We must ditch the packaging and stop putting our love of convenience ahead of the planet’s future
THE shock almost knocked me over. I was in Dunnes recently and went to pick up some mushrooms. I love them, and eat them in omelettes or sautéed with tarragon and served on brown toast for breakfast, raw in salads at lunchtime, and swimming in garlic butter for dinner, so I get through quite a lot.
I often feel guilty, though, because like almost every other vegetable available in my local supermarket, they come on plastic trays covered in cling film, totally needlessly when they just as easily could be sold loose.
If that’s not possible, though, there now is a second best option. In Dunnes – and here’s why I was so surprised – sliced mushrooms were available, for the first time I can remember, on a cardboard tray, one that is completely biodegradable. Yes, there was cling film on it, but the reduction in plastic waste was very welcome, and no one will be paying for the consequences of my dietary habits 500 years into the future.
Also recently – and I’m annoyed I can’t recall where, because it is worth noting – I was served a drink with a paper straw, again the first time I’ve seen one in ages, and possibly decades (for those of you under 40, straws almost always were made of flimsy paper that became soggy and limp long before you finished your drink – now, it seems they’re reinforced with a few layers, but still made totally from paper).
This week, as part of its Tidy Towns strategy, Westport in Co. Mayo announced a scheme to withdraw all plastic straws from use in the popular tourist town. All the pubs have agreed to use only biodegradable straws from June 1, and the hope is that fast-food restaurants and supermarkets there will follow suit.
This is, hopefully, a good sign for the future, and one of many. In the UK, major supermarkets and food and drink brands – among them many we also know here, such as Tesco, Aldi, Lidl, Marks and Spencer, Coca-Cola, Birds Eye, Danone, Nestlé, Pepsi, Procter & Gamble and Unilever – have agreed to eliminate single-use plastic by 2025.
The move is a wide-ranging one. Black trays, the ones used for fruit, veg and ready meals, will be phased out, as they cannot be picked out by laser sorting systems in recycling plants and often end up in landfill, or incinerated.
When it comes to buying meat, fish, marinades or salads, shoppers will be encouraged to bring their own reusable containers. Polystyrene pizza box liners will be replaced with cardboard. Deteruse, gent and washing-up liquid bottles will be refillable. Frozen food bags will be replaced with a new type that are biodegradable. Plastic bottles will include more recycled material, and a deposit scheme will be introduced.
Pub chain Wetherspoons already has introduced a voluntary ban on plastic straws in the UK, along with Prêt-aManger and Costa. Cotton buds with plastic stems will go, as will those foil pouches for pet food, baby food, coffee and fruit juice. Crisp packets, too, will be replaced with more environmentally friendly packaging.
Best of all, as almost exclusively is the case in supermarkets in France, Spain and Italy, more fruit and veg will be sold loose.
There are arguments against this, as many claim that the plastic on the likes of cucumbers actually makes them last longer, but at least food waste is compostable, where plastic is not.
Indeed, returning to buying loose fruit and vegetables would be a godsend for those of us who live alone. In Dublin, I lived across the road from a traditional greengrocer, and wandered over to buy what I needed every day, never throwing out anything but peel, a seed or a core. Now, if I want an apple, I often have to buy four, and if I want an orange I have to buy six. Inevitably, and despite my very best intentions, some end up rotting before I get to eat them, so a return to buying only what I need would be very welcome indeed.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no eco-warrior, but I grew up in a more austere age and it was ingrained in me that nothing should go to waste, so it genuinely pains me to have to throw out leftover food. If there’s a lemon I know I’m not going to I squeeze the juice into an ice cube tray and freeze it, then pop it in sparking water weeks later for an instant lemonade. If there are three slices of bread past their prime but not yet speckled with mould (or the heels of a sliced pan, which I hate), I chuck them in the food processor, and they come in handy later as the crumb on a pasta bake, or mixed with cream cheese and herbs for stuffing, well, mushrooms actually.
It’s all about being organised, and an extra ten minutes can save you money and eliminate waste, if you just make the effort.
I invested years ago in a very expensive bean-to-cup coffee machine that has repaid me tenfold, I’d reckon, so I don’t use those expensive foil capsules that are difficult to recycle. While Nespresso offers a dedicated recycling service for its customers, it is only one player in that market. As many as 20 billion capsules a year find their way into landfill, where they take between 150 and 500 years to fully break down. That clearly is unsustainable.
Above all, though, I’m absolutely scrupulous about recycling. I never really was much of an environmentalist and, until presented with irrefutable evidence, something of a climate change sceptic too, but moving to live a few hundred metres from the beach was all I needed to wake me up to the threat addressed by this newspaper’s Turn The Tide campaign.
In summer, I’m often disgusted to find myself, during my early morning swim, surrounded by rubbish, and I’m absolutely appalled by the mess people leave on the beach – and sometimes even at my house. I opened the recycle bin one day to find three used nappies, and while I’m glad they didn’t end up in the sea, I’d still rather those who dumped them had just brought them home.
That bin, though, is a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the world. It has a capacity of 240 litres and I fill it to the brim once a month, even after crushing plastic bottles, milk cartons and drinks cans, and standing on cardboard to flatten it. I’m a middle-aged man living alone – how much unnecessary waste do families generate?
There are small ways we can make changes. The initiative by the big UK players is welcome and surely will spill over here, but until we, as consumers, kick up a fuss – as happened a couple of weeks ago when hundreds of people removed the packaging and left it behind in the supermarket – then we will continue to destroy our oceans, destroy the land and, ultimately, destroy the entire planet.
And that’s a very high price to pay for convenience.