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Going less plastic at the grocery store (not bags)

I'm a single person and I've been noticing how much plastic I put out every two weeks with the recycling...even minus the returnables, and the stuff that is not recyclable around here. As a result, I've really tried to make myself more aware of the choices I make at the grocery store when it comes to plastic, even though the weight of my groceries increases as a result.

For me, the choice of glass or aluminum in drink containers is an easier one, as I think it just tastes better. Some products there seems to be not a lot of choice (yogurt comes to mind). Some products I don't even understand why there's plastic anywhere near them.

I also want to educate myself a bit more about this, and the impact of glass/metal versus plastic containers, so I'm looking for both products and general thoughts on this.

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  1. Interesting timing, since just yesterday I was reflecting upon this as well. The one that is sticking in my craw lately are the plastic containers that much lettuce and other greens are now coming in. I don't want to buy them, but unfortunately, the bags often seem to be mistreated by the shippers and shelvers, and too often the lettuce, spinach, etc is already partly crushed by the time I even get to see it on the shelf (and thus rot sets in that much sooner). I can just buy romaine heads, or other types of heads of lettuce/greens, but the selection is definitely inferior in terms of diversity.

    Like you, I've wondered if these containers are as bad as they seem to me.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Cachetes

      I was at the grocery store this evening actually, and even the whole heads of romaine etc were in ziploc-type bags or at the very least in a plastic bag. I do not have a farmer's market anywhere near me, so I understand that this is less of an issue for people who can walk to markets and buy their produce that way (and am a bit jealous)

      1. re: Cachetes

        In my experience, many of the the plastic containers that house greens are actually made from corn. Still not great, but better than a petroleum product.

        ETA: I mean the hard shell containers, not the zip bags.

      2. we 'old' people remember when produce was never plastic wrapped even at the supermarket. Why does lettuce have to be wrapped? Cucumber? Celery? They still were packed, shipped and displayed.

        5 Replies
        1. re: smartie

          a product, I guess, of the extra amount of travel the food gets now.

          1. re: smartie

            Here in NoCal iceberg lettuce is wrapped, but mostly not the others (trying to picture it). Cukes never. Celery, sometimes yes, sometimes no. I'm old too :)

            1. re: c oliver

              check english cukes, they are the ones I see in plastic - also persian cukes ususlly com in a 6-pack in a plastic container

              1. re: enbell

                I loathe cukes so probably don't pay as much attention as I might :)

                1. re: enbell

                  English cucumbers are not waxed, so the plastic keeps them from drying out and going limp.

            2. Well, i'm a big fan of our Wegmans olive/antipasti bar, and of course, you have to put the food in those small plastic containers. Which I've been saving. I have a ton now, but manage to forget bringing them along each time I go back.... I try to at least reuse them for storing left-overs, but I'd love it if I could just bring them to the store and have the fish dude put the scallops in what I brought. Not another new container....

              Another pet peeve of mine - while one can now get their spring greens loosely (you still have to put them in a plastic bag), the mâche is in a huge plastic rectangle that not only screams of eco-crime, but will also fill your garbage bag up like crazy. It is by far one of my favorite lettuces, but I refuse to buy it anymore.

              Why it cannot be sold in (uh-oh) plastic _bags_ at least is beyond me.

              Long story short: I hear your pain.

              1 Reply
              1. re: linguafood

                I bring my own ziplocks to use instead of the flimsy supermarket plastic bags. I wash and re-use the ziplocks.

              2. I have often been termed "The Recycling Police" (or worse) by friends and family, so it warms my heart to hear people think about such things. At least you are recycling all the plastic you can. That is a huge step, and more than a lot of people do (especially those poor souls that don't have recycling in their area like my mom. She is 60 miles away from the nearest recycling facility!). Plastic bags are bad too, but our local grocery store will accept them for recycling, so I wash them out, dry them and haul them back to the store. You're right - what's scary is the stuff you can't recycle, even when you participate in a recycling program. I try to avoid that stuff, too, but some of it is unavoidable (unless I give up cream for my coffee - yuck. Why do they have to add a plastic spout, when I could just open the container???). I too feel your pain.

                1 Reply
                1. re: txgrl99

                  I applaud your recycling and deem us the King and Queen of it. BUT. We need to have choices that don't require recycling. Or make those choices ourselves. So many times I reach for the plastic bag to put russet potatoes or peppers or whatever in. Since I live in a magic house (thanks always, Sam) I'm not concerned about food safety. I am concerned about our planet.

                2. Weird thing I have also noted are products that tout themselves as organic, all-natural etc etc... and yet...you guessed it....chock-full of plastic (this is not exclusive to food-products however).

                  Ditched my regular peanut butter yesterday (Kraft natural) for a plastic-less version, that also turned out to be locally made. :)

                  1. I'd like to shed some light on organic produce being wrapped in plastic. While some things do hold up through the shipping process better when wrapped, other things are wrapped to preserve organic standards in facilities which may not have enough space to separate organic from conventional. Organic should be stored in it's own area (ideally) or stored above conventional. If a conventional item falls in a case of organic, then the organic is considered compromised. Wrapping items helps insure the organic integrity is maintained even if mishandled.

                    Most natural foods stores (depending upon local codes) will allow you to bring your clean containers for use when purchasing bulk items. Some will also let you use your containers for deli items and even at the meat/seafood station. Generally you need to stop by the cash wrap first to have your container weighed to establish a “tare” weight. You may have to speak with the store or dept. manager for deli or meat – bringing your own container is seldom done here, so staff may not know if it is allowed.

                    Preserve has teamed up with Stonyfield , Organic Valley and Whole Foods to collect #5 plastics for recycling. This type of plastic is seldom collected by municipalities.
                    http://planetgreen.discovery.com/home...

                    Changing habits can change the amount of waste. For instance, making juice from frozen concentrate creates less packaging to dispose of than a comparable amount of juice in glass or plastic. Purchasing meat from a butcher (wrapped to order in paper) vs prewrapped in Styrofoam. Making your yogurt and reusing your containers vs purchasing single serves.

                    For many of us “doggy bags” and take out create a lot of packaging. People may be surprised, but having your own container at the ready does reduce enormous amounts of plastic! (Plenty of past threads on this topic.

                    )

                    Single serve packaging, the 100 calorie snacks and bottled water are major issues in packaging waste. A little forethought and a few moments of prep at home can save pounds and pounds of waste.

                    Everyone has different needs and it is tricky to find your personal “sweet spot” - the point where you are happy with the quality, price and time you exert. Take baby steps – identify your biggest issue and work to make it better. Then identify the next!

                    1. I think it would help tremendously if stores started charging $0.15 for each plastic bag, like they do in Ireland.

                      16 Replies
                      1. re: GraydonCarter

                        Many places are already starting to do this. I know Florida has been considering it for a while as plastic bags are harmful to the wildlife/beaches. Toronto started charging last year, I believe.

                        1. re: queencru

                          Stores in Québec charge 5 cents per bag too, and the SAQ (wine and spirits monopoly, akin to LCBO in Otnario) doesn't provide disposable plastic or paper bags at all - you have to carry your bottle out naked (which is legal here) or bring or buy a reuseable bag.

                          We have to use standard bags for our rubbish bins; the garbage removal won't take grocery bags. I find despite the reduction in bags, I still somehow get far more than I need.

                          Fortunately I live near a major farmers' market, so it isn't too hard to get produce without plastic, though if you aren't watchful, they pack things in plastic bags. I've been using cloth bags for decades, but I'm an old eco-hippie who cycles everywhere.

                          I can't abide that pre-cut produce; not only does it assume gross incompetence in the kitchen, but it can't be properly cleaned. I wash all produce. On the other hand, a mix of whole vegetables packaged to make a pot-au-feu or other dish can be a godsend for single people. This might include a wedge of larger vegetables such as cabbage, but that can be thoroughly washed.

                          I have the same problem as linguafood does with most mâche, and I love it too. In France it is in a thin plastic bag, far less objectionable than the clamshell packaging, and one can buy it by weight in markets.

                          1. re: queencru

                            One of the big barriers is the fact that some plastic bag companies are still in the USA, so there's a big scare about job loss -- that was the argument in California, which ultimately led to the plastic bag ban failing to be passed. I understand the problem and certainly don't want those factory workers being put out of a job, but surely plastic bag companies see the writing on the wall? It's really only a matter of time, IMO.

                          2. re: GraydonCarter

                            Stores in Ontario are charging 5 cents per grocery bag and, yes, it definitely cuts down on the overuse of bags. BUT then many people have to go and buy bags to use in their trash bins at home. Which is ridiculous because these then become one-time use plastic items. Far worse, in my opinion, are all the excessively packaged grocery items - one green pepper on a styro tray wrapped in plastic; cookies arranged in plastic trays and packed into paper bags; the single serve snacks, yogurts, drinks; soups sold in a microwaveable plastic bowl; the prechopped salads sold in plastic bags; the mesclun lettuce and baby spinach sold in clear plastic tubs; etc.

                            Our society has become so germophobic that we want everything hermetically sealed in plastic for fear of dirt when, ironically, it's often modern intensive farming practices that have created the e coli and salmonella tainted food problems in the first place.

                            1. re: Nyleve

                              It isn't germs. It is tampering and poisoning.

                              Basically started when some jerk filled Tylenol capsules with cyanide in 1982. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_...

                              I have not bought trash bags in more than ten years and do use all of the plastic and paper bags I get at the grocers at least twice. I also reuse use the styrofoam and most other plastic also. The tamper resistant plastics pretty much are tossed.

                              1. re: Cathy

                                I know that many of us are really conscious of this when we shop, especially if we are the kind of people who do a lot of cooking from scratch. So I'm not pointing fingers at anyone in particular. I'm just saying that unnecessary overpackaging of raw food items has become epidemic. I am certainly old enough to remember the Tylenol incident, but none of this has anything to do with the packaging of food, really, or we'd all be afraid to by an unwrapped head of lettuce or an apple.

                                I am also old enough to remember when lettuce and spinach was just loose in the grocery store - but now people want their salad greens all dismembered and washed so they don't have to deal with dirt. Why isn't spinach just sold loosely bunched? Why do we need the boxes? Why the green beans with the ends cut off and packed into little plastic bags? Are we so busy we don't have time to trim a few beans? And don't get me started on pre-sliced mushrooms, cubed squash and packaged sliced apple "snacks" for kids lunch boxes. It's a stupid world.

                                1. re: Nyleve

                                  Oh. The products for people who don't know how to use knives. I wasn't thinking of that.

                                  It is something I giggle about. Portion control packaging. Because people can't read labels and divide the product.

                                  I suppose if people didn't buy things that way, then it wouldn't be sold. .

                                  1. re: Cathy

                                    I think there is some merit to portion control packaging. I like the prepackaged salads because I'm a single person and it's much easier for me to get through that package. When I buy the ingredients separately, I end up having most of the individual items go bad before I can use them all. Most of the places I shop no longer have a loose salad bar where you pay by weight and get as much as you want. It's not that I'm afraid to buy an unwrapped head of lettuce, it's that I know that 2/3 of it will not be used.

                                    1. re: queencru

                                      I am uncomfortable with bagged salad mixes for several reasons - only one of which is the packaging. Every time you have someone else perform a procedure on your food, there is an opportunity for additives to be thrown in - some salad mixtures have something added to keep them from turning brown. The substance isn't toxic, I realize this, but I still don't want it in my food. The processing adds cost to the product and allows contamination to be absorbed into the greens through the cut edges. Unless you buy a scrupulously fresh bag, you don't know how long it's been hanging around and under what conditions. You buy a head of lettuce and what you see is what you get. Of course there are incidents of contamination (from the field) and there is a spoilage issue if you can't use the whole head quickly enough so it's all a matter of balance. BUT what I do see is that the availability of these products has made people THINK it's a big pain in the butt to deal with whole heads of lettuce (or broccoli or cauliflower or whatever). What I see is people buying the processed products NOT because they want portion control but because they don't have the skills anymore to deal with whole vegetables. I think that's just a terrible shame.

                                      My comment has gone a bit off topic from the plastic issue. Sorry. I get started ranting about this stuff and I can't stop myself.

                                      1. re: Nyleve

                                        To me, the cost of buying each ingredient and then having half or more of it go to waste is more than just buying a bag I can use. I spend a lot of time examining bags/clamshells to pick one with a later expiration date, no bag puffiness, and limited moisture. So many products these days have been engineered to be bigger than they used to be, so it's hard to effectively use them if you don't have a family.

                                        1. re: queencru

                                          Understood. But you are probably a decent scratch cook or you wouldn't be hanging here on Chowhound. What I lament is the fact that people have been convinced by the proliferation of partially prepared foods that cooking and preparation is beyond their ability and have never developed the skills that only come from practice.

                                          1. re: Nyleve

                                            Oh people do things for all sorts of reasons. That got me to remember a discussion earlier, mainly about a person who's out to look for a dishwasher safe knife. His argument was something like if he has to spend a minute a day to wash a knife, he'll end up spending one full hour of his life washing knives in 2 months.

                                            There will always be pros and cons for most of the choices you make. You may decide to take care of the food yourself, and you end up wasting 10 mins everyday doing so. For those who choose pre-chopped veggies, they're going to loose some nutrients to oxidation and added germs / chemicals while trying to save those few minutes. As long as they are happy with what they get as a result, let them be. :-)

                                            The only problem I have is the creation of extra waste, which goes into the same planet as I currently live in, back to topic. :-)

                                    2. re: Cathy

                                      It's UNBELIEVABLY expensive, too. Less than a pound of baby zucchini for close to $9! My mother always used to say that kind of stuff is for people with more dollars than sense.

                              2. re: GraydonCarter

                                I actually wasn't talking about plastic bags.... those have already been a point of discussion here. I too use reusables.... but am more interested in glass and metal containers for grocery store items themselves.

                                1. re: im_nomad

                                  Metals has another disadvantage of being reactive to its surroundings and rust. The cans don't rust because there's a BPA-filled plastic lining inside. Glass is also dangerous, it chips it cracks it breaks (I can so see lawsuits coming). The most important thing is, they are expensive.

                                  I've noticed that the Trader Joes that I shop at wraps almost every single item. Those that are not being wrapped up are sold by count. You don't see customers standing at the produce section picking out string beans, and you don't see apples on the floor trying to make a run. When people are given a chance to pick, let's face it, most of them (sub)consciously will try to reach for the best ones, leaving the ugly ones behind and nobody will touch it after all the good ones are being picked. When stores pack the items, the only thing a customer can do is to pick the best looking package, which is going to look more or less the same as the rest on the display. At the same time it reduces damages. Chances of packed items being completely sold out is far greater than items sold loose. It also reduces confusion and time at the register. All they need to do is to scan and bag, versus having to find that little produce sticker, or flip through the book to find the code when there's no sticker, (thus testing the register's knowledge of plant diversity, parsley vs cilantro, cucumber vs zucchini...), count the number of lemons, etc. From the store's perspective, it all makes sense IMO. Fortunately, Trader Joes use cardboard trays, versus styrofoam in other supermarkets.

                                  I believe in supply and demand. There is milk sold in glass jars, but they're expensive. When people flock to get it, that's the day when you'll see glass/metal containers going mainstream.

                                  1. re: cutipie721

                                    I always thought part of the reason TJ's did that, in addition to your excellent reasons, is that most of its produce is packed in just a few locations and shipped out to many stores. That way, they don't have to deal with multiple suppliers. That's the only reason I can come up with for why the produce in the East Coast stores I've been to is so below the locally-grown stuff in terms of quality. I only buy produce there when desperate. But I think you are largely right that it has to do with ease of stocking and check-out.

                              3. Oh, the irony! Watching a quiet evenig's TV, finding the shows less amusing than the commercials, especially the juxtaposition.

                                First some lame song about how this home water filter pitcher will keep you from buying dozens of bottles of water, thus "save the planet", followed by an ad for an easy new entree that barely feeds one ("serves two" says the packaging) and consists of a throwaway plastic bowl with separate plastic pouches of ingredients, a plastic steamer tray, and wrapped in a multi-layer plastic wrap.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: wayne keyser

                                  I've actually queued at the supermarket with people buying that crap. And the supermarket in question has very good produce and fish, and decent meat. Those "bowls" are expensive too. I could feed four people with the equivalent, freshly made, and not much time or work. Oh, your sons and daughters really must learn to cook!

                                  Our tap water is perfectly drinkable and tastes fine. Sometimes I buy bottles of fizzy mineral water, but it is a treat, since I don't drink fizzy soft drinks.

                                2. Once in a while I'll hit the prepared food counter at Central Market just to try some items first before I go through the trouble of finding a recipe and making it from scratch. I hate getting a separate plastic container for each item, and I've found myself arguing with the person behind the counter since they can easily slap multiple stickers on the same container and they can all be scanned at the checkout. The plastic containers I get are constantly recycled by me for lunches. Then when they have finally fallen apart I can recycle them.

                                  When I buy veggies I try to use as few plastic bags as possible. If I buy large veggies (potatoes, onions, bell peppers) I don't use a bag. Smaller items like string beans need a bag. If there are veggies that are all the same price per pound like cilantro, green onions and radishes, I'll put all of them in the same bag. I reuse those bags when I clean out my cat's litter box. "Flushable" kitty litter is a joke.

                                  1. i know i'm a bit late to the party, but re: your yogurt dilemma, start making your own. if you use milk in glass jars, you're removing plastic from the equation completely...plus, homemade tastes better :)

                                    if you really don't want to make your own yogurt, there are a couple of brands sold in glass jars, though i don't know if they're available where you are - La Spiga & Saint Benoit.

                                    and when it comes to anything you buy in bulk or by weight (salad bar, deli counter, etc) check with your store to see if they'll let you bring your own containers and tare them for you.

                                    1. Unfortunately, too many "recycling" programs just dump the recycle material into a landfill, and charge the users for the "feel good" aspect of it.

                                      Do not know where you live, but things might not be quiet as you (or I) imagine. That will just depend.

                                      We're fairly anal about the exact recyclable items, and I am always disappointed, when the local "evening news" investigative reporters follow my recyclable materials, and report on what really happens to them.

                                      Since about 1983, I have paid extra for recycling. Before that, I would drive my items 35 miles to the centers. Now, I pay to "feel good,"only to find that all is just loaded into the landfill.

                                      We have various cloth bags, that we reuse, plus several wine bags/boxes, and then I drive my wine styro-shippers to a shop, to be used (or maybe sold?) to patrons. We try, and then I "try" to not think about it that much.

                                      Will not get into the other aspects, as that gets more political, than CH is ready for.

                                      Good luck,

                                      Hunt

                                      5 Replies
                                      1. re: Bill Hunt

                                        We don't pay for recycling around here, there are depots for drop-off and refund, and pick ups every couple of weeks with no refund. While I don't know where it all ends up, there's never been any scams around here that i'm aware of.

                                        But supposing everything does end up in a landfill, all things at the end there created equal...is the production of plastic vs glass in itself equal in impact?

                                        1. re: im_nomad

                                          I don't understand why recycling is not a reasonable answer... it's been drilled into my generation's mind for years. This is a very popular mantra around where I live recently, but we have one of the most user-friendly recycling policies I've ever encountered... and it took years of fighting to get that (You don't have to sort, recycling can is free, pay more for larger trashcans). I feel like our city is finally doing the 'environmentally right' thing, then we are starting to hear that it's still not enough. (Like, seriously, people here have protests for water bottles. My belief is well, at least they aren't drinking HFCS cokes...).

                                          I think it's a slippery slope to charge the consumer to use plastic bags at the grocery. I don't think you should be 'punished' financially for buying otherwise healthy produce or portion controlled-sized items. When I go to Central Market (and most HEBs at that), you have to bag and label every produce item, or the cashier will get mad and roll their eyes while checking you out. Other places I've lived, the cashiers know the items they sell and the PLU codes by memory... even Whole Foods that sells a gazillion weird produce varieties, the cashiers know what the items are. Maybe the burden should be on the producers who package in plastic vs. glass containers, and the producers would eventually have to charge more for products in glass or aluminum or whatever the hot new material is... then see which consumers buy more of. I'd think most consumers would rather have the choice of a lower-cost plastic or higher-cost glass than to charge for plastic containers and bags.

                                          1. re: drdelicious

                                            I'm admittedly a bit confused by your response. In my OP, I indicated that many plastics aren't recyclable around here, and I was concerned both for how food tastes from plastic, but also the production of plastic in general, as it pertains to the environment. I began to notice that my recycling bin contained a sea of plastic, and little else.

                                            The burden should be on the producers yes. ITA. I'm voting with my money. Cheaper is not always better. I've recently written a few regular food items off my list (certain peanut butter and hellman's mayo to name two), because they've phased glass out completely.

                                            1. re: im_nomad

                                              Here we recycle plastics 1-7 and the grocery stores recycle the plastic bags, so I take them back there. Our recycle can is 1/3 larger than our trash can; recycling is picked up bi-weekly and trash weekly. We may throw out 2 tash bags a week. The city charges more for a larger trash can to encourage recycling. I compost everything else for my garden.

                                              I was mostly referring to the above comments about plastic wrapped and bagged produce. I think it's silly that some are suggesting we pay for the plastic produce bags that the stores force us to use, just because it makes it easier on their cashiers.

                                              Many of those items you mention in pre-packaged plastic containers are things I can make at home: mayonaise, cheese, peanut butter, sauces and soups, juices, guacamole, salad dressings, whipped cream, etc. I think they taste better made from scratch, but I'm not sure the plastic containers are what make them taste bad... never really thought about it. I think until glass becomes less expensive to make, companies are going to use plastic. I mean, many companies are just trying to maintain some marginal level of profit right now, and are looking to cut corners on costs anywhere they can. It may not ever be less expensive unless the government gives tax rebates for changing over to glass or something.

                                              My confusion is on the aversion to plastic when it IS recyclable. I have a very smart collegue that went and made signs and stood outside all day protesting the sell of water bottles, which are recyclable. The bottled water was sold for a charity event to raise money for educational scholarships at an athletic event. I have noticed this mentality expanding greatly in the last year or so in my area, but maybe it's just here in Austin. I just really don't understand it.

                                              I also think that if the item is recyclable and a healthy food choice, then go for it. If it is just healthy and possibly not recyclable, then occasionally go for it. At least people who aren't able to recycle as much can make healthy food choices (bottled water vs. canned cokes) and not be penalized for it. ( I used to volunteer with a 'Keep America Beautiful' program in MS and help pick up trash off the highways. Fast food joint trash and cigarette butt filters were the majority of things that wouldn't biodegrade.... diapers, cassette tapes, and guns too :)

                                              It's taken Austin lots of years and lots of push for regulation to have a good recycling system, but I think it works very well here. When I lived in Memphis, I felt like it was a scam and half-hearted effort with no oversight to make people feel better about paying more city fees. It also costs more to live here than it did in Memphis.

                                              It seems like we could solve some of these issues by just having a broad national standard for recycling plastics, but that would be very expensive. I find the better answer is just find a way make the stuff you'd normally buy in plastic containers at home. Once you have the equipment to make these things, you'll never need to buy the pre-packaged things. You can laugh at the silly folks that pay $4 for gourmet salad dressing in the plastic bottles. It'll taste better too.

                                              1. re: drdelicious

                                                Recycling is important, but it is better to avoid getting packaging in the first place. The 3 R's are in order of importance with recycling last. Better to reduce and reuse where possible.