On supermarkets and packaging

posted in: Life and things | 3

I’m old enough to remember when the supermarkets did away with big brown paper bags and replaced them with plastic bags. The reason? To save the trees. Looking back it sounds crazy. These days everybody is wringing their hands over plastic and how it pollutes everything. Paper is basically organic matter, and will break down in land fill – while plastic… probably has a half-life.

While we’re down memory lane, do you remember when milk was delivered in glass bottles to your front door, and you left out the empties for the milko to reuse? Do you remember when kids used to collect discarded soft drink bottles to cash in for threepence (or something) a pop? It certainly kept the beaches clean. The disgusting scenes we see after a pop concert or a festival would be a happy hunting ground for enterprising kids. South Australia is the only Australian state that retains deposits for glass recycling. These days, soft drink bottles go into recycle bins, and milk comes in plastic bottles or wax-covered cartons which end up in land fill.

When I was young my mum would walk to the little shopping strip nearby, carrying her shopping bags, and buy meat from the butcher’s, veg from the greengrocer’s, and groceries from the grocery store. Then she’d carry the bags home again. Her purchases were either wrapped in paper, or placed in paper bags, or left loose. The world has changed. Now, we drive to the shop in our cars and buy lots of stuff we probably don’t need and take it home (very often) in plastic bags.

Now the supermarkets are being very environment-conscious by phasing out the use of plastic bags. Yes, we take home our shopping from Coles or Woolies in plastic bags, and then we reuse the bags as bin liners. When we go to Aldi, we take our reusable shopping bags – because Aldi charges for plastic. Very noble of them, I’m sure. But I suspect it’s more about economics than environment. They don’t have to buy one-off purchase plastic bags, and make provision for them in their stores.

It all sounds very “green” doesn’t it? But if I didn’t have shopping bags to use as bin liners, I would have to buy… plastic bags!  And especially in Aldi, it’s not possible to buy food without packaging. You can buy 500gm of green beans in a specially-inflated plastic bag, but not a handful of beans to have with tonight’s roast. Meat is presented on Styrofoam (or something) trays covered with plastic. Bread comes in plastic bags, water (!) comes in plastic bottles. Increasingly, products like salad dressing that used to come in glass come in plastic. Have you ever wondered what’s in that plastic bag with your green beans and lettuce? It’s an inert gas which keeps the vegetables fresher for longer, and that’s why the contents go rotten the day after you open the bag. We’re told this is to keep food hygienic. Maybe it’s to keep it saleable for longer.

Some plastic can be recycled, but a lot, like film wrap, can’t be. Then there’s bottle tops, sandwich bags, biros, throw-away plates and utensils – you name it. These are the things which end up in the ocean, creating vast islands of plastic rubbish. We’ve all seen photos of dead seabirds with their stomachs full of plastic. The remote Pitcairn Island group has some of the most polluted beaches in the world – and it’s not local garbage.  Mind you, plastic breaks down, sure – into tiny particles that are all through the food chain because they’re swallowed most especially by fish.

Pardon my cynicism but when big supermarket chains fold their hands and preach ‘environment’, I go looking for the money. If you sell beans in bulk no-one has to weigh them to calculate the cost. If you over-package everything it takes less time to process (barcodes and the like) and small items are harder to steal. Oh – and it’s easy to hide the fact that the contents have been reduced without a concomitant reduction in price, unless you read the label. The bags keep food fresher, so you can sell it for longer.

I don’t think the answer to plastic waste is going to come from sanctimoniously banning plastic shopping bags, and I don’t see us going back to the good old days of the shopping strip. Heck, even when you go to a grower’s market on the weekend you’re offered a plastic bag for your farm grown bananas. But… biodegradable alternatives to plastic have been around for a decade. Here’s an article that discusses some of them. Even if they cost a fraction more, that has to be better than killing off our wildlife through our pollution.

I’m sick of hearing all the platitudes about climate change. The climate’s changing. Get over it. I wish governments around the world would spend some money on getting rid of plastic packaging, and especially do something about those floating plastic islands.

Oh – one thing I think Aldi does very well is its eminently sensible approach to shopping trolleys. People pay to use them – a fee which is returned if the trolleys are put back in the racks. Saves damage to cars, and having to pay for young people to collect them from where they were abandoned in the car park. I wish all the supermarkets did that. I reckon the cost of the locking mechanism for trolleys would quickly be recouped by a reduction in stolen/lost/damaged trolleys, and not having to pay a trolley collection agency.

For anyone interested in my latest book, you’ll find an article about that here.

And having dumped that horrible beach scene on you, here’s a nicer one to make up for it.


3 Responses

  1. Merry

    I also remember when my local supermarket used to pack things into large paper bags. If only they’d had handles like plastic ones for peeps who don’t drive like me.

    I try to put as much as I can in recycle* bins, but it’s still scary how much goes in the rubbish. My local supermarket has recently started offering shoppers cloth shopping bags, but still carries plastic bags.

    Some time ago, the recycle bins for my building were taken away, because residents were putting normal rubbish in them or recyclable items in the wrong bins. I now put my recycled items in next door’s bins. The local council also changed their recycling collection process to allow comingling instead of separate bins for paper products and another for glass, plastic, etc. A sorting nightmare, I would have thought, but I don’t know how they deal with it.

    I often wonder about what happened to the biodegradable plastic bags they used to have some years ago. Plastic shopping bags are just one part of the waste problem, though, and by no means the main issue.

    Some of the packaging that’s currently used doesn’t seem to make much sense, not only because it contributes to waste, but more particularly because of the proportion of the cost to consumers of the parts that get thrown out compared to the cost of the actual (non-food) product. I didn’t know about the (dodgy?) practices of supermarkets regarding the packaging of food, but it’s not surprising.

    * I didn’t say “I try to recycle….” because there’s no way to be sure what goes in the recycling bins actually gets recycled. And then there was this story from a few days ago:



    As long as recycling is considered too expensive or simply not practical, and as long as any efforts to address the waste problem are driven by profit margins, probably not much will change unless governments have the gumption to put their foot down and legislate for cleverer packaging and serious, effective recycling. Sadly, there will always be people – and companies – who won’t do the right thing unless they absolutely have to. The environment having been politicised to death is also a stumbling block. Anything that is currently done is more a symbolic gesture (being seen to be doing something) than anything tangible.

  2. Sandra

    I have started watching a series on the ABC called War on Waste. It’s very interesting.

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