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April 24, 2019

Green Supply Chain News: Below the Surface, Movement Afoot to Remove Plastics from Food Supply Chain – but It’s not Easy

Small Grocery Store in Brooklyn Goes for Bulk, but Trader Joe’s Sees Obstacles

By The Green Supply Chain Editorial Staff

There have been an increasing number of reports on the damage plastic waste is causing in the world’s oceans, with marine life taking the brunt of the problems. Some reports say small plastic pieces are even finding their way into the seafood humans are eating, with unknown health ramifications.


And of course, plastics are made out of petroleum, with a not insignificant level of CO2 emissions associated with its production and distribution.


The food and consumer packaged goods sectors are certainly a major user of plastics to wrap, protect, and display food and personal items in grocery stores. In response to that, and largely still below the surface, there are emerging new age grocery stores looking to change that status quo.

The Green Supply Chain Says:
It seems natural that the Trader Joe’s chain would be active here as well, and it is – but is also facing the challenges.

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For example, as recently reported on the National Geographic web site, at a grocery store in Brooklyn called Precycle, shoppers can find spices and fruit, grains and pastas, fresh olives and tofu, toothbrushes, floss, and many other household basics merchandised plastic-packaging free.

Stores with similar approaches are sprouting up here and there across the globe.


Is it back to the future with the bulk style product displays that came on the scene in the late 1970s but largely faded away in subsequent decades?


Some shoppers are “looking for places where they can buy food free from the cling wrap and styrofoam trays that fill many modern grocery stores,” National Geographic writes.


But the benefits of plastic packaging are many. For example, a fresh cucumber only lasts about two weeks maximum as is. But if that cucumber is packaged in an impermeable plastic sleeve, its shelf life is much longer – meaning grocery stores can avoid losing a higher percentage of cukes and other vegetables to waste.


Packaging makes up nearly a quarter of all the trash that goes to US landfills, according to the EPA – much of it used for food or beverage items.

The big challenge for reducing the use of plastics with food? It does indeed play a very useful role.

“Packaging plays an important role in helping to protect food, so getting rid of it all is not the answer,” Liz Goodwin, the director of the food loss and waste program at the World Resources Institute, told National Geographic. “Unfortunately, it's not as simple as that.”

At Precycle, providing bulk foods that customers can scoop into their own containers to take home was the central concept. So was making sure plastic wasn’t lurking around to get the product to the store, just not seen by customers.

To eliminate plastic-wrapped fruits and veggies, produce would have to come from local sources that could deliver say bushels of apples in reusable crates.

It wasn’t easy. Especially difficult was finding tofu that didn’t come in a throwaway plastic container. Not possible, it turned out, for individually sized portions.

However, eventually, the store found a manufacturer which would deliver big blocks of tofu in a five-gallon bucket that it picks up after it’s emptied and then refills. So there’s still some plastic in the chain, but it’s far from single-use.

However, National Geographic says, it’s not only small niche stores such as Precycle on the anti-plastic wagon. Giant grocery chain Kroger’s has promised to phase out plastic bags to carry away purchases items over the next five years. Kroger currently uses about 6 billion plastic bags annually.

It seems natural that the Trader Joe’s chain would be active here as well, and it is – but is also facing the challenges. For example, there’s plastic in that packaging that lets the tea-bags stay fresh for months. But the biodegradable or bio-sourced plastic alternatives aren’t yet good enough to maintain that same freshness, so for now the plastic will stay.

In the end, pressure – or not – from consumers will be the key factor.

“There's been some really powerful shifts in consumer awareness around single-use items, straws and bags lately,” says Elizabeth Balkan, the director of the food waste program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “People are starting to see that the dependence we've formed on these things - we can undo it, if we wish to.”

Do you expect we will see big reductions in plastic packaging for food anytime soon? Why or why not? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button below.

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