Recycling is not enough. Zero-packaging stores show we can kick our plastic addiction



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Frenco, a zero-waste store in Montreal.
Benoit Daoust/Shutterstock.com

Sabrina Chakori, The University of Queensland and Ammar Abdul Aziz, The University of Queensland

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.

Bananas wrapped in single-use plastic packaging.
Sabrina Chakori

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.

Negozio Leggero is a zero-packaging chain with stores in Italy, France and Switzerland.
Negozio Leggero

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.




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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.

Next steps

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.




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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.The Conversation

Sabrina Chakori, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland and Ammar Abdul Aziz, Lecturer, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Here’s how many times you actually need to reuse your shopping bags



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Jeremy Piehler/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Trevor Thornton, Deakin University

The plastic bag ban by the major supermarkets (and Coles’ pivot away from its ban after backlash, then pivot back to the ban after a backlash to the backlash) has left plenty of people scratching their heads.




Read more:
Why plastic bag bans triggered such a huge reaction


What are the best replacements for single-use plastic bags? Given that reusable bags are much sturdier, how many times must we use them to compensate for their larger environmental impact?

The simple answer is that there is no simple answer. However, a kind of research called “life cycle assessment” can help us work out the impact of common types of reusable bags.

Life cycle assessments

I am not aware of any Australian studies of plastic-bag substitutes. Research conducted overseas can offer a basic guide.

Life cycle assessments consider a wide range of factors, including raw materials, manufacturing, transport, and eventual disposal.

Looking at all of these elements, researchers calculate greenhouse gas emissions, waste disposal, water and energy consumption and a variety of other impacts.

To complicate the decision further, if you choose a plastic bag, is it made from virgin resin or from recycled plastic? Even if the bag is recycled, transport is an issue – where was it made? Printing on the bag also adds to the environmental burden.

Finally, what happens to the bags when they can no longer meet their purpose? Are they recycled, reused as bin liners, or thrown away immediately?




Read more:
How to break up with plastics (using behavioural science)


How many times must a bag be reused?

Once all of this information has been distilled, scientists can usually offer a fairly straightforward guide: the number of times a given bag should be reused when compared to the standard supermarket plastic bag.

A 2018 Danish study, looking at the number of times a bag should be reused before being used as a bin liner and then discarded, found that:

  • polypropylene bags (most of the green reusable bags found at supermarkets) should be used 37 times
  • paper bags should be used 43 times
  • cotton bags should be used 7,100 times.

Another UK study, which only considered the climate change impact, found that to have lower global warming potential than single-use plastic bags:

  • paper bags should be used three times
  • low-density polyethylene bags (the thicker plastic bags commonly used in supermarkets) should be used four times
  • non-woven polypropylene bags should be used 11 times
  • cotton bags should be used 131 times.

Note, however, that if a plastic bag is reused (even as a bin liner) the number of times an alternative needs to be used increases.

It’s worth noting that, according to the 2018 Danish study, using organic cotton has a greater environmental impact than non-organic due to higher production costs. Our assumptions about what is environmentally friendly don’t always stand up to scrutiny.

A 2014 study in the United States found that reusable LDPE and polypropylene bags do have a lower environmental impact than the usual plastic bags found in supermarkets – but only if they are reused enough times. This study found that about 40% of shoppers forgot to bring their reusable bags and therefore end up using the plastic bags. This then adds to the environmental burden of shopping.

One final consideration is how many bags you need. The Danish researchers equalised the volume of the bags so that evaluations were made on the same volume of space (this meant that for some assessments it was necessary to consider the impact of two bags).

As with all matters environmental, it’s essential that we have the right knowledge to make informed decisions. After looking at all this data, here are the things I’d like you to remember:

  1. whatever bag type you use, use it as many times as possible

  2. choose bags made from recyclable materials

  3. avoid bags that have printing or decorations – these alone can add significantly to the environmental burden of the bag

  4. never allow a bag to become litter – recycle, reuse and repurpose your bags.


The Conversation


Read more:
Why can’t all plastic waste be recycled?


Trevor Thornton, Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why Coles’ plastic bag backflip leaves us worse off than before


Kim Borg, Monash University and Edwin Ip, Monash University

One month after removing free lightweight plastic bags from checkouts, Australian supermarket giant Coles has decided to offer thicker reusable plastics bags for free, indefinitely. This unprecedented move is in response to strong backlash by customers who are struggling to switch to reusable bags.




Read more:
Why plastic bag bans triggered such a huge reaction


We know that offering free lightweight plastic bags causes excessive plastic use. We also know that banning lightweight bags can increase the use of heavier plastic bags (such as bin liners). Coles’ decision brings out the worst of both worlds: giving out heavier plastic bags for free.

Free vs. fee

Consumers respond to price changes: if prices go up, demand falls. Increasing the use of reusable bags by introducing a small fee has generally been successful around the world. This includes examples from Canada, Botswana, Portugal and Ireland, where introducing a €0.15 tax on plastic shopping bags reduced usage by over 90%.

An alarming example for Coles is that of South Africa. They removed lightweight plastic bags and introduced a fee of 46 rand cents for thicker plastic bags, later reducing it to 17 cents. The initial high price point almost halved the use of plastic bags, but when the price was lowered the use of plastic bags increased over time.




Read more:
In banning plastic bags we need to make sure we’re not creating new problems


Behavioural economics suggests that people are more sensitive to loss than gains, so financial disincentives for plastic bags are particularly useful. For example, it has been found that use of single-use bags can decrease substantially when a charge is framed as a tax, compared to a bonus for bringing reusable bags.

A habit of free bags

Cole’s backflip is particularly troubling from a behavioural economics perspective. The thicker reusable plastic bags were meant to cost 15c. Coles are essentially offering a 100% discount on these bags compared to rival supermarkets. This, combined with the “power of free”, means that people may take more bags than they need when shopping – increasing plastic usage.

Switching to reusable bags without an added cost means that they are conceptually very similar to the old single-use bags (but with more plastic content). This replacement will not help people to kick their old single-use habits. In fact, they may develop a new habit of using the reusable bags as single-use products. If consumers continue their old habits, this could lead to even more plastic going to landfill and entering the environment.




Read more:
There are some single-use plastics we truly need. The rest we can live without


Alternative solutions

Coles is in a difficult situation. Not only has this decision divided shoppers, but if they decide to charge for these bags in the future, they are likely to experience another round of backlash as consumers experience another bout of loss aversion – but this time the loss will be associated with a higher quality product.

Now that the decision is made, it is important that Coles is able to evaluate the impact: How many free bags are being distributed? How many bin liners are being sold? How are the thicker plastic bags being used?

Coles also has a responsibility to take alternative measures to reduce plastic use. Financial disincentives are not always the best option (for example charging for bags can cause additional hardships for low income households). They are also not the only option for reducing our reliance on plastic bags.




Read more:
How to break up with plastics (using behavioural science)


The ConversationA more equitable solution could be to use behavioural science to help consumers break their habits. For example, instead of giving out free plastic bags, Coles could loan their reusable canvas bags for a small fee that is refunded on return. This would encourage reuse while avoiding additional costs for low income households or backlash from customers – everybody wins.

Kim Borg, Doctoral Candidate & Research Officer at BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University and Edwin Ip, Research Fellow, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why plastic bag bans triggered such a huge reaction


Gary Mortimer, Queensland University of Technology and Rebekah Russell-Bennett, Queensland University of Technology

Woolworths’ and Coles’ bans on plastic bags have been applauded by environmental groups, but were reportedly met with abuse and assault and claims of profiteering. Even comedians saw value in the theatre of the bag ban.

This reaction is due to supermarkets breaching their “psychological contract” with customers. When both major supermarkets appeared to back flip in the face of irate customers it only compounded the problem”.

Unlike written legal contracts, psychological contracts are a set of “unwritten rules” or “expectations” exchanged between the parties in a transaction. This can be between an employee and employer, or a customer and a retailer.

These understandings are often tacit or implicit. They tend to be invisible, assumed, unspoken, informal or at best only partially vocalised.

The pre-ban psychological contract between supermarket and shopper was something like “I’ll shop with you and, in exchange, you’ll pack my purchases into a free plastic bag.”

There was an implicit financial exchange between parties. Shoppers spent money on groceries and the supermarket paid for providing a plastic bag.

With the bag ban the psychological contract changed: “I’ll shop with you and give up a plastic bag, you’ll also give up plastic in the store in other areas, and the environment will benefit.”

Supermarkets justified phasing out lightweight plastic bags with the idea of a corporate social responsibility strategy. Customers might have been glad to forgo single-use plastic bans to support a greener future, but this is where the problem occurred.

Shoppers began to realise that supermarkets were saving money (by no longer giving away bags for nothing), while they themselves incurred a cost (paying 15 cents or more, depending on the type of re-usable bag).

The supermarkets had not kept up their end of the psychological contract by reducing the use of plastic in the store, particularly in packaging. The social media comments largely reflect this.

When there is a psychological contract breach, people can engage in revenge and retaliation.

This can range from mild, such as venting on social media, to acts of sabotage like altering floor stock and stealing shopping baskets.

Compounding factors

A couple of other factors have compounded the perceived breach of contract.

Unlike smaller states and territories (South Australia, Tasmania, Northern Territory and the ACT) where state legislation has banned single-use plastic bags by all retailers, this was a retailer-imposed national ban.

Shoppers in these smaller states quickly became accustomed to not having free bags, as these were not available anywhere.

By simply backflipping soon after implementing the policy, the supermarkets also prompted shoppers to question their intentions and integrity.

While shoppers may have at first accepted the rationale for the ban, extended free bag periods sent the message that the supermarkets are not that serious about banning plastic bags for environmental reasons.




Read more:
Getting rid of plastic bags: a windfall for supermarkets but it won’t do much for the environment


While Woolworths has said it will channel “money made” from selling its “Bag for Good” scheme into a youth environmental scheme, customers also rightly question the cost savings and revenues generated.

Removing a single-use plastic bag is a positive first step, but it is only the beginning. Customers still walk in to supermarkets today and see many varieties of food wrapped in plastic, and they themselves place loose fruit and vegetables into plastic bags.

As a result of media coverage, customers are now more aware and sensitive of plastics throughout dry grocery departments. They see more and more unnecessary plastic packaging, like dry pasta in a box with a clear plastic window.

Fixing the plastic bag ban

There is certainly enough evidence that removing single-use bags leads to positive environmental outcomes. But a national, uniform approach is needed, supported by consumer awareness and education programs.

While many state and territory governments have legislated plastic bag bans, others have held out. The Victorian government last year announced plans to ban single-use plastic bags, but despite widespread consumer support, it is yet to come into effect.

Supermarkets need to be open about the financial aspects of plastic bags, both costs and revenues.

Consumers may understand the procurement and logistics costs of the replacement plastic bag options will be higher – because the bags are thicker and heavier, and it takes extra time to pack different-sized bag options.




Read more:
How to break up with plastics (using behavioural science)


The distribution of net profits (not gross profits) from the sale of all re-usable bag options should be channelled into sustainability programs, research grants and education schemes. Programs need to be benchmarked, measured and publicly announced.

Shoppers will be more accepting of change if they can comprehend how their small sacrifice (say 15 cents) is helping the environment.

Shoppers also have an important role to play in the scheme of things. While it will take some time to break old habits, responsibility rests with shoppers to remember to bring a bag. If they forget, they simply need to buy another one.

The ConversationUltimately, the psychological contract needs to once again be aligned and in balance. To do this governments, retailers and consumers need to work together to solve this important environmental issue.

Gary Mortimer, Associate Professor in Marketing and International Business, Queensland University of Technology and Rebekah Russell-Bennett, Social Marketing Professor, School of Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Green is the new black: why retailers want you to know about their green credentials


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Is it really that hard to switch to paper or cloth bags?
Guus Baggermans | Unsplash

Louise Grimmer, University of Tasmania and Gary Mortimer, Queensland University of Technology

Australian supermarkets phasing out single-use plastic bags is just one example of how retailers are fiercely engaged in a race to be “green”. Other examples are dumping plastic straws, buying back used products and reducing unnecessary packaging.

Rather than competing on price or time, green credentials offer a way for retailers to differentiate themselves. Encouraging customers to make overtly good moves also has a psychological effect, allowing them to excuse poor behaviour elsewhere – such as buying a product that may not be ethically sourced.

Having a strong green record also helps create a buffer for when events like plastic bags killing whales or sweatshop abuse hit the headlines.




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Aussie retailers need to adapt to a world built on speed


Way back in April Woolworths announced the removal of all single-use bags across the country by the end of June. Although, after some backlash, Woolworths has said it will give bags to customers until the 8th of July.

Coles will also ban single-use bags from July 1.

Woolworths has since announced further strategies for “a greener future”. These include reducing unnecessary packaging and linking with “food waste diversion partners”.

However, sustainability is bigger than just food waste and plastics.

Ikea Australia recently announced it will “buy back” used furniture to resell. IKEA has been doing this in other markets, like Hong Kong, for some time.

Buying ‘green’ makes us feel good

The consumer market for green products and services was estimated at US$230 billion in 2009 and predicted to grow to $845 billion by 2015.

While consumers are increasingly engaging in shopping activities that support the environment, such as reusing shopping bags, buying local and supporting local farmers and producers, at the same time many are still tempted by A$4 T-shirts from Kmart.

This behaviour can perhaps be explained by the effect of “moral self-licensing”. This is where consumers do something good to offset their bad behaviour.




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We are what we eat: the demise of the ethical grocery shopper


In the context of shopping, a good deed, a customer putting reusable bags in the boot of the car, will be followed by a not-so-good deed, such as driving to the shops in our gas-guzzling 4WD.

In this way, the first choice gives us a positive self-concept, which negates or “licenses” the subsequent more self-indulgent choice.

A slippery (green) slope

The only concern for companies is that they might be accused of “greenwashing” – using marketing to create the perception that their policies, purpose or products are environmentally friendly, when that’s not really the case.

Despite consumer awareness of the practice of greenwashing, the number of companies making green claims has escalated sharply in recent years as organisations strive to meet escalating consumer demand for greener products and services.

According to one advertising consultancy, there were 2,219 products making green claims in 2009 alone, a 79% increase over two years earlier.




Read more:
Getting rid of plastic bags: a windfall for supermarkets but it won’t do much for the environment


Research shows that when consumers are sceptical about a retailer’s corporate social responsibility practices, this can damage the retailer’s brand, increase sensitivity to negative information and stimulate unfavourable word of mouth.

Over the past couple of years, we have seen exactly these phenomena play out again and again.

Several years ago, Walmart faced scrutiny about its corporate social responsibility claims relating to renewable energy, the industrialisation of food systems and its cheaply made, disposable products.

Starbuck’s green credentials were met with scepticism when it was reported some stores left taps running all day to clear pipes.

Other retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond, Nordstrom, JC Penney and Backcountry.com have faced fines for making misleading environmental claims.




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Banning the single-use plastic bag alone will not save the environment. Sadly, it is not as simple as that. Research shows lightweight plastic shopping bags make up around 1.6% of litter in Australia or less than 2% of landfill.

However, despite some backlash, banning the bag is certainly a step in the right direct.

The ConversationRemembering to bring reusable shopping bags is a fairly significant change in shopping behaviour, but the practice has been successfully implemented in states such as Tasmania, which banned single use bags several years ago.

Louise Grimmer, Lecturer in Marketing, Tasmanian School of Business and Economics, University of Tasmania and Gary Mortimer, Associate Professor in Marketing and International Business, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Plastic-free campaigns don’t have to shock or shame. Shoppers are already on board


Louise Moana Kolff, UNSW

With Coles and Woolworths supermarkets phasing out single-use plastic bags at their checkout counters, and Queensland and Western Australia bringing in bans on single-use plastic bags for all retailers from July 1, a long overdue step is being taken towards reducing Australia’s plastic waste.

However, it is only a small step, and much still needs to be done to tackle the problem.

It is therefore useful to explore what strategies might be effective in informing the public about the issue, and in changing people’s consumption and littering behaviour.




Read more:
In banning plastic bags we need to make sure we’re not creating new problems


Research shows that fear or shock tactics, or strategies based on shame and guilt, are generally not effective, and can even be counterproductive. High-threat fear appeals can be effective provided that the target audience is already taking positive steps toward the desired behaviour change, or feel that they can easily do so. Crucially, this means that campaigns not only need to tell people about an issue, but also provide straightforward advice on what do to about it.

In this context, campaigns such as “Hey Tosser!”, run by the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority, are ill-conceived. The problem is that encouraging the public shaming of “tossers” creates an unhelpful stereotype that doesn’t actually exist. One study found that Australians are often unaware of their own littering, meaning the campaign might prompt people to identify themselves as “non-tossers” and therefore ignore the message.

Tosser shaming.

The author and social behaviour change expert Les Robinson has suggested that rather than try to scare or shame people into changing, it is more useful to create a positive buzz around change, make new behaviours easy to adopt and sustain, and foster supportive communities to help with change.

This means that whether we want to tackle littering or reduce reliance on plastic bags, it is important to make people feel that they are part of an inclusive movement that is supported by the community and relevant to their own lives.

One example is the WA government’s “What’s your bag plan?” campaign, which urges shoppers to decide how they will carry their shopping after the demise of plastic bags, by becoming either a “bagger” (reusable bags), a “boxer” (cardboard boxes), or a “juggler” (neither!).

The good and the bad

A recent action by Greenpeace, in which overpackaged fruit and veg were labelled with a sticker saying “I’d like this product to be plastic free” and “We love plastic-free fruit and veg”, makes it easy for consumers to view those changes as positive. There is no blaming or shaming, but rather a focus on making it easier for consumers to ask supermarkets for more environmentally conscious options.

On Instagram and Twitter Greenpeace is encouraging consumers to share photos of excessive packaging, under the hashtag #RidiculousPackaging. This is a proactive way for consumers to take action, and for others to start noticing the overuse of plastic in supermarkets.

A sticker campaign by Greenpeace Australia Pacific encourages consumers to choose plastic-free fruit and veg, and puts pressure on the supermarkets.
Instagram/Greenpeace Australia Pacific
Consumers are encouraged to post images of excessive plastic wrapping.
Twitter

In contrast, other campaigns seek to emphasise the destructive effects of plastic waste. These can be eyecatching, but without a strong message that customers have the power to make a positive difference, they are unlikely to be effective in implementing sustained behaviour change.

The UK Marine Conservation Society’s campaign, showing a drinking straw lodged up a child’s nose (echoing a horrific viral video of a sea turtle enduring the same fate), is both shocking and thought-provoking. But with no clear, positive information showing people how they can directly address the problem through changes in their own lives, viewers may simply disengage.

Eye-watering stuff.
Marine Conservation Society UK

Winning the war

One of the most powerful campaigns in Australia in recent times has been the ABC documentary series War On Waste. Its success can be attributed to a clever mix of shocking information tempered with entertaining and engaging storylines; a lack of blaming and shaming of individuals (although some corporations and politicians have received their share); clear and tangible solutions that viewers can implement; and a feeling of collaborative empowerment.

In combination, these elements have had a positive impact, with the sale of reusable takeaway coffee cups rising sharply after the series aired. If my experience at my local supermarket is any guide, shoppers have taken the message about recycling soft plastics firmly to heart.

Soft plastic bins overflowing at Coles, Murwillumbah, June 2018.
Louise Moana Kolff, Author provided

The ConversationFew people would argue against the reduction of plastic waste. Most people are ready and willing to change, and the agencies that are designing campaigns on the issue would do well to remember this. Positive encouragement and advice are preferable to fear, shame or shock tactics.

Louise Moana Kolff, Lecturer, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.