The price we pay for our plastic addiction

plastic juice

Shopping for the week’s household goods in Sainsbury’s, I was surprised and delighted that shopping for fruit and vegetables can be cheaper without plastic.

Many of the items I could buy loose were cheaper per kilogram than if bought in a pack. This has not always been the case, however, and is one of the reasons shoppers pick up a plastic-wrapped pack.

Others reasons include that it is simply easier to do so, especially in quantities required for a family. If you live alone, or even in a couple, you might not to buy as much. Then there is consistency of size – the look.

Society has grown used to being presented with perfect looking fruit and vegetables.

One pear, priced per unit, might not be exactly the same weight or size as another. Carrots, loose, tend to be very large or cut in half, not the nice, neat, sizes they are sold in single-used plastic. There is still a way to go. Large numbers of green items – cucumbers, French beans, sugar snap peas – are still only sold in plastic.

Consumers have been conditioned to this uniformity. Some supermarkets, on a limited amount of stock, have begun selling “wonky veg” in recent years. These items are not the novelty shapes people might end up growing in their gardens, but they are irregular.

So how much of fruit and vegetables that are grown reach consumers? According to Oddbox, about a third of the food grown in the world is wasted. Farmers simply have to throw it away because the buyers – the agents selling to it shops and the stores – want it to look “perfect”. Uniform. Consistent in size. Unblemished. Anyone who has ever grown anything in their garden will know how difficult that is to achieve. Yet they also know what can be eaten, however odd the shape.

Oddbox has built a business finding out from farmers what is heading to the waste heap and “rescuing” the items then selling them directly to households. Mostly without single use plastic. Grapes and cucumbers are among items still typically packaged.

When ordering a box, it even tells you, based on your postcode, how much you have saved the planet in carbon emissions. This is one of the hidden costs of plastic. Not only is it made out of oil, which causes huge carbon emissions, the plastic largely cannot be recycled. This means it either heads for incinerators or landfill, or ends up in our environment if discarded carelessly.

In turn, that limits growth of vegetation or causes wildlife to try to eat it. If it reaches the ocean, it might disintegrate into ever smaller fractions. But it never actually dissolves. Therefore it will become part of the plankton at the foot of the ocean – then eaten by ocean wildlife that we eat. This means it becomes part of our food chain. Meanwhile, if birds or fish eat the plastic, it fills their stomachs. Then, because they think they have full stomachs, they don’t eat and they starve.

This is all part of the wider picture presented by the key headline that the weight of plastic in the sea will be greater than the fish by 2050. This is predicted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, if the trends of plastic use increasing 20 fold in the past 50 years are repeated.

A four-pack of orange or apple juice costs £2.80. Yet exactly the same product as a single item is 85p. So consumers are still encouraged to buy plastic, or pay a whopping 21 per cent premium for being environmentally friendly.

Sainsbury’s do deserve some credit for making much fruit and vegetables as cheap – if not cheaper – loose than in plastic. But there are still many more options with plastic-wrapped fruit and vegetables on the shelves than not. And there is still a line of eggs in a plastic container, when the tradition for decades has been to sell eggs in cardboard boxes.

When it comes to fruit juice, there is another issue: A four-pack of orange or apple, with a multi-pack plastic wrapping, is £2.80. Yet exactly the same product as a single item is 85p. So consumers are still encouraged to buy plastic, or pay a whopping 21 per cent premium for being environmentally friendly.

This week it was reported that Surrey County Council recycled 58 per cent of its rubbish – the third highest in the country with none recycling more than 60 per cent.

There is plenty of room for improvement there, too. Many housing estates such as Oaklands Park in Earlswood unable to recycle a anything bar paper and card. Each borough council across the county has slightly different lists of items that can be recycled.

The figures under 60 per cent still seem shockingly small, for all the efforts residents make to separate rubbish for kerkside collection. Fortnightly, my recyclables wheelie bin is full. I put out probably a half bag – no more than one full one – of general rubbish.

I take out crisp packets and recycle them through TerraCycle, but I know a lot of that waste will be plastic I cannot recycle.

But think of all the items that go to “black bin bag” units at the recycling centre. Think of all the fly-tipping and rubbish that greenspaces teams have to collect because it is scattered across our parks or public areas. In turn, this costs the taxpayer money. The items collected will be dirty, therefore unrecyclable. Is it any wonder that just over 40 per cent of our rubbish is NOT recycled?

Very few people, proportionally among the UK population, use the multitude of TerraCycle schemes to recycle. Many consumers are simply not bothered about the excess packaging, of many kinds, that comes with items, particularly bought online and delivered. Until it is habit forming for us all to challenge these habits, our reliance on plastic will not change. Adopting a stance of accepting the imperfections of the “wonky veg” is the start of changing our outlook and attitudes.