Extract from ABC News
Photo: Plastic-wrapped fruits and vegetables are regularly sold in supermarkets. (ABC Radio Sydney: Amanda Hoh)
Last week I received a marketing email from a major supermarket offering me bonus loyalty points if I purchased a product from its new range for kids' lunchboxes: apple slices and carrot sticks, pre-cut and packaged in plastic.I did a double take. What sort of environmental vandal came up with that idea?
Since when has chopping an apple become so inconvenient that it needs to be done for us, and packaged in plastic?
Our oceans and coastlines are drowning in plastic litter. Research carried out in 2013 found that the density of plastic in Australian waters is up to 40,000 pieces per square kilometre.
In northern Australia, discarded fishing nets known as "ghost nets" entangle thousands of turtles each year. In April, nearly 30 kilograms of rubbish was found in the gut of a dead sperm whale that washed up on a Spanish beach.
Photo: "Ghost nets" entangle turtles and other marine life. (Supplied: The Ocean Cleanup Foundation)
Supermarkets offer too little, too lateSupermarkets regularly defend their wanton use of plastic, claiming it's what customers want — despite the increasing clamour from unhappy shoppers on social media who clearly don't need their bananas wrapped in clingfilm.
So, what's the answer? It's definitely not pre-packaged carrot sticks. Supermarkets and other retailers need to minimise the use of plastic on their side. It's reprehensible that they are being so slow to take action.
After sustained high-profile campaigns to #banthebag in the few remaining states where single-use plastic bags had not already been outlawed, in 2018 the major supermarkets finally announced the end of single-use plastic bags.
Woolworths will phase out single-use plastic bags from June 20, Coles from July 1. ALDI has never provided its customers with single-use plastic bags. Customers who fail to bring their own bag can purchase, for 15 cents, a thicker plastic bag (a "boutique bag") made from a high percentage of recycled materials.
Banning single-use plastic bags clearly has a positive impact. Woolworths says it hands out 3.2 billion single-use plastic bags each year, many of which end up in landfill. In the ACT a review revealed that the number of plastic bags thrown into landfill fell by 36 per cent after the ACT introduced its ban in 2011.
Photo: About 29 kilograms of rubbish was found in the whale's digestive tract. (Twitter: Espacios Naturales Murcia)
Bags aren't the only problemBut what about the huge volume of plastic found in the supermarket aisles? A quick look around the fresh produce section of the supermarket reveals plenty of plastic encasing apples, pears and bananas. It baffles me why something as hardy as lemongrass needs to be sold in a plastic packet.
A spokesperson for Woolworths said the company knows it still has work to do in reducing plastic across the supply chain:
"In recent months, we have permanently removed plastic from produce lines such as avocado, organic spring onions, celery, kale and English spinach. These moves will help save more than 37 tonnes of packaging on a yearly basis."Coles pointed me to its REDcycle program:
"[…] the biggest retailer-led recycling initiative of its kind in Australia. Since the program began in 2011, Coles has diverted more than 300 million pieces of flexible plastic from landfill across Australia."
We have the solutionsAs we contend with a recycling crisis in Australia, it all feels like too little, too late. China's recent ban on importing recyclable waste led to many waste contractors refusing to accept recyclables.
Now, faced with soaring bills, some councils are considering dumping kerbside recycling — Ipswich City Council announced their intention in late April, but then retracted it following public outcry.
Some, like the Greens, argue manufacturers and retailers need to take more responsibility for the lifecycle of their packaging. "Product stewardship" and extended producer responsibility (EPR) requires manufacturers to factor the disposal of packaging into its design and production.
Other solutions to the waste crisis include charging more to dump waste in landfill or offering subsidies to increase the capacity of the local recycling sector.
A better option is to consume less plastic. "Precycling" minimises waste by reducing consumption. In practice this means packing your shopping in reusable bags, using a reusable cup for your takeaway coffee, buying items free from packaging — and putting a whole apple in our kids' lunchboxes.
What supermarkets could doOne supermarket in the Netherlands recently introduced a plastic-free aisle stocked with 700 products including fruit and vegetables, meat and pantry items.
Ekoplaza CEO Erik Does told the Guardian:
"We know that our customers are sick to death of products laden in layer after layer of thick plastic packaging. Plastic-free aisles are a really innovative way of testing the compostable biomaterials that offer a more environmentally friendly alternative to plastic packaging."Retailers in Australia could show this sort of leadership.
While we wait for supermarkets to catch up, as consumers, we must stop throwing out so much plastic. We can draw a line in the sand and make sustainability our priority, not convenience.
Nicola Heath is a freelance writer.