Sustainable shopping push: Supermarkets named and shamed for excessive plastic packaging

There is growing consumer anger at excessive plastic packaging.

There is growing consumer anger at excessive plastic packaging. Photo: Instagram/aldiloversaustralia

Customers have taken to social media to slam the wasteful packaging on display in Australia’s supermarkets.

Earlier this week, Instagram user ‘aldiloversau’ posted a photo of sliced and shredded carrots for sale at discount chain Aldi, sparking debate about the use of plastic packaging for fresh produce.

Last week, Coles was called out for selling individual hot-cross buns in plastic clamshell containers.

“This plastic-fest was spotted @colessupermarkets in Melbourne Central this morning. Super depressing Coles. Your customers want you to do better with your environmental responsibilities,” local foodie Caroline Lambert wrote.

Plastic production set to soar

Despite growing concern about the environmental impact of plastic, global production is set to soar over the next decade.

On average, we each use 53 kilograms of plastic a year, and generate 300 million tonnes of plastic waste collectively, a global report released by the World Wildlife Fund last year said.

Director of UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology Veena Sahajwalla said supermarkets need to “show leadership” on the major environmental issues they contribute to, from packaging to food waste.

Professor Sahajwalla said that most consumers don’t need their carrots “packed in a one kilo bag”.

Instead, supermarkets could simply provide bulk containers of loose produce and tongs so that customers can take what they need and pack it in their reusable bags.

“I was born in Mumbai, and you go to the fruit and veg markets, and it’s fun,” Professor Sahajwalla said.

“You just pick up what you need. There’s no wasting food, and it’s a lot more friendly in the sense that it’s a bit more personalised to you.

Think about all of the savings that will come about if we’re not wasting the excess food that we buy because we’re told we need a kilo of carrots.’’

Alternatives to plastic packaging

Banana leaves are being used to reduce plastic packaging. Photo: Facebook/perfecthomes

The world has “evolved to produce all kinds of plastics – polymers in a broader sense – and polymers are really useful materials,” Professor Sahajwalla said.

You do need plastics in some instances, but when plastics are treated almost as if they’re nothing, that’s not OK.’’

When it comes to food packaging, there are many “creative alternatives” to plastic that are better for us and the environment, Professor Sahajwalla said.

“We are acting like plastic is an infinite resource that we can use in high and low value application,” she said.

“But we can stop and think and go: Is there another alternative to this that is more sustainable? And if there is, we can stop and exercise that alternative.”

In Vietnam, supermarkets have come up with an ingenious way to reduce plastic packaging, by wrapping fresh produce in banana leaves.

Researchers have even shown that SCOBY – a natural yeast-like culture used to make kombucha – can be repurposed as an edible and environmentally friendly alternative to plastic packaging.

Embrace the BIY challenge

Although shifting away from plastic to sustainable packaging is important, there is “an even simpler solution” that consumers can embrace.

Professor Sahajwalla dubs this the ‘BIY (Bring It Yourself) challenge’

“If I had the option to choose something not packaged in plastic packaging, would I go for that? I would, any day,” she said.

The first BIY step is to bring your bags with you when shopping.

Once this has been mastered, you can graduate to bringing containers and smaller carry bags to separate items such as fruit, nuts and vegetables.

“We can collectively inspire each other to remember that when going shopping so you need to get our carry bags and little boxes to pack our veggies,” Professor Sahajwalla said.

What are the major supermarkets doing?

Australia’s two biggest supermarket chains, Woolworths and Coles, command about 62 per cent of the nation’s grocery market.

Coles has publicly stated it wants to “be recognised for being Australia’s most sustainable supermarket”, and has committed to make packaging for all its own-brand products recyclable at kerbside or in store by the end of this year.

Woolworths has committed to converting 100 per cent of its own-brand packaging to be “either reusable, recyclable or compostable” by 2025.

German-owned Aldi is the third-largest supermarket chain with 13 per cent market share, and has promised to phase out “problematic single-use plastics” such as straws, cotton-tipped buds, and plastic plates by the end of this year as part of a broader commitment to cut the plastic packaging on its shelves by 25 per cent by the end of 2025.

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