the sort of positive activism that I mean, can be seen in Plastic Wise Taroona, who approached local, medium-sized supermarkets and negotiated for them to ditch plastic shopping bags, whilst offering reusable cloth bags instead. This action was collaborative, co-operative and mutually beneficial to businesses, customers and the local environment. I’d love to see similar, innovative solutions and cooperative approaches put in place to address waste problems elsewhere.  

As parents, Lauren and I encourage our children to take responsibility for themselves, and for their waste. We don’t want them to feel helpless in the world, or to constantly pass the buck on issues that they can actively control. We’d rather they problem-solve, and we encourage them to be self-reliant. The goal posts of this planet are constantly changing and so we want to equip our children such that they can adapt to changing times, with novel solutions.

~ Oberon

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