Fantastic to get rid of plastic, but we need less to dump in the first place

Rebecca Stiffe, shopping at a Lidl store in Cork city and leaving the plastic in the store. Picture: David Keane.

Ditching the plastic feels good, but what consumers really need is less plastic to dump in the first place, writes Rebecca Stiffe.

Portuguese supermarket in Lagos.
Portuguese supermarket in Lagos.

Worldwide, between five and 13 million tonnes of plastic (1.5-4% of the global amount produced) ends up in our oceans, suffocating delicate marine life and even ending up in the human food chain.

With this in mind, and with my ‘bag for life’ in hand, I sauntered towards town with the intent of leaving behind all of my plastic packaging at the counter, hoping to make some small difference.

While I would love to say I shop at a local market, I usually shop at Lidl, for convenience and affordability. There’s one thing that terrifies me every time I step into that shop — the lightening speed at which the cashiers zap your items through the till.

One scarcely blinks and already items are teetering over the edge of that tiny space allocated and the cashier is asking: ‘cash or contactless?’ as you fumble for whatever you see first, followed by the horrible wait as you blindly fire your shop into bags, acutely aware of the hundred (well, seven) pairs of eyes on you.

Rest in peace, dear bananas and berries, now squashed beneath the milk and two-litre carton of orange juice.

I never took much notice at how much plastic is around, but once I did, I couldn’t stop seeing it everywhere. I don’t buy meat, but that seems to be where the most plastic lies. It’s wrapped around everything.

I spoke to my Mam, whose local butcher back home in Galway has recently started facilitating customers who bring their own Tupperware and containers.

Sainsbury’s in the UK are already doing this — first weighing the empty Tupperware and subtracting it from the total weight, before wrapping the contents in beeswax wraps as opposed to cling film.

In response to growing demand, Lidl are now trialling the introduction of 11 additional options for loose fruit and veg. While that area was much better than the meat section, there were still copious amounts of fruit encased in plastic.

As I picked up my items, I noticed that my blackberries had come from Guatemala. They had travelled thousands of miles before being transported by trucks all over the country. How much pollution did my inexpensive berries help create?

Most big stores have counters to allow you to pack your shop, so having made it through the till ordeal, I went about removing all packaging. I expected to feel somewhat embarrassed or to at least get a few strange looks, but the truth is no one cared.

I didn’t see anyone else doing it, but I’m sure with the rollout of the recycling centres it’ll become more mainstream (Lidl have recently become the first store in Ireland to announce plans for in-store recycling stations that’ll be available everywhere by May 31).

Looking down at my basket, I wondered why there was so much waste. There’s plastic around the pizzas, so why is there also a cardboard box? Why are the crisp packets surrounded by an even bigger plastic crisp packet? Surely there’s no reason the nutritional information can’t be printed onto a simple label and stuck on the front? But of course there is: marketing.

It’s what makes us buy one version of a product over another. A box of chocolates can’t be described as “delicious and mouth-wateringly tasty” on an inch-wide sweet wrapper. There needs to be a gigantic box half-filled with air to have space to print in cursive lettering to entice buyers.

As I was writing this article, I spent some time in Portugal and decided to take a look at their supermarkets to compare their plastic use with ours.

There was a stark difference when it came to fruit and veg. There was very little plastic, if any. Most of the vegetables were on display without any packaging at all. There were one or two reams of plastic bags, but other than that, nada.

They had reusable plastic crates to display the produce, where I noticed Lidl tends to use cardboard, accounting for almost two-thirds of its waste.

Back home, I felt somewhat lighter, physically and mentally, after leaving Lidl. I had more space in both my bag and recycling bin at home. But it soon wore off when I got thinking about sustainability and what it actually means. I started to doubt if I’d made any difference at all.

Olive Finn (far left, inset), owner of the Twig-Refill Minimal Waste Store
Olive Finn (far left, inset), owner of the Twig-Refill Minimal Waste Store

While the larger supermarkets are great for low-cost shopping and are taking positive steps towards reducing their carbon footprint and waste, I’m still contributing to large-scale global emissions by shopping there. Perhaps investing my money in local produce, where the maximum distance my food travels to get to me is just a few kilometres, would make a bigger difference.

I spoke to Olive Finn, owner of The Olive Branch and the Twig-Refill Minimal Waste Store which opened last August in Clonakilty, and has over 100 food dispensers aiming to encourage customers to make the change to ‘package-free’ choices.

“This is what we encourage and it’s wonderful to see it evolve,” says Olive. “It seems like a very small thing to do, but if everyone does it, together we can make a difference. We are extremely lucky to be where we are. Clonakilty is a very forward-thinking town and embraces new ventures like Twig quite well.”

Olive has given talks in schools around West Cork to spread the word and admits that while there are many organisations out there offering helpful information, to become 100% waste-free requires major effort, with everything starting at home.

This takes time and commitment. People’s lives are so busy and as a society, you need to be prepared and bring your own container or bag.

"Our customers are now beginning to bring back the empty bags they would normally dispose of and are refilling them with things like rice, pasta, quinoa, raisins and lentils from the dispensers.”

Olive’s stores prize local products — from handmade sanitary care and cruelty-free non-disposable razor kits, to package-free Easter eggs and sourdough bread. They even have a West Cork basket-maker.

“At Twig, when people are curious or a bit overwhelmed by it all, we tell them to just start in the bathroom. Have a look at their containers and see how they can be reused and refilled. Look at using shampoo and soap bars, bamboo toothbrushes, toothpaste powder in glass jars, deodorant creams in tins and glass containers.

"There are so many alternatives now and there’s so much to think about, but it can be done!

“I think most people want to do their best and I really believe education is key,” says Olive. “Our planet is in trouble and we have so much to do. Elections are coming up and we need to use our voices and ask our representatives what they are doing towards saving the planet and why are they not doing it quickly enough.”

It may not be the most convenient route, and considering that just 100 companies in the world are responsible for 71% of global emissions, it can almost feel like shouting into the void. But by leaving our plastic and packaging at the foot of the globalist chains, or going that one step further by shopping at local markets, we can send a message. Sooner or later, it will have to be heard.

How supermarkets can change the way we shop

  • Sick of Plastic’s six demands on how supermarkets can break free from plastic:

  • Offer more items without packaging, such as fruit and vegetables (without plastic trays, wrapping and nets).
  • Make own-brand packaging easily compostable or recyclable, and use less plastic.
  • Demand, through purchasing power, that other brands have easily compostable or recyclable packaging, and use less plastic.
  • Blaze a trail in Ireland by implementing a plastic-free aisle, as has been done in The Netherlands.
  • Provide items in bulk, where possible, to reduce packaging.
  • Allow shoppers to use their own containers, buying only what they need.

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