In 2011, I committed to buying organic groceries and petrochemical-free personal care products. While I assumed that my consumption of organic goods constituted a clear win for environmental conservation, I had overlooked the reality that conventional and organic products alike are often sold in unsustainable plastic packaging.
While I attempted to shop sustainably by focusing on organic goods, I continued to produce unnecessary plastic waste by failing to specifically address the problem of unsustainable product packaging. Although the contents of my grocery cart had changed, my long established shopping patterns had not. I had simply begun swapping organic products for conventional ones, often substituting one plastic bottle for another.
As much as organic and conventional supermarkets may differ in content, often they are remarkably similar in form. For every conventional product is an organic counterpart. Notice how often that the conventional and organic versions are identical in terms of packaging materials. For every plastic bottle of conventional laundry detergent is a plastic bottle of eco-friendly laundry detergent.
Consider too, the reality that many organic brands, like their conventional counterparts, sell individually packaged goods, many of which are sold as single portions. This is typically the case for yogurt, granola bars, energy bars, unpasteurized juices, ice cream bars, pouches of protein powders and packets of almond butter. Think about it. That is a lot of packaging.
Single portioned products aside, many organic products are packaged to contain individually packaged single portions within a larger box. Consider boxes of organic crackers, cookies, or ice cream bars that contain several smaller plastic packets of individualized servings. Multi-packs of organic juice boxes wrapped in clear plastic are another example.
Even when organic stores offer bulk bins that discourage high ratios of packaging relative to the actual the product, the bags that are dispensed by many of the stores to package the bulk goods are made from plastic. Consumers also frequently encounter plastic produce bags and plastic shopping bags at organic grocery stores.
There is no denying that unsustainable packaging has a lot going for it in terms of attractiveness to producers and consumers. Plastic packaging functions as a perfect vehicle for product advertising, offering itself as a colourful canvas for visual branding. The compactness, lightness, and convenience of plastic packaging makes it that much easier for a consumer to neatly slip purchases into a single tote bag, all the while having a free hand to carry a single-use to-go cup.
This ease of consumption is very much a deliberate tactic of corporations to sell more products. Consumerism is designed to be easy. Convenience encourages further consumption. If it wasn’t so damn easy to shop, people would do it less often, which would mean less profit for corporations.
Truth be told, sustainable shopping can be rather ‘unsexy’ in conventional terms. When you substitute mason jars, cotton bags and reusable tupperware for disposable plastic packaging, the visual remnants of colourful branding disappear altogether and purchases tend to be bulky and heavy. The shopping process itself allows little space for spontaneity in that it requires preparation, effort and an arsenal of reusable shopping bags, produce bags, food containers, bottles, beverage cups and cutlery on your person. Convenience pretty much flies out the window. With convenience cut out of the equation, shopping becomes a much more conscious experience. Whims and impulse buys no longer factor into the experience. Shopping becomes based on need rather than unchecked desire, the very definition of ‘conscious consumerism’.
What’s in your cart? If you are curious about the sustainability of your own purchases, without judging yourself, make a count of the number of disposable packages in your grocery bags. Better yet, look into your garbage bin. What percentage of your trash is disposable plastic packaging? You might be surprised.
Much love, Jenna