Getting the Goods … Just the Goods: Purchasing without Packaging in a Shrink-wrapped World

Between cardboard boxes, plastic wrap, twist-ties, plastic bags, it is difficult to walk through modern super markets without seeing nearly every product for purchase encumbered by excessive packaging. In fact, it is nearly impossible to walk into a fresh produce section today and see just that – fresh, unpackaged produce.  So what is a sustainably savvy shopper to do?

Well luckily, the solution can be quite simple! Here are a few tips on cutting excessive packaging out of your life:

  1. Aim for products with less packaging. It sounds like an obvious choice, but if there are two comparable brands of the same product, go for the one with less wasteful packaging per unit.
  2. Buy in bulk. Hit up your super market’s bulk section for your favorite nuts, candies, cereals, etc. And if you really mean business, bring your own lightweight reusable containers to fill up.
  3. Choose vendors that allow return and reuse of packaging. For example, as opposed to always buying a new disposable plastic carton of milk, look into a local dairy that will rebottle milk in glass bottles. To find this service in Rochester, check out Pittsford Dairy.
  4. Choose products that come in reusable or recyclable containers. For example, Oscar Mayer brand deli meats are sold in Tupperware containers that can be reused in the kitchen. Or if no reusable option is available, choose an item that comes in cardboard over plastic bags or Styrofoam, which cannot be recycled.


By Grace Interlichia, class of 2013

2 Replies to “Getting the Goods … Just the Goods: Purchasing without Packaging in a Shrink-wrapped World”

  1. Michael, you make a very compelling argument. I hadn’t realized that food packaging helps us reduce other kinds of wastes. But I do think that there are some foods that don’t require packaging to avoid food wastes, like fresh produce, that we can and should avoid to benefit the environment – we certainly don’t need another plastic island floating around out there in the oceans!

    And you’re right, most produce sections feature mainly unpackaged goods, but there certainly are stores and instances in which plastic wrap is used unnecessarily. Downsizing is always good when it comes to the resources we use, as long as we make sure the downsizing of packaging doesn’t damage the product like you mentioned. It is my thinking that most unpackaged produce that you see in the stores comes in some sort of packaging when it is shipped there — so how can we know what items truly use the least packaging?

    In my experience, brands package foods together so you buy more that you don’t need or wouldn’t otherwise buy. And it’s often more expensive per unit! For example, orange juice packaged in tiny single serving cartons is almost $2 more expensive than just one carton, and it’s even LESS juice! In this situation, it saves you money and helps the environment to buy the gallon.

  2. If we regularly make the drive from the U of R to Pittsford Dairy to fill our milk, wouldn’t that reverse any environmental benefit from reusable milk packaging?

    In general the typical claims against packaging are:

    (1) Less packaging means less trash.
    (2) Packaging wastes resources
    (3) Packaging makes up about 1/3 of landfill space.

    The reality of packaging is that:
    (1) Companies have an economic incentive to use less of it. After all, it costs money to produce packaging. If we think companies have an incentive to provide less product for the same price (think of potato chip bags not filled to the top, or smaller candy bars) then why would we think they want to provide us with “more” packaging than we “need?”

    (2) Packaging can actually conserve resources.

    (3) Packaging can sometimes even reduce trash.

    (4) Packaging yields benefits that are not discussed above. (See below)

    (5) Packaging has resulted in a dramatic improvement in public health.

    For example, the typical US household produces about 1/3 less trash than one in Mexico. Our intense use of packaging results in far less breakage and less total trash. For example, for every 1,000 pounds of chicken brought to market, you might gasp at the 17 pounds of packaging used. But 2,000+ pounds of “by-products” are converted into valuable products because chickens are processed (and packaged) in an industrial facility rather than in the home with no packaging. Most of this would end up in landfills if we did not use “all” that packaging.

    The amount of packaging for your products has plummeted in the past 30 years. To cite but one small example (a famous one) a typical plastic milk jug uses half as much plastic today as it did during the 1960s. Try crushing a tin can today as compared to our grandparents’ generation. And during the 70s and 80s, even though 40% more packages entered landfills rose annually, the weight of the packages entering landfills actually fell by 40%.

    Packaging reduces spoilage – it thereby reduces the incidence of food spoilage. Packaging allows us to make fewer trips to the stores, again which causes far more environmental damage than the packaging itself.

    There is more of course, such as the massive amount of plastic floating in the Pacific Gyre and whether landfilling is an important environmental issue.

    Finally, my Wegmans in Perinton has dramatically increased the use of its packaging of vegetables and fruits of late (per your picture). But that clearly has been leading to a reduction in my own waste. Now, rather than trying to figure out how many zucchinis and peppers to buy for the week (unpackaged) … I can stop in to their new raw veggie bar and pick up a pre-packaged amount that is just the right size for us. And also while it is clear that there are lots of packaged veggies and fruits, I find the picture above to be highly misleading. When was the last time we walked into a grocery store’s produce section to be met with a wall of plastic? In fact, I have read countless articles condemning grocers for “tantalizing” us with their best and freshest unpackaged stuff as soon as we walk in the door and that such practice is overwhelming.

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