The real cost of your plastic wrapped vegetables

It’s no secret that the German discount supermarket Aldi does not provide single-use plastic bags at the checkout.
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Instead the supermarket offers large multi-use bags for 15 cents a pop, in line with its support for “a complete ban on single use plastic bags.”

On the surface it is a responsible policy, which goes one better than those of rivals Coles and Woolworths, who still issue complimentary single-use bags with every purchase.

But as any Aldi shopper would know, the push away from plastic does not extend storewide.

Aldi, along with Coles and Woolworths, makes liberal use of plastic packaging in its fresh produce section, much to the chagrin of environmentally conscious shoppers.

A waste initiative launched by the Environment Protection Authority in 2015 found 217 NSW supermarkets disposed of more 230 tonnes of plastic film and wrap, an average of one tonne per supermarket, per year.

Pre-diced onions in sealed plastic bags, chopped mushrooms in plastic trays, cucumbers and zucchinis beneath a tight layer of cling wrap. You want it – ‘s supermarkets have it.

Executive director of the Total Environment Centre Jeff Angel describes it as “marketing gone mad.”

“It’s socially irresponsible. This level of convenience is not [necessary],” he said.

“Marine plastic pollution is a world crisis and the concentration around n waters is alarming.”

A Fairfax Media survey of the produce section of an inner Sydney Coles, Woolworths and Aldi, found similarities in their use of plastic packaging.

Coles and Woolworths stocked almost identical offerings of their fruits and vegetables in every form: loose (with plastic freezer bags available), sealed in bags, laid on styrofoam or plastic trays and wrapped in cling wrap, or in plastic punnets.

For example Coles offered loose Royal Gala apples for $2 a kilo, as well a one-kilogram plastic bag of apples for the same price.

Tomatoes were also offered loose, on a tray with plastic wrap, sealed in a bag or in a punnet.

At Woolworths, capsicums, potatoes, corn and cauliflower could also be purchased loose, wrapped on a tray, or sealed in a bag.

Aldi offered a range of wrapped and unwrapped fruits and vegetables, while others could not be purchased without packaging; namely zucchini, kiwi fruit, corn, carrots and mushrooms.

Kale could not be purchased at any of the three stores without plastic wrap, while eggplant was one of the only vegetables consistently offered without packaging at all three stores.

An Aldi spokeswoman said it was investigating best practice in plastic packaging.

“Aldi’s most recent response to the n Packaging Covenant’s requirements…includes the development of Sustainable Packaging Guidelines [for] our exclusively branded products.”

Professor Gay Hawkins from Western Sydney University said the image of pre-peeled vegetables “on a tray covered in glad wrap” symbolised the “over-packaged world”.

Her current research project, ‘The Skin of Commerce’ attempts to explore the history and role of plastic packaging in .

“Getting data on this in is really, really hard. But it seems it was really the 1970s when plastic started to take off,” she said.

“Pre-World War II plastic was seen as a kind of inferior substitute???a fake material. Then with the development of thermoplastics, which can be stretched and moulded…it became applied to every area of life.”

Professor Hawkins said the proliferation of plastic was a problem for industry, which needed to “completely rethink its relationship” with the material.

A Coles spokeswoman said packaging was required to maintain freshness and food safety, and most trays used were made of “full recyclable” PET.

At Woolworths packaging is also used for food preservation, while any new recyclable packaging options were required to meet existing food safety standards.

“…Polystyrene trays in our produce organics supply network [have been] converted to compostable trays or recyclable plastic,” a spokesman said.

Both Coles and Woolworths are party to the closed loop REDcycle program, which allows customers to return plastic bags and packets to the store to be recycled.

Chief executive officer of the n Packaging Covenant Trish Hyde said n retailers were “actively pursuing” sustainable alternatives.

“This is the biggest challenge we have. Plastic in some respects offers more than other forms…but it is harder to recycle in many circumstances.”

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