Plastic packaging can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s usually deployed to protect food, preserve freshness, and prevent spoilage and waste, which are all good things. At the same time, supermarkets can’t seem to help themselves from overpackaging items to the point of perversion, like a single banana—which already comes in its own Mother Nature-approved wrapper—plated on a Styrofoam tray and shrink-wrapped in even more plastic. Other forms of plastic appear completely gratuitous. Do pasta boxes really need tiny film windows for previewing the noodles?
Supermarkets aren’t the only source of packaging waste, but they’re a major contributor. They’re also where most people interact with brands like Nestlé, which sells more than 1 billion products a day, 98 percent of which come in throwaway formats. When the Break Free from Plastic initiative audited more than 187,000 pieces of trash from 42 countries across six continents last October, the names that reared their heads most frequently were Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and—yes—Nestlé. Supermarkets have been promoting recycling as a way out of this morass, but it hasn’t been enough, according to environmentalists, who say that single-use plastic needs to be purged from the get-go. It’s a concept that a growing breed of “zero-waste” grocers are experimenting with, too.
“If your bathtub was overflowing, you wouldn’t reach for a mop to clean it up; you would turn it off at the source,” says David Pinsky, an anti-plastics campaigner at Greenpeace. “And that’s what we need to do on plastics.”