Up with vegetable soup... down with plastic soup
June 22, 2018 1:32 PM   Subscribe

In the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, sellers and manufacturers of foodstuffs are experimenting with different ways to reduce plastic packaging. Free plastic shopping bags are already a thing of the past in, among other countries, the Netherlands; as a result, more and more Dutch shoppers show up with their own reusable bags, and usage of plastic bags has dropped by 71%.

Supermarket chains are seeking more changes; some are experimenting with replacing the lids on plastic fruit boxes with a thin foil, others are doing away with the bags that people can use to pack loose fruits and vegetables in. They are being replaced with paper bags or reusable bags. The latter option isn't free; it's considered smart to charge a little money for them so that people will value them more and reuse them more often. It's said that these bags will save material if they are used five times or more, which certainly seems doable.

One of the problems that need to be overcome: how do you make similar but different products easily recognisable? Organically grown fruits and veggies generally have some kind of marking, so the cashier knows that this is the slightly more expensive cucumber. That marking has so far been a reason to pack them in plastic. But now a new method is on the rise: laser branding. Here's a nice video from Sweden and here's an article about the method.
posted by Too-Ticky (28 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I was thinking about the laser branding thing yesterday. I hate stickers on my fruit but I guess people must be pretty resistant to dyes?
posted by latkes at 1:51 PM on June 22, 2018

I work at a retreat center in the Catskills, and we make our own compost from the kitchen scraps. I was sifting 2 year old compost the other day, and the only thing that we had to pick out was all those darn fruit & veggie stickers! There has to be a better way!
posted by tarantula at 1:56 PM on June 22, 2018 [7 favorites]

Seattle banned most single use plastic bags back in 2012. I thought it’d be annoying , but I popped onto Amazon and ordered some reusable bags, and haven’t thought much about it since. Wasn’t hard to build the habit of grabbing one on the way out the door.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 2:33 PM on June 22, 2018

I want to eat something that has been laser branded. How does it feel on your tongue? Asking the important questions.
posted by stoneweaver at 2:37 PM on June 22, 2018 [4 favorites]

Neat detail about laser branding: it doesn't incise the label, it depigments it:
using the low-energetic carbon dioxide laser, the outer layer of the peel or skin is heated locally. This causes the pigment to evaporate. [...] not for oranges, mandarin oranges, lemons and pomegranates due to the self-restorative property of the peel.
posted by clew at 2:40 PM on June 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

when I was first in the Netherlands in 2005-06 it was my first experience with the plastic clamshell boxes of fruit and veg that now seems much more common in the US too. I am glad to hear that people are looking for alternatives (also I get made fun of sometimes for still having some HEMA and Albert Heijn bags from that year, but they are nice and heavy and still useful so I can take it)
posted by Lawn Beaver at 3:14 PM on June 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

So I know nothing, but I always wonder about the resources used. Sure, you reuse the reusable bag, but since it requires so much more plastic to create is it really worth it? Plastic water bottles too.

Anyway, here in Korea this problem is mostly solved by having trash bags used as grocery bags. You have to pay for trash bags here, so instead of buying a pack you can buy them individually to haul your groceries home and then to haul the refuse out later. It seems pretty efficient to me, and you can also pay (less) for paper bags or use your own bags of course.
posted by Literaryhero at 3:58 PM on June 22, 2018

And I see that the reusable bags say it is worthwhile after 5 uses right there in the fpp. Feel free to label me an idiot. Don't know how I missed that the first time.
posted by Literaryhero at 4:00 PM on June 22, 2018

Someone just commented on my Albert Heijn bag at the Port Townsend Safeway the other night.
posted by humboldt32 at 4:33 PM on June 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

I use these gauzy produce bags from ecobags. I experimented with them late one night at the 24-hour grocery store (with the cooperation of a curious clerk!) and didn't come up with a weight difference between my gauze bags and the store's plastic bags, but I suppose occasionally I pay an extra penny for using my gauze bags, and that's okay. They launder really nicely (super-important for produce bags, since produce can be dirty/slimy/etc), although I suggest you put them in a lingerie bag to launder them because they can snag on zippers and velcro and things otherwise. They're also easy to make if you can't find something similar locally.

Occasionally they have to pull a piece of produce out of the bag because they can't read the number on them through the gauze, but that's usually when it's an unusual thing the cashier hasn't already memorized the number of.

What I would really like is for my local grocery to offer a reusable container for the salad bar, which I use frequently, when I want a handful of cauliflower but not a whole head, or a small amount of sweet pepper but not a whole pepper (this happens a lot when I have a recipe that needs half a pepper that my kids love but they're on strike against all other pepper-having recipes). I also just really like salad and sometimes treat myself to salad bar lunch as a reward for going grocery shopping! It'd be great if I could pay $5 to get a reusable container, with the grocery store's brand on it obviously so they can advertise more, that I could use at the salad bar, wash, and use over and over again.

It's always kind-of shocking to me when produce larger than an apricot is sold packaged. It's one thing with cherry tomatoes or raspberries, where you're buying a bunch at once and they're a bit fragile so a clamshell makes some sense. But clamshells for apples? That's crazy! Or for POTATOES? What the what! Or CORN. WHY IS THE CORN INDIVIDUALLY PACKAGED? Corn COMES OFF THE STALK in its own individual packaging! Most of the time when I buy corn it's in a giant pile in its husks with a big bin next to it, and you stand over the bin and shuck your corn right there in the store so you can pick good ears. (Is this something we only do in corn country because we're spoiled about our sweet corn?) The ears in the prepackaging always look very inferior, bad kernel development.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:00 PM on June 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

I lived in Amsterdam in 2000 and bought a reusable plastic shopping bag from Dirk. It's huge and sturdy as hell and has survived just fine for all my grocery shopping. Bought another one last year when I was in town. I have no idea why it's so hard to find decent shopping bags in the US. The Dutch bags cost like €1.
posted by misterpatrick at 5:03 PM on June 22, 2018

In the U.S. reusable shopping bags are typically much bulkier and more expensive. I looked into sewing my own, since I've got tons of 0.9 oz/sq. yd. nylon ripstop around, but had trouble finding a good pattern. Good, for me, meaning, ~15L, uses fabric efficiently, packs down somehow (e.g., into a smaller pocket), designed for strength, and with the raw edges finished by rolled hems or flat-felled seams or something so I don't have to buy or make bias tape. Any ideas?
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 6:52 PM on June 22, 2018

Meaty shoe puppet I like to use this one that has french seams and use this one for rolling the bag up.
At 2min40sec this video has a pocket that is for rolling the bag into.
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 7:31 PM on June 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Trader Joe's has switched out their self-serve produce bags from plastic to compostable. What's awesome about those is that they fit the counter compost bin that most of us have, in Seattle at least. I'd love to do without more plastic bags, but I do wonder about how to replace bread bags and keeping cheese fresh.

That laser marking is neat. I've always hated those stickers just for the extra steps they make you take before you get to eat fruit (and they never come well off of ripe pears and peaches).
posted by Margalo Epps at 7:54 PM on June 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

At the very least... make the $&@?!:# fruit labels PAPER so they biodegrade. This bothers me SO MUCH.
posted by blnkfrnk at 7:54 PM on June 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm a USian living in the Netherlands and shop regularly at the country's largest chain Albert Heijn. They offer plastic bags for €0.15-0.20 and most people I see still buy them while shopping. We use foldable nylon bags.

The bags aren't the real problem - it's the packaging. Everything comes in plastic, and usually far smaller quantities that the US. Since most people shop daily, they buy smaller quantities, thus more plastic packaging.

The worst part is that the in Netherlands - at least the cities I've lived - it's really inconvenient to recycle. The closest recycle bin to me is a 5 minute walk, which is far less convenient than my US town where they picked it up on the curb. A lot of Dutch people I've asked say they just dont bother to recycle because of this.
posted by mattking17 at 12:41 AM on June 23, 2018

mattking17: The worst part is that the in Netherlands - at least the cities I've lived - it's really inconvenient to recycle.

That surprises me. Where I live, we get free bags for plastic and other packaging, and they are picked up at the curb every two weeks; we don't have to pay for that so we're very motivated to keep those materials out of the general waste (which we do pay for). For that reason alone, most people around me definitely recycle. I see lots of those bags waiting to be picked up when it's the day to put them outside.
I didn't know the differences were still so big within the country. Do you happen to live in a big city? I think they use different systems.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:54 AM on June 23, 2018

It'd be great if I could pay $5 to get a reusable container, with the grocery store's brand on it obviously so they can advertise more, that I could use at the salad bar, wash, and use over and over again.

One of my friends was involved in founding Green to Go in Durham, NC. You pay an annual membership of $25 for access to the boxes. Local retailers, including the co-op grocery, sign on to do take out in their boxes, and they have box return places throughout the area. They pick up and drop off boxes with a bike cart (having sanitized them in between, obviously). It's pretty awesome.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:56 AM on June 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Plastic bags have been outlawed in Ireland for a while, everyone brings their own bags to the store, and if they must give you a bag it is paper. We were impressed when we visited a few years ago.
posted by mermayd at 6:58 AM on June 23, 2018

Growing up in the Netherlands in the 1950s, nobody even thought about going to the grocery store without bringing their own shopping bag. Also, nobody drove there — you walked or rode a bike.
posted by beagle at 10:13 AM on June 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Too-Ticky, I'm in The Hague and my experience is like mattking17's: we have to collect and haul our own recycling to neighborhood drops. There is no curbside pickup for anything (including household waste, that goes in an underground bin down the street) except paper (once a month). And the recycling bins are at different locations: plastic tends to be only near a grocery, but paper, glass, and sometimes clothing are in the neighborhoods, batteries are inside the grocery, and electronics recycling is basically at the local Karwei/Gamma/etc so I hope you were heading there anyway. I recycle religiously, but it requires planning and also storage infrastructure within the house. I take out glass and paper any time I'm going in Direction X, but if I'm going to the supermarket I need to first pack up the batteries, the statiegeld bottles, and then the plastic, and I need to change my bike route to go past the plastic bin, then inside the supermarket to turn in the bottles, then do my shopping, then make a separate run back to the glass recycling with the empties that I had to drag all the way through the shop because I didn't notice it was Belgian beer with no deposit and automatically put it in the statiegeld pile, because of course there's no recycling-rejects bin at the machine, and of course the machine can't be at the front of the store so I'm not forced to walk through. I also don't take out the recycling unless I'm going with the bike (and then I fully load up the bike), because the bins are annoyingly far to walk to. I wind up keeping a lot of recycling in the house longer than I'd like, because of all this turns it into a major production.

There's a local afvalbrengstation literally about 200m from my house so theoretically I could probably drop everything in one go there, except I don't actually have a car and everything's inside the locked car park there with not even a plastics bin outside, so ... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

I know many people locally who don't recycle because of this hassle. I'm very jealous of your curbside pickup!
posted by sldownard at 12:29 AM on June 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

I’ve lived in Atlanta and Arlington (TX): both had curbside pickup for recycling and this was an avid recycler.

I now live in Munich and have stopped recycling plastic (which really hurts my soul as I had been doing it for years at that point). Plastic recycling must be taken to a community bin, which is a 10 minute walk to an area I otherwise have no interaction with, which means a special trip, which means the plastic builds up in my house before we go. I also now do not have a car or bike to make this journey easier.

But now I wonder if it really matters since apparently it’s really hard to recycle plastic and China stopped taking it. So the next step is to reduce but damn if everything doesn’t come packaged in it!
posted by LizBoBiz at 4:33 AM on June 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

sldownard: of course there's no recycling-rejects bin at the machine

Oh I KNOW! So annoying. And people leave them there anyway.

sldownard: I'm very jealous of your curbside pickup!

Living in smaller towns has its advantages, it seems...
posted by Too-Ticky at 4:37 AM on June 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I split my time between New York and Amsterdam. In Amsterdam I happen to live somewhere it's convenient to get to all the recycling bins and there's an Albert Heijn steps away for the statiegeld bottles. I kind of felt Amsterdam was winning for a while because they take all plastic packaging, but NY only takes the hard stuff, no plastic bags or wrappers, and they recently added tetrapack recycling. (Although they don't take metal at all?) But I've always wondered how they sorted all that plastic packaging because I assume it can't all be recycled the same way.

But in Brooklyn now we have compost pick up and they take anything you scrape off a plate, including bones and used napkins. So that's nice. Now it feels weird to dump my veggie trimmings in the trash in AMS.

But do like that they sell tuinkers (garden cress sprouts/microgreens) in cardboard packages. I have a friend in the urban hydroponic business in NY and I brought her a box back to see. The cardboard doesn't fall apart from the moisture, and it allows the greens to breathe so they don't get moldy as quickly. And of course -- no plastic. And for micro greens they last longer if you don't trim them off the media, anyway.
posted by antinomia at 5:56 AM on June 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

antinomia: it feels weird to dump my veggie trimmings in the trash in AMS.

I bet it does... don't you have a groencontainer?
posted by Too-Ticky at 9:17 AM on June 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Are there bins for them in Amsterdam? Because that would be awesome :). I see some towns in NL have them, but I don't see anything about it on the Gemeente Amsterdam waste site. Unfortunately I live in a small apartment with no yard, so unless I want to find space for a worm bin (maybe on the balcony?) there's not much I can do at home if the city doesn't take it.
posted by antinomia at 3:32 AM on June 26, 2018

Apparently, compostable waste in (densely populated citues like) Amsterdam poses bigger challenges than I was aware of. Article in Het Parool (Dutch). This initiative (worm hotels. Worm hotels? Worm hotels!) is a start.

My, this post is a learning experience...
posted by Too-Ticky at 4:39 AM on June 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

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