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All Wrapped Up: A beginner’s guide to getting less packaging with your supermarket food.

If someone were to try to guess how many people lived in my house based on our rubbish alone, I dread to think what number they would come up with. I appease myself by noting that the overwhelming majority of our waste does go into the recycling bin, but the volume of it is still pretty staggering.

In Edinburgh, household waste is divided into landfill, recycling, garden and food. When the new system of bins and collections came into force a couple of years ago, I assumed it would be landfill we would struggle with; a much smaller bin to be collected fortnightly, and at the time we still had one child in nappies. I should allow myself a small pat on the back for how well we managed this transition. Birthdays and Christmas aside, we rarely more than half fill it.

It’s the recycling bin that gives us grief. After two weeks of some fairly normal living, we are stuffing milk containers and baked bean cans into the green bin, while casually flipping the lids on the neighbours’ bins to see who might have a nook or cranny going spare.

rubbish, recycling, plastic

I’m not convinced that it’s enough anymore just to commit to recycling, especially if we no longer have anywhere to send it.

It didn’t take a very thorough examination of our recycling bin to figure out where all our waste was coming from; plastic milk bottles, plastic trays from pre-packed meat and cheese, cereal boxes, yoghurt pots, tins once containing baked beans and chopped tomatoes, squeezy ketchup and mayonnaise bottles. Food – that was our problem. We just needed to eat less food. I think I might have said that before, though for very different reasons!

I do all my grocery shopping on line. I get pretty much the same stuff week in, week out. It takes about five minutes to order, then another ten to put away once someone else has done the hard job of picking and packing it for me. I’ve been doing it for years, and can no longer imagine what it would be like to lug a great big trolley round the supermarket for an hour. But it does limit your choice, and probably increase your packaging quota.

Photo by leonie wise on Unsplash

I was going to have to head into the supermarket if I wanted to get a proper gauge on what packaging it was possible to do without. My supermarket of choice is Tesco, and my findings are all based on my local Extra store. I will do a recce round some of the others another time for comparison.

First up – meat packaging. I have an issue with it at the best of times. It is oversized and takes up too much space in the freezer, and then should you thoroughly wash it before putting it in the recycling bin involving meat splashes all over the sink? Or maybe just put it straight in the recycling bin, and wince in horror as a small child grabs the tissue box underneath it to transform into a space ship or a puppet theatre. There is no easy answer to these life dilemmas, except to eliminate the root cause.

I headed for a Tesco with a shopping list and a Tupperware box and tried to appear confident as I approached the butcher’s counter.

‘Half a kilo of mince please, and can you put it in my tub?’

‘Afraid not love’ the butcher replied. ‘It’s been all over the Evening News. Head Office says we’re not allowed to.‘ He seemed disappointed. ‘But you can do what you like with it once I’ve sold it to you. Put it in your tub when you get home!’

‘That kind of misses the point though doesn’t it?’

‘Yeah, I suppose’.

He seemed a bit downcast with the exchange. He reckoned if they put much of a foot wrong Tesco would do away with the butcher counters altogether. He sold me the mince in a thin plastic bag, less packaging than a plastic tray, but it couldn’t be recycled. And the mince had a higher fat content than the one we usually buy. And I had driven to Tesco, increasing the carbon footprint of my weekly shop.

Later in the week, I had a tip off that my friendly neighbourhood butcher was responding to local demand by offering to sell meat straight into whatever receptacle customers cared to bring in. He laughed at me a couple of years ago when I’d asked for free range chicken, so I was pleased that he was ahead of the pack on this one. And I would be supporting a local business. Win win again, surely?

He was very happy to put my meat straight into the Tupperware, so far so good. To get it in there, he put a huge plastic bag over his hand, grabbed the stewing steak, plopped in the tub, took the bag off his hand and put it in the bin. I bought more mince. We like mince. Another bag, straight in the bin. Then he put all the sausages into a tub that was clearly too small, and handed me another bag for me to use to transfer some to another tub.

I bought three types of meat, and altogether he used four large plastic bags to transfer it to my packaging free containers. I later put the tubs in the dishwasher, and I had driven to the butcher. My carbon footprint was getting heavier.

It seems far from ideal, but I’m learning fast that no change can be made without a repercussion. On the basis that we can’t go packaging free, what is the best case scenario? What would the longer term impact be if everyone switched from plastic trays to plastic bags?

Would it be better for the environment if, rather than get my groceries delivered to my door, I drove to the shops to select products which have less, or at least more sustainable packaging?

The same week, I asked for my Tesco on line order to arrive with ‘as little packaging as possible’. It was no different to usual – a single mango and a lone aubergine each arriving in its own plastic bag. I ordered individual apples, nearly twice the price of the prepacked ones, only to find that they too arrived in a plastic bag. Could they not have put all the fruit and veg into a paper bag? I know they have them…

I seem to have more questions than answers at this point. This wasn’t how this was supposed to go!

I’ve said from the beginning that this project is about making achievable, realistic changes to reduce packaging, and my family’s impact on the environment. Clearly, I cannot buy groceries without using any form of packaging, even when they are served from a counter. So my best effort for now is to keep buying on line from Tesco, but buying from the butcher counter rather than prepacked. And I’ll be speaking to them about how they deliver their loose fruit and veg.

My next focus is going to be the bathroom. Is bamboo loo roll better for the world than paper approved  by the Forest Stewardship Council? Also, my moisturiser has just run out. Can anyone point me in the direction of an eco-friendly replacement?

And finally, a top tip for the week: Fed up of receiving junk mail? Why not save the planet, and the postie’s back? Gather up the catalogues and newsletters you never read and contact them to say you no longer wish to receive them. Your recycling bin will be lighter, and the trees will breathe a sigh of relief!

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