Food packaging from grocery stores contributes to a considerable proportion of plastic waste in the United States. It’s getting out of hand as nearly everything we touch within a grocery store is wrapped in plastic.
Plastic and grocery have been synonymous since the 1970s. Plastic bags were introduced in grocery markets in 1977, and since then, their consumption has skyrocketed. In the United States alone, consumers use 14 billion plastic bags a year, and less than 1 percent are returned for recycling. It takes 12 million barrels of oil to make those bags, and they’ll live in a landfill for 1,000 years.
Many never make it to the landfill or even the stores’ recycling bin (they can’t go in your blue bin). The misused bags litter our oceans and kill marine life.
Plastic bags are a huge problem, but they’re only one part plaguing grocery stores.
In addition to single-use bags, in the grocery is where you’ll find plastic packaging that turns into 25 - 40 percent (depending on whom you ask) of what eventually goes to a landfill. Although the number is arguable, the impact is not – it’s a lot of unnecessary plastic waste.
Think of everything in a grocery store that is wrapped in plastic or comes in a plastic container.
Candy bars. Meat. Milk. Eggs. Rice. Coffee. So much produce, including — for reasons that are baffling — individually wrapped potatoes. Sometimes the actual food item is nested in multiple layers. Take cheese slices, for example.
So pervasive is plastic packaging that it’s almost easier to think of the exceptions.
This problem isn’t just environmental. Studies have proven that some chemicals from packaging leach into the food. Moreover, there is mounting evidence that some of those packaging chemicals are hazardous to our health.
Wegmans, a supermarket chain with 98 stores throughout the East Coast, announced it would eliminate plastic bags by the end of 2019 in New York State. The decision attracted significant, positive media attention, but it was just one element of a much broader sustainability commitment by Wegmans called “Zero Waste.”
The company also announced this year that it would reduce in-store plastic packaging along with other single-use plastics, such as straws. The goal is to eliminate 2 million pounds of plastic this year with a 10-million reduction by 2024. You can learn more about Wegman’s efforts here.
Eliminating single-use plastic bags seems like an easy win. It’s the low-hanging fruit of a more sustainable food industry. After all, it’s not that difficult to imagine a world where we all bring our own bags to the store. Many of us are doing it already.
However, what about all that other stuff, the “in-store packaging”?
It seems overwhelming. But, remember, humans as a species have fed themselves for hundreds of thousands of years without the relatively recent inventions of plastic wrap and Styrofoam.
Like bags, some packaging and single-use plastics can simply be eliminated in favor of customer-owned bags and containers. Others can be replaced with plant-based renewable materials.
Wegmans, for example, has begun using 100 percent recycled paper material for its donut and cake boxes. Stores are also starting to dust off their seldom-used scales and sell more items in bulk, and stores are sourcing more food from local farmers. By sourcing food locally, grocers can eliminate some of that need for plastic.
These are positive changes, but they are not enough. CPG companies need to take this very seriously and begin working with stores to curb their plastic addiction. Because now more than ever, buyers are more likely than ever to put their money where their mouth is – literally. Food packaging is among the hardest hit in consumer demand for sustainable change.
The Nielson study also confirms that over the past five years, sustainability has become relevant to all consumers regardless of age or income. Now, trust and brand promises -- or the follow-through of the messaging – are also becoming a bigger part of consumer selection and future loyalty.
The only way to truly stop putting plastic into landfills and allowing it to make its way into our oceans is to prevent it from being made in the first place. The largest and most influential place you’ll see this sea change is in your local grocery store.
Consumer-Goods’ Brands That Demonstrate Commitment to Sustainability Outperform Those That Don’t (Nielson) https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/press-room/2015/consumer-goods-brands-that-demonstrate-commitment-to-sustainability-outperform.html
Global Consumers Seek Companies That Care About Environmental Issues (Nielson) https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2018/global-consumers-seek-companies-that-care-about-environmental-issues.html
Sustainable Shoppers Buy The Change They Wish to See in the World (Nielson) https://www.nielsen.com/content/corporate/us/en/insights/reports/2018/the-education-of-the-sustainable-mindset.html