This is Bananas: Packaging and waste in the produce industry

Every time I open my garbage to throw something away I hear a little voice in my head that whispers… waste. Can I reuse this Ziploc bag again? Is it worth trying to clean the raw chicken out of it? Are bottle caps recyclable? What do I do with the pizza box?!

To help cope with this eco-anxiety, I’ve started following Instagram accounts that highlight plastic-free living and ways to reduce waste in everyday life- content like upcycled reusable produce bags, plastic free toothbrushes, and bar shampoo. These are some great options for reducing the amount of carbon we produce – especially from packaging.  I avoid using plastic produce bags at the store, especially for things like apples and avocados which are fine without it. I make these choices and habitual changes to lessen the impact plastic has on ecosystems and, honestly, because it makes me feel good. I feel like I’m doing something good for the environment.

What we see in the store doesn’t always tell the whole story. Still, grabbing the plastic-free cucumber on the right is a good place to start. Photo by Susannah Maher

 

However, I also work at a grocery store and spend most of my time looking at produce. My job, combined with my Insta-follows, has made me think more and more about the waste within our everyday consumption of fruits and veggies. I’ve learned more about the food I eat from working in the produce department than any textbook or Instagram post I’ve seen.

Before I started working at the grocery store, I never thought about what produce goes through before it’s put out for sale, perfectly presented for consumers. Did you know that leafy greens are shipped in bulk, have the damaged and “ugly” ends trimmed off, soaked in water, and cooled before they’re put out? Each head of romaine is individually wrapped in a plastic label and twist tie before being put out to sell. Did you know that bananas are packed in cardboard boxes with a hole in the bottom and top, wrapped in a plastic sleeve, and then separated by more plastic strips? Because, until now, I didn’t either. The Instagram content that we see is only telling us one story about the choices a customer makes at a grocery store to bring produce home. It doesn’t tell us much about how that fresh and perfectly ripened yellow banana arrived on the shelf or what it took to get it there.

Consumer choices are important for changing the way people use plastic and what their purchasing habits are. It’s not meaningless that you opt for the plastic free cucumber instead of the plastic wrapped cucumber. But even when we opt for an item that appears plastic free, do we really know that plastic was never used in the process of getting it from the farm to our table? How much difference do our individual choices make if the grocery store and supply chain have already made a lot of the choices for us?

Take a banana: when you see it in the store it has minimal packaging, maybe a sticker or tape saying it’s organic but for the most part it’s presented in its naturally decomposable wrapper.

But I can tell you it doesn’t ship or arrive that way. It’s not uncommon to see plastic on bananas while they’re still on the tree to protect the fruit from wind and insects. Next, bananas are harvested, washed, processed, and sent to ports to be packed into refrigerated ships. Pallets of bananas are then allowed to ripen and are sent to individual stores to be unboxed and put out for sale. The plastic is used to ship, secure, and contain the bananas. Once the bananas arrive to a store, the plastic is not reused and may or may not be recycled.

Just avoiding produce packaged in plastic won’t completely solve our plastic waste problem. It’s an important first step, but when the problem starts all the way back when the bananas are still on the tree, the solution must involve systemic changes in the supply chain. The first step for consumers is to be informed about what the supply chain looks like and the impact it has. This is one of the most effective ways to change supply chains. Research on how companies can increase sustainability find that most of the issues lie in their supply chains. If consumers vote with their dollar at the grocery store and also pressure companies to alter the way they move product around the world, companies will begin to feel the pressure. Most importantly follow through. Hold them accountable and tell your friends about what you learn either in person or via an Instagram post.

Shopping “plastic-free” at the store is not just about getting rid of the single-use produce bags, it’s also thinking about exposing the behind-the-scenes system of packaging and moving food around the world.

Now when you see a post about plastic free groceries you can ask “but what about the supply chain?”

 

Is “plastic free” really plastic free? Tough to know these days. Photo from @urbanrevaus and @plasticfreejuly on Instagram.