28 Day Challenge #11: I pledge to minimise plastic packaging

Plastic lasts for a very long time – it’s a pity we don’t use it that way though! Of all the plastic manufactured, as much as 40% is cheap, mass-produced plastic packaging that is discarded after just one use. Although it is sometimes unavoidable, educating yourself on how to minimise plastic packaging is a simple and empowering task. The more you look into it, the more you discover an array practical solutions for combatting plastic pollution and waste.

What can I do?

The steps to tackling plastic packaging are quite similar to those we followed in Pledge #3 – but with a little more forward planning required (for now). We know that there are some products that are nearly impossible to purchase without some form of packaging. Here are some practical tips to help!

At the grocery store:

  1. Prioritise loose fruit and vegetables, products packaged in glass, paper and cardboard. If your store has a plastic-free section, shop there.
  2. If you need to bag loose produce, take your own reusable mesh bag. Most grocers will put a sticker on it as long as it is thin enough that the neck can be closed to avoid tampering.
  3. Get organised – bring your own container when going to your local butcher or deli (assuming you aren’t giving meat a skip for Pledge #10). It is always worth asking your butcher to put it in your own container. It’s a good idea to build a relationship with stores that you know support your sustainable habits!
  4. Get your fresh bread sliced rather than buying pre-sliced bread – it is tastier, fresher, and cheaper!
  5. If a product is not available without plastic packaging, consider buying it in the largest bulk container possible. Often these bulk items have proportionally less plastic, and the larger piece of packaging is also more easily sorted for recycling.
  6. Remember to check if the plastic you are forced to accept is locally recyclable!
Some stores are introducing their own reusable produce bags – but you don’t need to wait for them! Any bag that is lightweight, allows the teller to see what is inside clearly and which can be scrunched small enough to be sealed with a sticker should be accepted in most places. Image credit: Pick n’ Pay

When buying online:

  • Choose retailers that you know have reduced the over-packaging of their goods. If they are making efforts to be sustainable, they will brag about it so you won’t need to look far.
  • Opt for no plastic bags. Some retailers have this option already built-in, but you can also mention it as a special request.
  • Online stores pay closer attention to their online reviews than many brick-and-mortar outlets. Use reviews and social media as a way to tell them you aren’t satisfied with the amount of packaging a product arrived in.
  • Remember to cut a loop. Box bands and packaging tape that arrive with your parcel are not recyclable and are an entanglement hazard for animals. Cut them up into small pieces before disposing them or eco-bricking them.

When buying takeaways:

  • Choose to support businesses that serve food in cardboard or paper packaging if possible.
  • Bring your own container when purchasing lunch or take-aways.

Make your pledge a permanent commitment by leaving an Ocean Pledge.

Why does it matter?

Twenty years of longitudinal beach studies in South Africa have shown that 94% of all litter found on beaches is plastic. Of this number, a staggering 77% is packaging. That, along with poor waste management , results in much of the plastic ending up in the environment and overflowing landfills. And 8 million tonnes of it annually ends up in our ocean.

Disposable packaging is the number one use of plastic – over 150 million tons are produced every year, well over 40% of all plastic. However, because packaging spends such a short amount of time “in use”, compared to some of plastic’s other applications, packaging actually makes up more than half of the total global plastic waste generated. Furthermore, many types of plastic packaging, particularly films used for bags and wraps, are light and difficult to recycle. This means that they are more prone to entering the environment as pollutants. Hence why packaging is so commonly seen as beach litter.

Myth-busting: Pre-packaged fruit and vegetables are better

There are two incorrect myths about fruit and vegetable packaging. One, that packaging makes it last longer (it actually shortens shelf life), and two, that it is more hygienic (you should wash your vegetables anyways). Although a bag of pre-chopped salad is convenient and an individually wrapped cucumber is less likely to be bruised, these factors are preferences, not necessities.

“You don’t know who’s touched it!” is a common argument of those preferring plastic-wrapped produce. Newsflash: You don’t know who’s touched it before it was packaged either, so, either way, you need to wash your fruit and vegetables!

Side note: Let’s talk about “ugly” produce. This is fruit and vegetables that don’t look 100% like we think they should, but are actually perfectly fine to consume. So, the carrot with the extra bit of carrot growing out of its side, or the apple with the dent in its peel, are considered “ugly”. Unpackaged produce not only puts less plastic into the waste stream, it also gives you the opportunity to choose the “ugly” produce and not let this food go to waste – up to 20% of all food waste is generated before food ever leaves the farm, so letting farmers know there is a market for produce that isn’t “pretty” is a handy bonus of skipping packaging.

We don’t know about you, but we want to know what we’re buying. With prepackaged fruit and vegetables, you don’t have that choice. How many times have you arrived at home, just to find that the oranges at the bottom of the bag have gone bad? Choosing your fruit and veg from unpackaged stock, gives you the power to decide what you want to buy.

Who can I follow?

We could tell you about how certain large retailers have started implementing plastic-free aisles or that there are a number of awesome niche zero-waste stores you could support – but, the reality is that for this to become a sustainable habit, you need to identify the stores you can easily do your shopping at that allow you to skip the plastic packaging. Often that just means finding the store nearest to you with a really big produce section!

Follow @zerowastesouthafrica and @zerowastecapetown on Instagram for lots of daily inspiration!



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