Bryony Shepherd is an Msc Journalism student at Robert Gordon University with a keen interest in environmental and food issues. With experience in the hotel and restaurant trade, she hopes to pursue a career as a food writer.
Public awareness surrounding plastic waste has sky-rocketed this year. It began with the visualisation of plastic pollution in Blue Planet II, and has since been raised by Theresa May’s commitment to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by 2042 and the media furore over the plastic straw. It’s made us, as a society, more attuned to our environmental impact and implored us to make past wrongdoings if not good, then at least better.
More and more people are making an effort to reduce their individual consumption of single-use plastics. Products devoid of packaging like solid shampoo bars and bamboo toothbrushes are being increasingly sought out. But, when it comes to our food shop, is it easy to find alternatives and sustain a plastic-free lifestyle?
It’s very difficult to escape plastic food packaging in our mainstream supermarkets. The commercial system, based on convenience, ease and cost effectiveness, has led to almost everything being packaged in plastic. It is, of course, the nature of the beast. But what particularly frustrates me is how much plastic packaging is completely unrecyclable and, more so, wholly unnecessary.
Seasonal fruits such as strawberries, peaches, plums and cherries are always boxed in plastic, though they can survive quite well loose. In fact, plastic packaging makes fruit and veg sweat and spoil quicker – so why is it used at all? The same can be said for bread. If bread is stored in a breathable bag, made of paper or cotton, it will only grow stale and rarely go mouldy. I have a cotton bag for stale bread which is weeks and months old – I use this regularly for breadcrumbs, croutons and more.
Supermarkets dominate our food shop, and it often seems that there is no affordable, easy alternative. For those of us who are becoming more plastic conscious this can be both frustrating and saddening. However, there are many small businesses across Scotland who are trying to turn the tide.
Take, for instance, Food Story in Aberdeen – a wonderful café which, last year, set up a whole foods shop. It promotes a responsible, frugal and zero-waste approach to food shopping. And this is winning them increasing custom and many loyal customers.
At Food Story, customers are encouraged to take along their own containers and fill these at dispensers throughout the store. Cupboard staples such as pasta, rice, oats, dried fruits, herbs and spices can all be bought by weight, as can fairy liquid, soap powder and fabric conditioner. Not only does this reduce plastic packaging, but it reduces waste too. Food Story also bakes its own fresh bread and stocks seasonal fruit and vegetables. These can be taken away in recyclable paper bags, though most customers prefer to go without.
With a shop like this, it is hard not to think that a quiet revolution is taking place. But it’s not really that radical or even a new way to shop. It is tried and tested, and actually time served because it is how people used to shop before carrier bags and bulk buying existed. It is a time that we have forgotten and can learn many lessons from.
My ability to reduce my plastic consumption relies on Food Story. But what if you don’t have a Food Story? It becomes a lot more difficult to go plastic free.
I have been the person sending ten loose apples down the till at Tesco. It doesn’t work. You feel like a nuisance and, to be frank, it’s a near futile endeavour as plastic packaging is so pervasive in our supermarket culture. After fruit and vegetables, its nigh on impossible to buy anything – bread, milk, cheese, yoghurt, crackers, oil, lentils or peanut butter – without some form of plastic.
Only by changing the way we food shop, and the culture surrounding it, can we tackle the plastic problem. This has to start with consumers. First, we need to demand a change of mind-set for those at the head of our supermarket chains. And second, we need ordinary consumers to make small and manageable changes to their shopping habits. Even if all you do is take a cotton tote to the supermarket to fill with potatoes or buy bread from a local bakery: over time, you will be sending a clear message to the supermarket monopoly.
At the moment, plastic-free food shopping is not particularly easy. You have to prioritise it and realise it may not always be that convenient. But it is rewarding and important, and should allow us to better protect our planet.