One Way to Reduce Trash? Start Cutting Down on Food Packaging

Mar 23, 2017

Local beef in plastic packaging
Credit Elspeth Hay

According to the US EPA, roughly a third of the trash we create is packaging, and most of that comes from food. A few years ago, Elspeth Hay started wondering why we use so much packaging to keep and transport our food. She learned about a woman named Bea Johnson in California whose family produces only a pint of trash a year, and got inspired to try to reduce the amount of packaging her own family was bringing home.

This week on the Local Food Report, she shares some of what she's learned talking to vendors at local farmers markets about why they use the packaging they do. 

Laura McDowell May sells frozen beef and pork raised on her family's farm in Dennis. She says she uses plastic cryo-vac packaging over paper because it gives an airtight seal. But it also costs $1.50 a pound more than paper wrap—for animals that average 500 pounds of meat, that's a $750 price difference—and it gets passed on, pound by pound, to the consumer. A hundred years ago, most towns would have had a local butcher where small farmers like May could sell their animals fresh. There would have been less need for packaging. But May says since at farmers markets she can only sell her meat frozen, those extra six months buy her and her customers important time in the freezer.

Ron Hutchison, who sells micro-greens at the Orleans market in plastic clamshell packages, says he also worries about keeping his product marketable and fresh. Ron says he also worries about the environmental impact of the containers, so he puts a basket in front of his stand encouraging customers to bring them back to be reused and recycled. But frustratingly, this isn’t the solution most of us believe. Unlike tin or glass, which can be recycled endlessly, plastic can only be “down-cycled” or recycled a few times, often only once, before it ends up finally as trash.  

Victoria Pecoraro keeps chickens on her farm in Wellfleet. She buys recycled paper egg cartons and asks her customers to return them when they come back. She worries about waste, but she also does this because as with meat, the packaging for eggs is expensive. Each one costs about $0.50—almost the cost of an extra egg. Like with meat, this cost gets passed on to the consumer.

Packaging is less of a concern for produce vendors at farmers markets—many display their vegetables artfully without any packaging at all—but Marie Weber who farms in Brewster says she still has to have something available for customers who don’t bring their own bags. Weber also runs a sewing business from her home in the off-season, and she decided to  start experimenting with making and selling reusable produce bags out of cloth. She says many people still aren’t familiar with the idea of bringing their own produce bags like they do with bigger shopping bags, but that it is catching on. 

About three weeks worth of garbage, two years after Elspeth Hay was inspired by a woman in California to try to reduce the amount of food packaging her family brings home.
Credit Elspeth Hay

There’s a movement starting all over the world advocating for businesses and consumers to go “zero waste.” The idea is to eliminate the need for packaging—by selling in bulk or asking or even requiring people to bring their own bags and containers. And while this may sound crazy and inconvenient, it’s also crazy how much we pay—both at stores and in disposal costs—for packaging that’s harmful to both our own health and the environment. Several youth groups in our area are working to reduce plastic pollution associated with food at stores and in restaurants. A few highlights include the Nauset High School Human Rights Academy on the Outer Cape selling ceramic mugs engraved with #notaplastic cup, Youth Against Plastic Pollution Cape Cod hosting sewing gatherings in Truro to sew reusable cloth bags, students at Potter Elementary School in Dartmouth hand-tying reusable bags out of old t-shirts, and a group of middle schoolers in Falmouth that have inspired at least one local restaurant to offer plastic straws only upon request with their "Skip the Straw" campaign.