Earth Day: How one grocery shopper takes steps to avoid ‘pointless plastic’

Nature wraps bananas and oranges in peels

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Nature wraps bananas and oranges in peels. But in some modern supermarkets, they’re bagged or wrapped in plastic too.

For Judith Enck, that’s the epitome of pointless plastic. The baby food aisle is similarly distressing for her, with its rows and rows of blended fruits, vegetables and meat in single-use pouches that have replaced glass jars.

Less than 10% of plastic is recycled. Most is buried, burned or dumped. Recycling rates for glass, aluminum and cardboard are far higher. And cardboard or paper packaging is biodegradable.

The global theme for Earth Day on Monday is planet vs. plastic. Plastic production continues to ramp up globally and is projected to triple by 2050 if nothing changes. Most of it is made from fossil fuels and chemicals. As the world transitions away from using fossil fuels for electricity and transportation, plastics offer a lifeboat for oil and gas companies as a market that can grow.

The Earth Day environmental movement is calling for "the end of plastics for the sake of human and planetary health." People are increasingly breathing, eating and drinking tiny particles of plastic, though researchers say more work is necessary to determine its effect on human health. Millions of tons of plastic wind up in the ocean each year.

This week, thousands of negotiators and observers representing most of the world's nations are gathering in Ottawa to craft a treaty to try to end the rapidly escalating levels of plastic pollution.

Plastic is everywhere in modern society. That’s evident whenever you go grocery shopping, said Enck, a former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator who now heads up the advocacy group Beyond Plastics. There are things shoppers can do if they want to use less plastic.

On a recent trip to the Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany, Enck bought almond butter and yogurt in glass containers. She asked that her fish be wrapped in paper and not placed in a plastic bag. She steered clear of bagged carrots and breezed past the lettuce packed in what she calls “plastic coffins.”

She keeps reusable shopping bags in her car, a common practice in New York since the state banned plastic carryout bags several years ago.

“Even small steps make a difference because big supermarkets notice when people ask for less packaged material. Also, our kids pay attention. If they’re shopping with us and you talk about why you’re reaching for the glass jar rather than the plastic jar, it’s an opportunity for education,” she said.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

AP: How do you avoid plastic packaging and products at the grocery store?

I tell everyone you’re not going to be perfect, but do the best you can and focus on things you buy most often. I just could not keep buying those plastic orange juice jugs. So what I did on the juice was, I bought a really nice glass pitcher with a lid on it. And for juices and lemonade, I only buy the frozen concentrate. You avoid the plastic altogether. It takes a little bit of time to melt it and add three cans of water. But most people can manage that.

AP: Many shoppers start in the produce aisle. What are some tips?

I bring reusable cloth produce bags because I don’t want to use those thin plastic bags. So if I need a couple of apples, a couple of avocados, I’ll put them right into my reusable produce bag. I try to buy loose carrots rather than carved carrots in little plastic bags. I will never, ever buy bananas if they’re in a plastic bag, which in my store they usually are not, but I have seen that sometimes. It’s pretty easy to buy loose peppers. I never put broccoli into a plastic bag. You know, you don’t need a lot of those produce bags.

The real dilemma is the fresh berries. Now they do come in number two plastic, which is supposed to be recyclable. I know that Driscoll’s is starting to sell strawberries in a little cardboard box, which I am waiting for.

AP: What do you do when plastic is unavoidable?

For crackers, you can recycle the outside box if it’s cardboard, but then there’s usually a plastic bag inside or a waxy bag that you can’t recycle. But you can use that waxy bag or those little plastic bags if you have pets. I don't have a pet, but my friends use bread bags and chip bags when they pick up pet poop. So why buy pet poop bags, you can just save those.

I do use regular trash bags. I don’t knock myself out on that. I try not to fill it up. If you can reduce your waste generation, you’re not buying as many bags. I think it’s very important to compost at home if you have the space.

AP: Where have you seen improvement?

The household goods aisle. I am excited about the changes. For detergent you can get concentrates. I only use powder in the dishwasher. I strongly recommend that people avoid the plastic pods. And you can recycle the cardboard boxes from the powdered soaps. You don’t have to get it in plastic. I also think the beverage aisle has some real opportunities for recycling. Better than most other aisles.

AP: What could be done so shoppers have more options?

The nice thing about paper, cardboard, glass and metal is it can be easily made from recycled content. And it actually is recyclable. You can put it in your recycling bin. And if it gets littered, the paper in the cardboard, in particular, doesn’t stick around for centuries.

If we were to pass a strong packaging law to reduce plastic packaging at the state or national level, you would have packaging engineers thinking about what happens after the packaging is used. New York is considering a law right now that would reduce plastic packaging. Unless we adopt new laws, it’s not going to change because the voluntary pledges by companies are falling short across the board. That's the only way to solve this.