Is Plastic-Free the New Organic?

Is Plastic-Free the New Organic?
iStock/tzahiV

The global food system is rife with room for improvement. From the need to supplant the burdensome and unethical livestock industry, to mitigating the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, to overhauling the products we define as food in the first place — replacing artificial ingredients, excess sugars, and saturated fats for whole food ingredients. But there’s another area getting a lot of attention lately: plastic packaging.

It’s essential in the modern world: foods need delivery methods. Some of it is humble: a bag of frozen peas, a carton of almond milk. But we’ve also traded in fresh fruits and vegetables for packaged alternatives: fruit leather instead of apples, bean and peas in chip form, cauliflower pizza crusts.

While all this packaging helps to extend the shelf-life of our beloved snacks it also contributes to the ever-increasing ocean pollution. Plastic packaging has been linked to exposure to harmful endocrine disrupting chemicals like bisphenol-A and bisphenol-S.

And like consumers have been steadily increasing their spend on certified organic foods — particularly fruits and vegetables — in an effort to decrease their exposure to chemicals in nonorganic food — a growing shift away from plastic is gaining steam.

Malibu, San Luis Obispo, and Davis Calif., Seattle, Miami Beach and Fort Myers, Fla., have all recently banned plastic straws — one of the most common pieces of beach debris. The UK is poised to ban straws and just this week McDonald’s announced that it would begin testing paper straws in select locations.

“Giving up plastic straws is a small step,” Diana Lofflin, the founder of StrawFree.org, an activist organization based in San Diego, told the New York Times, “and an easy thing for people to get started on. From there, we can move on to larger projects.”

Earlier this year Dutch supermarket Ecoplaza made international headlines when it announced it was offering consumers a “plastic-free” supermarket aisle for consumers seeking to reduce their dependence on and exposure to plastic. Now, a U.S. petition is calling on Kroger, the nation’s largest supermarket retailer, to offer its customers a plastic-free aisle. The petition collected more than 115,000 signatures in one week.

“Huge strides have been made in alternative packaging, but not nearly enough to make a dent in plastic’s ubiquity,” explains Food Dive. “This movement will require much more than a large supermarket changing a single aisle systemwide. It will require a fundamental shift. Though consumers say they want change, the U.S. plastic bottle recycling rate is less than 30%.”

Concern over plastic is not new. Efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle it date back to the 1970s. And despite victories like bans on plastic bags in cities in California, the UK, India, Australia, and Mexico, the substance keeps cropping up elsewhere, a game of environmental Whac-a-Mole.

Plastic is one of the most durable substances. Unprocessed, plastic waste has a lifespan of hundreds of years. Not only does that require excessive landfill space, but plastic seems to find its way out of the municipal waste systems into the ocean where it’s coalescing into a massive gyre twice the size of Texas. Plastic waste is discovered inside the digestive systems of all sorts of marine animals. It’s being discovered in humans, too.

A recent study found that plastic will outnumber fish in the ocean by 2050.

“I think a lot of people feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the plastic problem,” says Lofflin. And it is overwhelming; more than 8 billion tons of plastic are on the planet — more than one ton per person.

Studies have found numerous threats to human health from plastic exposure and its impact on marine ecosystems is particularly detrimental. And while the USDA’s National Organic Program has been criticized of late, it has achieved one majorly notable success: people recognize it. Consumers, whether they opt for organic or not, now recognize the symbol and understand if not exactly how an organic carrot is grown, that it is most likely a guarantee to be a “better” carrot than the non-organic version.

This delineation has jettisoned a movement in our food system driven by millennials seeking cleaner, healthier, and more ethical foods. It’s part of the reason vegan and plant-based foods are so popular now. For many people the healthy quest started with an interest in pesticide-free foods and from there a shift away from animal products followed. Regard for a plastic fork or water bottle that will outlive the person using it, is following the same trajectory.

“We used science to create a material that lasts forever, and then we throw it away, all day, every day. That doesn’t make any sense. And of course, there is no ‘away.’ Every single piece of plastic that has ever been created is still with us,” Ayana Elizabeth Johnson wrote in Scientific American.

“We can’t go back to a world free of plastic pollution,” Johnson says. “But we can stop the problem from growing, and we can turn the trend around. To do that we really must break our addiction to plastic. We must refuse to use plastic. We must stop creating new plastic.”

Is a plastic-free supermarket aisle the answer? Or only offering plastic straws by request the solution? Not really. But they start the critical conversation.

“This will require a major cultural shift—the creation of new traditions, norms, trends, memes,” Johnson says. “A shift away from a culture that accepts things being disposable.”

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.