Wrapped, sealed, boxed, cling-filmed and vacuum packed. We have become used to consumables being packaged in every way imaginable.
The history of “packaging” goes back to the first human settlements. First leaves, gourds and animals skins were used. Then ceramics, glass and tin. Then paper and cardboard. But with the invention of plastic and the celebration of “throwaway living” since the 1950s, the environmental costs of an overpackaged world have become manifest.
Plastic now litters the planet, contaminating ecosystems and posing a significant threat to wildlife and human health. Food and beverage packaging accounts for almost two-thirds of total packaging waste. Recycling, though important, has proven an incapable primary strategy to cope with the scale of plastic rubbish. In Australia, for example, just 11.8% of the 3.5 million tonnes of plastics consumed in 2016-2017 were recycled.
Initiatives to cut down on waste can initially be strongly resisted by consumers used to the convenience, as shown by the reaction to Australia’s two major supermarket chains phasing out free single-use plastic shopping bags. But after just three months, shoppers have adapted, and an estimated 1.5 billion bags have been prevented from entering the environment.
Can we dispose with our disposable mentality further, by doing something to cut down on all the packaging of our food and beverages?
Yes we can.
The emergence of zero-packaging food stores is challenging the idea that individually packaged items are a necessary feature of the modern food industry. These new businesses demonstrate how products can be offered without packaging. In doing so they provide both environmental and economic benefits.
The zero-packaging alternative
Zero-packaging shops, sometimes known as zero-waste grocery stores, allow customers to bring and refill their own containers. They offer food products (cereals, pasta, oils) and even household products (soap, dishwashing powder). You simply bring your own jars and containers and buy as little or as much as you need.
These stores can already be found in many countries across the world. They are more than just individual trading businesses making a small difference.
They are part of an important and growing trend promoting an environmentally sustainable “reuse” mentality. Their way of doing business shows we can change the current ‘linear’ economic system in which we continuously take, make, use and throw away materials.
Rethinking the system
Food packaging is part and parcel of a globalised food market. The greater the distance that food travels, the more packaging is needed.
Zero-packaging stores encourage sourcing locally. They can therefore play an important role in enhancing local economy and supporting local producers. They can help break globalised agribusiness monopolies, regenerating the diversity of rural enterprises and communities. The book Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market illustrates the benefits of reclaiming back the food industry.
Packaging also contributes to another problem with the current industrialised food system. It doubles as an advertising tool, using all the psychological tricks that marketers have to persuade us to buy a brand. These strategies appeal to desire, encouraging people to buy more than what they really need. This has arguably exacerbated problems such as obesity and food waste. It has given multinational conglomerates with large marketing budgets an advantage over small and local producers.
Not all of packaging is wasteful. It can stop food spoiling, for example, and enables us to enjoy foods not locally produced. But what is driving the growth of the global food packaging market – expected to be worth US$411.3 billion by 2025 – is rising demand for single-serve and portable food packs due to “lifestyle changes”. Most of us recognise these are not lifestyle changes for the better; they are the result of us spending more time working or commuting, and eating more processed and unhealthier food.
Zero-packaging stores show, in their own small way, a viable and healthier alternative to the current system. Both for ourselves, local economies and the planet.
While these shops are still niche, governments interested in human and environmental health can help them grow. Bans on plastic bags point to what is possible.
How easily we have adapted to no longer having those bags to carry food a few metres to the car and then to the kitchen show that we, as consumers, can change our behaviour. We can choose, when possible, unpacked products. There is, of course, a small sacrifice in the form of convenience, but we just might find that we benefit more, both personally and for a greater environmental, economic and social good.
Driving north of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, an extraordinary landscape comes into view. Trees disappear and an immense landscape of grass emerges, undulating in the wind like a great, green ocean.
This is the Flint Hills. For over a century it has been cattle country, a place where cows grow fat on nutritious grasses. More recently, a piece of this landscape was transformed in 1992 when the nonprofit Nature Conservancy bought the Barnard Ranch. It created a nature reserve there, the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, which now covers almost 40,000 acres.
A central element of the group’s conservation strategy was reintroducing the American bison (Bison bison), which had been eradicated from the land in the mid-1800s. Releasing the first bison in 1993 was a step toward restoring part of an ecosystem that once stretched from Texas to Minnesota.
Today some 500,000 bison have been restored in over 6,000 locations, including public lands, private ranches and Native American lands. As they return, researchers like me are gaining insights into their substantial ecological and conservation value.
It was not always certain that bison could rebound. Once numbering in the tens of millions, they dominated the Great Plains landscape until the late 1800s, anchoring a remarkable ecosystem that contained perhaps the greatest concentration of mammals on Earth. That abundance was wiped out as settlers and the U.S. government engaged in a brutally effective campaign to eradicate the ecosystem and the native cultures that relied on it.
Bison were shot by the millions, sometimes for “sport,” sometimes for profit, and ultimately to deprive Native Americans of vital resources. By 1890 fewer than 1,000 bison were left, and the outlook for them was bleak. Two small wild populations remained, in Yellowstone National Park and northern Alberta, Canada; and a few individuals survived in zoos and on private ranches.
Remarkably, a movement developed to save the bison and ultimately became a conservation success story. Some former bison hunters, including prominent figures like William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and future President Theodore Roosevelt, gathered the few surviving animals, promoted captive breeding and eventually reintroduced them to the natural landscape.
With the establishment of additional populations on public and private lands across the Great Plains, the species was saved from immediate extinction. By 1920 it numbered about 12,000.
Bison remained out of sight and out of mind for most Americans over the next half-century, but in the 1960s diverse groups began to consider the species’ place on the landscape. Native Americans wanted bison back on their ancestral lands. Conservationists wanted to restore parts of the Plains ecosystems. And ranchers started to view bison as an alternative to cattle production.
More ranches began raising bison, and Native American tribes started their own herds. Federal, state, tribal and private organizations established new conservation areas focusing in part on bison restoration, a process that continues today in locations such as the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas and the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana.
By the early 2000s, the total North American population had expanded to 500,000, with about 90 percent being raised as livestock – but often in relatively natural conditions – and the rest in public parks and preserves. For scientists, this process has been an opportunity to learn how bison interact with their habitat.
Improving prairie landscapes
Bison feed almost exclusively on grasses, which, because they grow rapidly, tend to out-compete other plants. Bison’s selective grazing behavior produces higher biodiversity because it helps plants that normally are dominated by grasses to coexist.
Because they tend to graze intensively on recently burned zones and leave other areas relatively untouched, bison create a diverse mosaic of habitats. They also like to move, spreading their impacts over large areas. The variety they produce is key to the survival of imperiled species such as the greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) that prefer to use different patches for different behaviors, such as mating and nesting.
Bison impacts don’t stop there. They often kill woody vegetation by rubbing their bodies and horns on it. And by digesting vegetation and excreting their waste across large areas, they spread nutrients over the landscape. This can produce higher-quality vegetation that benefits other animals.
Studies, including my own research, have shown that bison-induced changes in vegetation composition and quality grazing can increase the abundance and diversity of birds and insects in tallgrass prairies. Bison also affect their environment by wallowing – rolling on the ground repeatedly to avoid biting insects and shed loose fur. This creates long-lasting depressions that further enhance plant and insect diversity, because they are good habitats for plant and animal species that are not found in open areas of the prairie. In contrast, cattle do not wallow, so they do not provide these benefits.
It is hard to determine the ecological role that bison played before North America was settled by Europeans, but available evidence suggests they may have been the most impactful animal on the Plains – potentially a keystone species whose presence played a unique and crucial role in the ecology of prairies.
The growth of bison ranching
The return of the bison has generated a new industry on the Plains. The National Bison Association promotes these animals as long-lived, hardy and high-quality livestock. The group hopes to double bison numbers through its Bison 1 Million commitment, a program designed to increase interest in bison ranching and consumption.
Advocates cite health, ecological and ethical arguments in support of bison ranching. Bison meat is lean and has a high protein content. Many bison ranchers are committed to ethical and sustainable ranching practices, which sometimes are lacking in modern industrial livestock farming.
“I have a love of nature and want to protect it. It was one of my family’s goals to restore the grasslands. Bison helped us regenerate the land,” Mimi Hillenbrand, owner and operator of the 777 Bison Ranch near Rapid City, South Dakota told me. She adds, “I love the animal. We are lucky that we brought them back. I learn every day from them.”
Will bison live on in relatively small, isolated herds as they do now, or something greater? The American Prairie Reserve, a Montana-based nonprofit, has a big and controversial idea: creating an ecologically functioning 3 million acre preserve of private, public and tribal lands in northeast Montana, with a herd of over 10,000 bison – the largest single population in the world. Although this would be small compared to the millions that once existed, it still would be something to see.
Bison were saved through the combined efforts of conservationists, scientists, ranchers and ultimately the general public. As their comeback continues, I believe that they can teach us how to be better stewards of the land and provide a future for the Plains where ecosystems and human cultures thrive.