When we arrived in Australia in 2009, I remember a friend took us to one of the main supermarkets to buy few basic things we needed for a couple of days and I was surprised with how big it was and the variety of products. Isles and isles, thousands of products, everything neatly organised. Different brands, presentations, sizes and of course packaging.

Subsequent visits to the supermarkets were very long, we spent hours browsing the isles and fridges, exploring products we have never seen before and trying to decide what to get. My awareness about these environmental issues hadn’t fully started yet, so the supermarket was paradise. These days my way of shopping is quite different to how it was back then, but I still go to the supermarkets here and there to get a few things.

I understand supermarkets are super convenient, some are open even 24/7 and they offer most of the products we need. I get it, life is busy and it is the simplest option for many people. That’s why this week  I am aiming to explore small things that we call all do to make choices that are better for our health and the planet. If you do your weekly shopping in the local supermarket, please keep reading.

Start noticing the packaging

One of the main issues with supermarkets is that most of the products are packaged and there is no way around that – Although in the last few years I have noticed some supermarkets have started offering some dispensers for nuts, seeds, grains and similar, so you can buy the amount you need and take your own reusable bags, it is a great progress!

Gaining awareness about the products packaging and including that in the product selection criteria is key if we want to reduce waste and the impact these items have on the environment.

Usually when we buy our food we consider certain aspects to make a decision such as the brand, quality, price, how it looks, even the expiry date, so what if we also consider the packaging? I know there will be times when you’ll have to compromise some of these factors, but other times you’ll find what you need making a better choice for the planet. It is a matter of paying attention.

As you can probably imagine one the packaging material that is more problematic and hard to avoid is our dear “friend” plastic. I would dare to say that majority of the packaging these days is plastic: bags, hard and soft containers. Few weeks ago I wrote the  Plastic Bag Series and mentioned all the issues these bags are having on the environment, although most people only think about plastic shopping bags  as the “bad guys” the reality is plastic packing has exactly the same effect (same goes for hard plastic containers which I’ll write about it in a separate post) and it is actually worse because most of the time is never reused.

Our health

Another motivation we can have to reduce this type of packaging is the fact that several studies are finding plastic leach chemicals into our food. Some suggest these chemicals mimic estrogen and that can potentially bring other health problems. For instance, in this article from Scientific American they cite:

BPA was linked to increased breast and prostate cancer occurrences, altered menstrual cycles and diabetes in lab mice that were still developing.

The good news is that other studies like this one from Environmental Health Perspectives, after evaluating the contribution of food packaging to our exposure to BPA and DEHP concluded that these chemicals are substantially reduced when participants’ diets were restricted to food with limited packaging.

So if there is a potential risk, I think it is always best to take a precautionary approach and try to avoid these products whenever we can.

Some ideas to explore

I know you are reading this and thinking: How the hell I am going to avoid packaging in the supermarket? I get your pain, it is a challenge, but reducing some of it is a great start. I already discussed some options in my post about other ways to reduce the use of plastic bag, but I’d like to expand that not only to plastic bags.

1. Pick better materials

These days often we can find the same product packaged differently depending on the brand. For example, we can find sugar in plastic bags but also in paper bags, or mayonnaise in a plastic container but also in a glass container. Try to go for paper, glass and aluminium. Remember all these are resources that come from somewhere, so there is not perfect solution here, but some materials cause less harm than others.

Glass jars can be reused for so many things around the house, instead of sending them to the recycling bin I keep them (my husband would call me almost a hoarder of these jars, he is always trying to get rid of some) and I give them so many uses: store veggies, dressings and leftovers in the fridge, I even freeze food in them.

Reusing glass jars

Reusing glass jars to freeze chickpeas

Also glass and aluminium are good materials for recycling as they don’t degrade in the process, so they can be recycled over and over again. Paper as I discussed in an earlier post is not the best option either, but at least the packing won’t linger in the environment for years to come.

It is just a matter of gaining awareness and playing with your options.

2. Say no to over-packaged products

The other day I had to buy some crackers for a social gathering, so in a rush I went to the supermarket to see what I could find. Most of the crackers came in a aluminium-plastic bag, so I saw this product which came in a cardboard box. At least that was a bit better I thought, but I could only hope it was not so bad in terms of the packaging inside. Well, I think I was too naive on this one, not only came with a plastic container to hold the crackers but also wrapped in a plastic bag which to me is excessive because the container inside is sealed and it has its own lid.

Crackers Packaging

Crackers Packaging

I tagged them on my Instagram complaining about it but they never replied! So even when the crackers were actually good, I won’t buy this product again.

Another related issue is individually packaged items, think for example: tea, biscuits, cereals, sweets and many more. It doesn’t really matter if the packaging is plastic or paper, it is just wasteful.

Individually wrapped tea

Individually wrapped tea bag vs regular tea bag

Many of these products are targeted to mothers because they are convenient for kid’s lunch boxes, but think about it, most of them are wrapped in a big bag and inside ten or twelve extra mini bags/packaging which will end up in landfill very quickly.

Individually wrapped bread

Individually wrapped bread

Often you can find the same product in a different presentation. For instance the picture above is a brioche bread that my mother bought, the same product also comes in a bigger size and wrapped in only one bag. You can buy it, cut it and store it in smaller container to have it on the go. It is quite simple.

3. Buy bigger presentations of the same product

It takes more resources to make several small jars/cans than a large one. So for instance it is best to buy one 500 gr jar of pasta sauce compared to buying two 250 gr ones and you’ll probably save money too, because usually the larger the presentation of the product the cheaper.

According to the “Green Book”:

If every month each U.S. household substituted a larger can for two smaller ones, the annual savings in steel could build an Eiffel Tower on each of the six other continents

4. Skip the supermarket bread

Several years ago I used to buy my sandwich bread in the supermarket just because it was already there so it was the easier choice however when I started learning about ingredients and actually reading labels I realised it was often full of additives and artificial preservatives. Later of course I also became aware of the fact that it comes wrapped in plastic!

It is best to go to the bakery to get your bread, you can take your own reusable bag and ask them to put the bread there or you can request paper bags. I personally started taking my own bags to a small shop and I had no issues, now I bake my own sourdough bread, I’ll write about it in the future.

Homemade sourdough bread

Homemade sourdough bread

5. Favour the deli over prepackaged food

Often when you buy products directly from the deli, less packaging is used. For instance if you buy a tray of chicken breast from the fridge it comes with: the plastic tray, the plastic film that covers the tray and a packet/pad at the bottom that absorbs the juices that are gradually released. If instead you buy the chicken breast from the deli, they’ll use one plastic bag and paper wrapping that’s optional, that’s it. Same product less waste.

6. Loose fruits and veggies

Avoid or reduce pre-packaged and frozen fruit and veggies and go for loose produce, such a simple change. In some instances it is a bit of extra work if you are planning to buy already sliced mushrooms or a ready to use salad, but again it is worth it.

Also consider buying the whole fruit instead of halves which usually come wrapped in plastic film. For example: watermelon, melon, cabbages etc. A caveat here: avoid food waste which is a massive issue for the environment too, no point in buying a full watermelon to skip the plastic if it is going to be wasted.

A side note on the food waste subject: these days supermarkets have ridiculous cosmetics standards for veggies and fruit. They have to be around the same size, shape, colour because apparently that’s what we consumers want. I was shocked while watching one of the episodes of “ABC War on Waste Australia” where they had to dump perfectly good bananas just because the supermarkets wouldn’t accept them.

Lately I have seen supermarkets doing some changes, they now sell veggies with odd shapes (although most of the time wrapped in plastic) and sell individual bananas too. It is not much really but at least something is happening. Try to support these initiatives and if by chance you see a fruit/veggie with a random shape in the normal shelves, buy it there is nothing wrong with this type of products.

It depends on us. We only have a short window of time for people to change attitudes and behaviours – Dr Jane Goodall

There you  have it, six ideas to consider next time you go to the supermarket, they are simple and over time will help you to reduce your waste and make better choices for your family. Please let me know in the comments below: which of these ideas are you going to start implementing? any other tip for other readers visiting the big supermarkets?

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Thanks for reading,