Gabrielle Chariton peered into our bins and unearthed our landfills to dig up the story of packaging. Why do we use so much of it? And how can we use less?
Before you start reading this, go and look in your kitchen bin. What do you see in there?
My bet is that your bin – like mine – is mostly full of plastic wrappers and other packaging detritus: the bag that last night’s pasta came in, the empty frozen-pea packet, the plastic your parmesan was shrink-wrapped in, a couple of tea bag wrappers … how am I going? It’s hard to make a meal without dropping several pieces of packaging into the bin during the process.
Excessive packaging has become the bane of twenty-first-century existence, and if you think I’m being overly dramatic, consider the following statistics:
- A study by Monash University found that “the average Australian consumes 90 kilograms of resources in packaging each year“.
- The Australian Department of the Environment reports that “in 2010–11, Australians on average generated 2.2 tonnes per capita of waste“.
- Planet Ark says that in 2012, “Australians consumed approximately 4.4 million tonnes of packaging“, of which about 1.6 million tonnes (or 36 per cent) went to landfill.
It’s a sad day when “needing scissors to open the scissors packet” isn’t a comedy skit but an all-too-common, real-life problem
Our lifestyles and shopping habits have evolved to the point where packaging is a key component of the retail infrastructure. It’s (mostly) about convenience and hygiene: packaging enables transportation and distribution, and prevents our food from spoiling or being contaminated by grubby hands. It’s also about marketing and profiteering (case in point: the removal of branding and addition of graphic warnings was sufficient to reduce cigarette sales). It’s not ideal, but it’s the way we live, and that’s probably not going to change anytime soon.
What’s more concerning is the growing trend of over-packaging and unnecessary packaging: items such as bananas and avocados, which come perfectly wrapped by nature, are suddenly being placed on foam trays and hermetically sealed in plastic bags. Almost every consumable – from cosmetics to iPhones – features layer upon layer of unnecessary packaging. It’s a sad day when “needing scissors to open the scissors packet” isn’t a comedy skit but an all-too-common, real-life problem. Items that absolutely don’t require packaging for hygiene, longevity or convenience are being wrapped to within an inch of their lives in layers of plastic, cardboard or paper. (Sometimes all three.)
This overzealous approach to packaging, combined with a growing population, has seen Australia become a nation of trash-tossers: our production of waste rose by a shocking 163 per cent between 1996–97 and 2013–14, and our waste disposal rate is the second-highest per capita among OECD nations.
This overzealous approach to packaging, combined with a growing population, has seen Australia become a nation of trash-tossers
While about 50 per cent of our household waste is now recycled, the volume of rubbish heading to the tip continues to increase: between 2001 and 2007, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that the volume of waste deposited to landfill increased by 12 per cent.
And that’s the waste that’s managed. In 2015, Clean Up Australia volunteers collected 15,914.8 tonnes of rubbish from parks, schools, bushland, creeks, beaches and roadways. The top three litter groups found were non-food packaging (24%), beverage containers (23.6%) and food packaging (16.7%).
This over-reliance on packaging is also proving a massive drain on our earth’s precious, ever-diminishing natural resources. Environment Victoria says, “Over the last thirty years, we’ve doubled the amount of natural resources we use in Australia (per capita), including aluminium, tin, steel, sand (for glass) and trees (for paper and cardboard). Packaging takes a lot of energy, water and other natural resources to produce … When we throw away that packaging – most of it after only one use – these natural resources are lost”.
By reducing the amount of packaging we purchase, we can help to significantly reduce the environmental degradation caused by litter, the methane produced in our landfill sites, and the wasteful consumption of natural resources.
The more difficult question is, given our consumerist lifestyles and reliance on supermarkets for everyday food purchasing, just how easy is it to banish packaging from our lives?
There are several influential pioneers of the waste-free living movement, which naturally incorporates the avoidance of packaging: Erin Rhoads, who we featured in Otter last month, has plenty of ideas on how to banish plastic from your life; Bea Johnson of US-based blog Zero Waste Home can fit her household’s annual waste into a little glass jar; and Lauren Singer from Trash is for Tossers provides practical ideas for waste-free alternatives.
Between them, these waste-free living experts offer some of the following tips to help you, as a consumer, to avoid purchasing – and then throwing away – excess packaging:
- Avoid pre-packaged or pre-bagged fruit and vegetables.
- Avoid buying frozen fruit and vegetables.
- Don’t put your fresh fruit and vegies into plastic bags in the supermarket. Trust me, they’ll still find their way onto the scales at the checkout.
- Buy bread from the bakery and place it straight into your re-usable shopping bag
- Say no to coffee pods! Make your coffee from beans or ground coffee. If you buy from a deli, you can have it weighed straight into your own storage container.
- Skip the teabags and use leaf tea. (Infusers like this make it easy to do one cup, and you’ll enjoy better-quality tea.)
- If the item you wish to purchase is packaged unnecessarily, or ridiculously over-packaged, make a stand and don’t buy it! (Think tiny USBs sold in large plastic casings, kids’ toys impenetrably fastened within huge cardboard boxes, or those scissors we were talking about before.) The retailers and manufacturers will eventually get the message.
- Buy second-hand.
- Where possible and practical, buy grocery items in bulk.
- Or at least avoid the single-serve scenarios: e.g. tiny yoghurt pots, cheese sticks, mini sultana boxes, foil-sealed plastic trays filled with two biscuits and some cream cheese. Buy the large packets and divvy it up into smaller servings at home.
- Stop buying bottled water. Take a re-usable bottle filled with tap water.
- More and more major supermarkets are offering self-serve dry goods. Just take in your own container, scoop, and weigh.
- Check out one of the growing number of package-free bulk grocery stores, such as Scoop Wholefoods in Sydney, or Wasteless Pantry in WA and others. Or take your re-usable bags to the local farmers’ market each week.
- Make your own! Save dollars and the environment, and avoid packaging altogether, by making your own laundry soap, cleaning products, hand soap and skincare products. Check out the Wellness Mama website for heaps of ideas and recipes.
- Assess an item’s packaging before you buy, as some manufacturers are making an effort to reduce the weight of the packaging, or are packaging with recycled materials. Some packaging is made from renewable resources and biodegrades in typical waste systems.
- Think twice before you order something online, and consider click and collect, which involves picking up your order, and avoids packaging. Often items are freighted in several layers of bubble wrap, polystyrene foam and plastic tape, and then sealed in a cardboard box. This website has some hilarious examples that are probably quite familiar to anyone who’s shopped online.
- Keep your jars and use them for food storage. (Small jars make great containers for baby food purees.)
- Soft plastics can now be recycled at Coles REDcycle bins. So if you do end up with some soft-plastic food packaging, or maybe your newspaper arrives wrapped in plastic, dispose of it in one of these bins.
As well as the environmental benefits of releasing less refuse into the world, cutting down your consumption of packaged food and other consumables will impact positively on your life in other ways:
- You’ll save money. Manufacturers invest in fancy packaging to entice buyers. Packaging has to be designed, manufactured and printed, and all this adds to the bottom line cost of the commodity you’re purchasing. So, the less packaging, the cheaper a product will be.
- By shopping at farmers’ markets, the local bakery, etc., you’re keeping your local community prosperous by supporting small business owners.
- If you’re buying in bulk, you don’t have to visit the supermarket or other retailers quite so often.
- Studies have shown that plastics in food packaging leach nasty chemicals into our food. So skip items wrapped in plastic – it’s a win for your health as well as the environment.
- Generally, packaged food is processed food. So by eliminating packaging from your weekly shopping basket, you’ll also eliminate nasties such as excess salt, sugar and additives from your diet.
- Fewer trips to the bin!