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What Does the Future Hold for Plastics at the Co-op?

by Ben Becker, Newsletter Writer

Amongst the peaceful blue waves drifting halfway between Hawaii and California floats an unintended monument to one of modern humanity’s most necessary and indispensable materials. Buoyed by a density lower than that of water, soda bottles and other trash are carried by conspiring currents towards a mecca of refuse covering an area of the ocean’s surface that dwarfs Texas in size.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch collects many of the water bottles, other containers and unwanted items that we thoughtlessly discard every day into a respectable collection of over 1.8 trillion pieces with a combined weight of roughly 80,000 metric tons. Here they will bob under the gradual degrading effects of the sun, waves and ocean occupants that will reduce to them to microplastics dangerous to the local marine life.

With millions of tons of plastic entering Earth’s waterways every year, The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is only the largest of these aquatic mega-dumps littering the planet’s oceans. There are four other massive accumulation zones spread throughout the planet. The material resilience that allows the formation of these unsightly and dangerous monstrosities is the same attribute that has made these materials so valuable to human life.

While many Americans use these products without much thought, we often fail to understand that these items are, in fact, one of the modern miracles of science. Living in the 21st century, it is difficult to imagine a world in which plastics are not commonplace, but for most of human history, we have had to get by with containers formed from ceramics and glass, which are heavy and easily demolished. Lightweight, cheap, flexible and resilient in the face of clumsy drops, it is the durability of plastics in resisting the ravages of moisture that defines its mettle. By virtue of being virtually impervious to water and numerous pests, plastics are ideal for storing and carrying food. While cardboard may be punctured or waterlogged, wood rotted away, paper torn, and metal corroded, the featherweight plastic endures, often taking on the forms and functions necessary to protect us from pests and pestilence that more old fashioned materials might not. Because it is so resistant to moisture, the perpetual bane of food preservation, plastic has become essential in ensuring what we eat stays safe and doesn’t turn into waste before we can consume it. For these reasons, in order to provide the services and selection of a full service grocery store, Willy Street Co-op has to rely on plastics.

 

Why Plastics at Willy Street Co-op?

Bugs, rodents and micro-organisms not only make food less desirable but can also spread life-threatening diseases. These threats thrive on Earth’s most abundant and precious resource—water. With plastic’s ability to act as a barrier against moisture, it is an indispensable shield when maintaining food safety, thus making it a necessary component in a food retail establishment. Willy Street Co-op doesn’t just rely on plastics because they are ideal for storing food safety, but also because we could not offer many of the products customers love without them. This extends to some of our most stand-out offerings, such as our bulk and produce sections, in which the provision of plastic containers is required by law in order to ensure the health and safety of consumers.

In addition to being safer, the ability of plastic materials to take on transparent structures also makes it ideal for storing food. By using clear clamshells, Willy Street Co-op allows our shoppers to observe the quality of an item before they buy it without having to break the seal.

While safety and convenience are often seemingly at odds with environmental responsibility, plastics do have attributes that make them the best choice in reducing resource extraction. Most notably is their light weight, which allows them to be shipped with less energy than other materials such as glass. When considering their total carbon footprint, plastics can often be less resource-intensive over the course of their entire lifecycle compared to their heavier counterparts.

Plastics are also essential to avoiding food waste, which is a huge contributor to greenhouse gas generation. By keeping foods wrapped or contained within plastic, we can extend their shelf life, thereby avoiding the need to contribute much of our fresh product to our waste stream. Another advantage over other materials is that plastics are relatively inexpensive. This can be an especially important aspect when consumers demand disposable or recyclable containers which they will only use once. For Willy Street Co-op, sourcing affordable options allows us to keep prices low and avoid burdening customers with higher costs.

 

Concerns about Plastics

Despite these many advantages, plastic containers are still imperfect, especially in their potential for pollution and ecological interference, a problem greatly amplified by failure to dispose of these products correctly. Responsible environmental stewardship often means examining plastic use and identifying means for its reduction.

In recent years, Willy Street Co-op Owners have expressed their concerns about plastics being widely employed within our stores. One concern quite common to food-grade containers, particularly in the case of water bottles, is the presence of BPA. BPA, less commonly known as Bisphenol-A, is an industrial chemical that is used as a form of plastic coating on food containers such as metal cans. The most common fear related to BPA is that it may leach or seep into food, resulting in negative health consequences for those who unwittingly ingest it. According to the Food and Drug administration, consumption of BPA is actually safe at low levels, but there are methods that can be used to reduce risks involved. One method is to avoid exposing BPA-lined containers to heat which can cause leaching, or to use BPA-free alternatives as much as possible. Many food containers, such as reusable water bottles, will note when they are BPA-free.

Additionally, many Willy Street Co-op Owners have expressed their preference for a store environment where there are little or no plastics in use. Balancing the many needs and offerings of our store makes the elimination of plastics entirely impossible, but we do work to address customer concerns and explore possibilities for change when possible.

A notable example of this is the widespread concern over straw use in restaurants. The United States goes through over 500 million plastic straws every day. They are a major contributor to the harmful impact on marine life, and straws are one of the top ten pollutants found during beach clean-ups. Internationally, there has been a strong movement to ban straws in restaurants and tourist areas, with some governments placing heavy restrictions and bans on straws. In response to concerns over straws, your Co-op is in the process of transitioning to compostable straws—watch for this change in the next month or two. We will also continue to research new reusable straw options to add to our shelves. continues to explore alternatives to plastic straws. In addition, customers have also been more recently submitting comments about the compostability of plastics used. Using compostable materials is an essential part of strategy for nourishing and enriching the environment, and the desire to see composting as a solution is one we share with our community.

 

Willy Street Co-op Means to Address Plastic Consumption

Willy Street Co-op takes our commitment to environmental sustainability very seriously, and we continue to work towards reducing plastic waste where possible. “We heavily consider using plastic; we do not lightly throw anything into a plastic container,” states Patrick Schroeder, one of our Category Managers. The main plastic used at the Co-op is PET, or polyethylene terephthalate. This material is used most notably in plastic bottles due to its ability to resist moisture, but can also be found in clothing under the well-known moniker of polyester. Because the Co-op needs to maintain standards of food safety, maximize product quality and shelf life while minimizing the amount of food that ends up in the landfill, plastics like PET are necessary to our operations. However, this need is something we work to balance with our commitment to environmental stewardship, and so we strive to make the most responsible choices possible when obtaining containers, wrap, or other plastic products.

We source PET plastic containers from companies like Placon, which is located in Fitchburg, Wisconsin. We commend Placon’s adherence to both sustainability and transparency, taking the stance that sustainable plastics are recyclable. Through recycling post-consumer content into their product lines, Placon diverts over 120,000 pounds of plastic PET water and soda bottles from landfills every day. Placon ultimately converts over one billion bottles and other materials into their EcoStar plastic products. Through this commitment to recycling, the plastic manufacturer reduces the need for raw material extraction by 75,000 barrels of oil.

To ensure these standards are met, Placon requires that each plastic they make consists of at least 35% post-consumer content. Because Co-op Deli containers are all made from this type of post-consumer content, we are not only helping to close the loop on resource extraction, but are also providing containers that are highly recyclable.

In order to ensure that we have these types of products available to us, Willy Street Co-op has worked with our suppliers to ensure they carry Placon whenever possible. In addition to recycling plastic, Willy Street Co-op also invests in compostable plastics, sourcing them from manufacturers like Eco-Products. These products may seem familiar if you have ever used disposable silverware in our commons, as it is biodegradable. Sadly, our local infrastructure does not have the necessary facilities available to fully process biodegradable plastics. Unlike food waste, which composts quickly with sufficient oxygen, vegetable-based plastics often need to be shredded and exposed to high temperatures to break down. This is a concern that we hope our Owners will join us in, by strongly encouraging Dane County businesses and governments to invest in compost processing.

We are also working to provide containers that more closely match our Owners’ preferences. To this end, Willy Street Co-op is introducing new plastic containers with fewer ridges, allowing easier food removal and less waste upon consumption. We are also carrying bioplastics as a means to ensure freshness for bakery and grab and go items. Cookie bags will keep these delectable items fresher and safer, helping to cut down on food waste within a more sustainable packaging solution.

 

Strategy for Greater Sustainability

While making plastics 100% sustainable may be a ways off, we still see their use as part of a strategy for greater sustainability. Plastic bags are necessary to our discount produce program, which allows us to sell product below our shelf standards at a steep price reduction.

This program, combined with wrapping individual product and providing packaged clam shells, all reduce food waste significantly compared to the amount we would have to throw away without these containers. While we offer more individually packaged products, we still take pride in our bulk offerings. Co-ops are leaders within the grocery industry when it comes to offering bulk items and options for reduced packaging. Our bulk grocery aisle boasts a number of spices, grains, and mixes, not to mention the bulk salad mix options in Produce. When prudent, we utilize non-plastic containers, such as tomatoes in glass bottles which can be reused or recycled. In striking a delicate balance that often relies on plastics, we continue offering Owners as many options as possible, which ensures that as we provide a grocery shopping experience that can be inclusive to a diverse group of shoppers. Fortunately, our product selection reflects the demands of our customers. By purchasing products with reduced packaging, Owners can drive what suppliers will offer.

 

What does the Future hold for Plastic?

Even as we work to reduce plastic use, and close the loop on future plastic production, innovation is needed to ensure the future of our planet’s oceans. Many of the plastics that have been discarded will be around for 100 years to 450 years. But there are some ways in which nature points to a solution. Some organisms such as wax worm caterpillars and mealworms are blessed with the digestive systems necessary to break down plastic into sustenance. Additionally, scientists have discovered a strain of bacteria that eats plastic used to make bottles and have engaged in experimentation to accelerate this process. The bacteria ideonella sakaiensis secretes an enzyme that allows it to digest PET in plastic bottles. By employing this enzyme, scientists hope to break plastics down into smaller, soluble chemical components which can be harvested and recycled into new plastics.

Currently, most plastic recycling involves merely mechanically shredding old plastics into new ones, resulting in a new material in a still-open loop. By separating PET into its chemical building blocks, an old PET bottle could become a new PET bottle, thereby creating a closed loop system of consumption and production while reducing the need to extract oil.

What makes plastic so useful to humans is that it is so hard to break down, and bacteria has only recently evolved to consume this artificial material. Because nature now seems to have a method to get through this protective material, the use of plastics in the future must be called into question. Will the plastics industry be unable to prevent contamination? While we must address the five trillion tons of plastic that are strewn about the ocean, killing wildlife and suffocating natural ecosystems, what will it mean if the ability of bacteria to consume our waste overcomes our ability to preserve our food and water from waste and disease? Could the solution be worse than the problem?


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