Asheville consumers, recyclers and grocers talk about food packaging

NO TIME TO WASTE: The West Village Market encourages shoppers to bring their own containers for bulk items and does its best to avoid plastic packaging in the store. Pictured is employee Jennifer Alaine filling a reusable bag in the bulk aisle. Photo by Cindy Kunst

Liat Batshira recalls taking a ceramic plate to Earth Fare to buy a treat for herself from the bakery counter. The counter person didn’t compliment her on being eco-savvy but did accommodate the request, affixing the price sticker right on Batshira’s plate. “They stick everything in that plastic stuff,” Batshira says. “I’m going to take this and walk outside and eat it. For the two minutes it’s in the store, it doesn’t need to have its own piece of plastic that just gets thrown away.”

Batshira, a self-described forager, gardener and dumpster diver, is not alone in her concern about the wastefulness of single-use containers. Trying to ease consumer conscience and impact, many area grocery stores are making efforts to cut down on packaging waste, transitioning away from plastic bags at checkout and offering in-store recycling services and bulk shopping. But next to bulk food offerings is often a sizable display of repacks — bulk goods repackaged by stores into plastic containers or bags — which may offer convenience to shoppers but at the expense of defeating the environmental gains of bulk shopping in the first place.

Batshira is among those Asheville residents who routinely make consumer choices based on minimal packaging. She will often bring her own jars and bags into stores to fill up on staple items. Resealable plastic bags, says Batshira, work especially well for bulk shopping, as they are sturdy enough to be able to be used many times without breaking. Batshira tries to have a lower impact because she recognizes that her choices affect the environment and other humans and animals. “We only have this one planet,” she says, “and we are turning it all into a dump.”

Reduce, reuse, recycle

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that food and packaging account for almost 45 percent of the materials in U.S. landfills. And we produce a lot of waste: According to the World Bank, the average person in the United States generates 5.7 pounds of waste per day, compared with 2.7 pounds per person in Argentina, 0.7 pounds in India and 0.2 pounds in Ghana.

Diverting some of this waste from the landfill is one way to reduce the carbon footprint of our immoderate consumption. Danny’s Dumpster, a local waste-hauling company that focuses mainly on food waste, works with about 130 restaurants, hospitals and schools, and transports about 40 tons of discarded food per week to its Asheville composting facility. That is 40 tons of food that would otherwise be dumped in a landfill, that is instead made into compost that is sold to the Asheville Mulch Yard plus area organic farmers and residents.

CompostNow, another local service that supports nutrient cycling by picking up food scraps from homes, offices and restaurants and turning them into compost soil, can also, for a monthly charge of about $30, assist residents looking for help composting their food waste.

The movement to reduce grocery waste has been growing around the world. At zero-waste grocery stores, especially popular in Europe, food is sold package-free; shoppers bring their own clean containers and bags to fill with goods and pay by weight. The world’s first zero-waste supermarket, Original Unverpackt, opened in Berlin in 2015. French zero-waste bulk store Day by Day currently has 42 locations across France and Belgium.

In North America, such stores are currently open in Denver and Vancouver; the nation’s first, in.gredients in Austin, Texas, went out of business earlier this year. Plastic bag bans, however, are in effect in California and Hawaii, plus cities including Seattle, Chicago and Boston. In North Carolina, the only such legislation occurred in the Outer Banks: A plastic bag ban enacted there in 2009 was repealed by the N.C. General Assembly in 2017.

I met Lorrie Streifel as she was taking plastic shopping bags out of the plastic recycling bin inside the doors of the Ingles on Tunnel Road to use as garbage can liners and for animal waste. Streifel brings her own bags to get bulk foods and tries to avoid single-use plastic packaging. “I think it would be wonderful,” she says, “to have a campaign in the city of Asheville, county of Buncombe, to look at reducing the use of single-use plastics completely.”

According to Asheville sustainability officer Amber Weaver, however, since North Carolina is a “Mother, may I?” state, it’s not possible for cities to ban the use of plastic bags; that’s something state legislators would have to pursue. Overall, it seems the U.S. is behind on this issue: Plastic bags are currently banned in 32 other countries around the world, including China, India and New Zealand.

In 2014, Asheville City Council did adopt a goal of reducing municipal solid waste by 50 percent by the year 2035. The Zero Waste AVL campaign, which encourages Asheville residents to send less trash to the landfill, promotes three main ways to achieve sustainable consumption: precycling (the practice of seeking to reduce consumer waste by being a thoughtful consumer), upcycling (making new items out of discarded materials) and recycling.

Nationally, the EPA finds that Americans recycle about one-third of their trash. For fiscal year 2017-18, the N.C. Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service reports that 134.82 pounds of common household recyclables were recovered per capita in Buncombe County, ranking it 16th out of 100 counties in the state. According to the Greenhouse Gas Reductions Calculator for commingled recycling on stopwaste.org, that saved carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to one car taken off the road for every 20 residents.

Wishful recycling

The recycling industry, however, has been thrown into crisis after China, which had previously been taking in about half of the world’s garbage, adopted a ban at the start of this year that ended almost all of its recycling imports. China cited a desire for self-sufficiency and environmental and public health concerns in this move, which has caused major challenges for recyclers around the world.

Influenced by news reports from The New York Times and other publications revealing collected recyclable materials across the country piling up and being sent to landfills, consumer confidence in recycling has plummeted. Streifel, for one, is skeptical that the plastic bags like the ones she takes out of supermarket recycling bins, or even many of the recyclable materials she puts into her blue bin at home, actually get recycled.

In the city of Asheville, recycling is handled by Curbside Management of Woodfin. Owners Nancy and Barry Lawson reassure citizens that they are still able to move the material that comes to them. Nancy Lawson says there is about 10 percent nonrecyclable waste in that material, but that everything else, as long as it is on their accepted list, gets recycled.

The 10 percent comes from people putting stuff in the bins that they shouldn’t. “Probably the biggest culprits,” she says, “are plastic bags, styrofoam, wood, clothing or plastics that are not on our recyclable list.”

Nancy Lawson suggests people ask themselves three questions to see if something plastic is recyclable: Is it a container? Does it have a recycling symbol on it? Does it come (roughly) from a grocery store? “People are wishfully recycling,” she says. A plastic hanger, a plastic fork or a plastic toy, do not meet those criteria and should not be placed in the blue bins.

Barry Lawson says that China’s waste import restrictions have dramatically decreased the value of material they receive. It has also resulted in heightened quality requirements, which have forced them to install new equipment.

He explains, however, that the crisis may not be as dire in this part of the country as in others due to a greater presence in the Southeast of paper mills and plastic repurposing facilities. The growing uneasiness among local consumers due to reports of what is happening in other places in North America is a shame, he continues, since Curbside is continuing to find homes for all of its recyclable material. Lawson invites skeptics to call or take a visit to see for themselves how the material is handled.

War on plastic?

Recycling is far from a cure-all, however. Finding solutions for packaging waste after it is made does not get to the root of the problem. Some, like author Kenneth Worthy, have argued that recycling may even contribute to overconsumption, misleading consumers into thinking their consumption comes without environmental cost.

When it comes to recycling, so many factors are involved that making informed, intelligent consumer choices can be difficult. Eric Bradford, director of operations at Asheville GreenWorks, for instance, recommends that people choose products in grocery stores, in part, based on which type of packaging is more profitable for the recycler. Mentioning a glut of plastic recyclables, Bradford says he would choose a glass jar of tomato sauce over a plastic one for this reason.

The Lawsons, however, say their spectrum of profitability currently has aluminum at the top and glass at the bottom. There is still value in cardboard, they say, which is shipped to mills primarily within a four-hour radius, but the value of paper is so low that they need to send half of it to India, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries in Southeast Asia that will still accept it.

Glass is so costly to recycle, say the Lawsons, that it is not even being accepted anymore in some locations. Greenville and Spartanburg, S.C., for instance, shut down their glass recycling operations in March 2016, leaving residents not yet adapted to reusing jars and bottles for bulk goods, home storage or craft projects little choice but to send them to the landfill.

Barry Lawson calls glass “a very difficult” piece of the recycling puzzle. Despite it being theoretically endlessly recyclable, he explains that glass is both heavy to transport and destructive — shards cause damage to receptacles, trucks, floors and equipment, slicing tires and conveyor belts and contaminating other materials.

While the Lawsons do not imagine their company will stop accepting glass in the near future, they recommend that people purchase their tomato sauce in No. 1 plastic containers rather than glass jars. Although it may seem counterintuitive to those familiar with the “war on plastic,” Barry Lawson says plastic packaging can be a better alternative to glass.

“I think it’s a more sustainable product moving forward,” he says. “To sustain recycling and to lower cost, there has to be value in the material.” For plastics, there are consistently better markets, and therefore larger value, he says, for Nos. 1, 2 and 5.

Concerns about plastic often go beyond its recyclability, however, with many, like Raleigh-based Toward Zero Waste co-founder Dargan Gilmore, extremely concerned about the potential for it to leach chemicals into food. Lawson says that for the sustainability-minded consumer, it is best to choose used materials that can be recycled. But ultimately, Lawson admits, “Consuming less would be the best solution.”

A matter of conscience

Justina Prenatt, an Asheville therapist and mother of three, tries to reuse glass jars and other packaging as much as she can. “I don’t purchase any disposable products. I don’t buy sandwich bags, I don’t buy garbage bags, I don’t buy paper towels, I don’t buy napkins. I find that I can either reuse something that’s already come into the house or I can use a cloth substitute.”

It’s hard, she says, “to live a healthy, thriving life in our current societal context, because we are so separated from nature and the earth and so separated from each other, and are sort of forced to struggle to make ends meet and have deep connection in our lives because of the way our culture works.”

Like Batshira, Prenatt says her habits are a matter of personal conscience. “Fossil fuels are a massive contributor to carbon in the environment,” she says. “Everything from the process of extracting the fossil fuels from the ground to the emissions they create when they’re burned are incredibly harmful to us.”

So she stays conscious of the weights of packaged foods and how food is sold. If you buy beans in a can, for instance, you are not only purchasing the can but the liquid inside it, which adds significantly to its weight and thus the fuel spent on transport. And this is on top of all the resources involved in making a single can and its label. “There’s just so much more that goes into buying a packaged product than a bulk product where you can use your own container,” says Prenatt.

Prenatt believes that from an environmental standpoint, farmers markets and co-ops are the best places to shop. Supporting that kind of business, she says, allows you to directly support local food providers and put more money in the local infrastructure.

Bobby Sullivan, general manager of the French Broad Food Co-op, says that what makes a member-owned co-op unique is that profitability is not the only concern. Sullivan says the co-op is continuing to recycle all of its plastic, cardboard, paper and containers, for instance, even as some other stores may have been forced to stop. “We’re not going to stop recycling just because the cost went way up,” he says, “because it’s part of our mission.” Likewise, bulk food is the marquee department of the French Broad Food Co-op, which opened in 1975 and carries about 1,000 items in bulk.

The customer curve

Customers walking into West Village Market are greeted with a hand-drawn sign reading: “Don’t be shy! We [heart] your containers.” “Any encouragement, any reminder is a good thing,” says owner Rosanne Kiely, noting that people may have to see something over and over again before their behavior starts to change.

“Packaging waste is such an issue in this industry,” says Kiely. “There’s such an overuse of even cardboard, just to make fancy, pretty packages.” Promoting awareness of the impact of packaging on the environment is key, she adds. “We’ve all got to do something about it.”

BULKING UP: The bulk section at the French Broad Food Co-op offers about 1,000 unpackaged food items and has a weighing station where customers can get tare weights for the containers they bring from home. Photo by Carla Seidl

Kiely says her store avoids plastic wherever it can. West Village Market has eliminated soft plastic bags in its bulk and produce aisles, offering paper instead. Lip balm is sold in cardboard tubes with no plastic. The market is also one of the only locations in Asheville that offers a drop-off for TerraCycle, a program that deals with hard-to-recycle waste like chip bags, foil-lined energy bar wrappers, toothpaste tubes, child food pouches, batteries and light bulbs.

“We’ve gotten a lot of affirmation on all these steps that we’ve made from customers who are relieved, like when they buy chips, they don’t have to think about, ‘Oh, I have to throw the bag in the trash,’” says Kiely. Mostly, though, she has observed a sense of inevitability among shoppers, who think that using a lot of plastic and other packaging is just something they have to do to feed themselves.

She has not received many customer requests for more sustainable options. “We’re still a little bit in front of that customer curve,” says Kiely. “I think people think about it, but not hard enough.”

Kiely notes that a lot of people don’t know about the TerraCycle program. (Prestige Subaru also accepts TerraCycle items, including disposable cups and lids, snack and chip bags and coffee and tea capsules, at its location on Tunnel Road.) She adds that she believes independent retailers are leading the way toward more eco-friendly packaging solutions. “I’m hearing, ‘I’m so glad you’re doing that,’” she says. “I’m not hearing people being assertive in demanding that.”

Toward Zero Waste is a North Carolina organization helping people minimize waste of all kinds. Co-founder Gilmore says that her organization adds “request” to the well-known list of R’s — reduce, reuse, recycle. Her local Earth Fare in Raleigh, she notes, changed the plastic wrapping paper at its meat counter to a compostable kind after several people requested it. “The more we request, the more stores will listen and change,” she urges.

Bradford agrees with Kiely that local small businesses are leaders in this regard. “One thing I like about Asheville is it’s the small-business owner who’s making a very big change.” Bradford points to Asheville Pizza and Brewing  Co. and Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack, which are among local restaurants that have recently removed plastic straws from their operations. “I really am heartened by our community here, all those businesses working superhard, kind of blazing the trail themselves.”

On the home front

The shift toward zero waste, however, can also start with individuals at home. Prenatt recommends that shoppers who want to be more eco-friendly should, at a minimum, always take their own grocery bags. For buying produce, don’t take a fresh plastic bag from the vendor, she suggests; bring your own receptacle for that purpose. For ease, Prenatt says she often brings in used plastic bags for her bulk shopping and then transfers that into glass Mason jars or other containers when she gets home.

When eating out, both Batshira and Prenatt bring a stainless steel container with them to package any leftovers. When getting a to-go order, Prenatt will ask restaurants if they will put her order in a container she provides. “Some restaurants say no, and some say yes,” says Prenatt. “I tend to favor the ones that say yes.”

If you don’t have a container with you, you can sometimes wrap things in a napkin, says Prenatt, instead of accepting a to-go box. Bradford suggests asking for aluminum foil instead of a big box for extra slices of pizza.

Noting that consumption habits are hard to change all at once, Bradford recommends people start by trying to cut out small amounts of plastic. When going through the produce aisle, for instance, consumers can ask themselves, “Do I have to have produce wrapped in plastic? Or can I get the free produce and put it in my own sack?”

Bradford also recommends avoiding as much as possible packaging that can’t be recycled, like the microwaveable trays in the frozen food aisle. “Just taking out a little at a time adds up,” he says.

Sending a message

Even small changes in buying choices can add up to send powerful messages to retailers.

In addition to becoming more knowledgeable and responsible recyclers, citizens can resist empty conveniences. As a way to move away from individually packed items, maybe look into adopting a new habit, like making a batch of dried beans in the slow cooker to freeze for later use rather than buying individual cans. Carry reusable mugs and water bottles. And pass on the paper-wrapped plastic straw that many restaurants plunk down as soon as you get to the table.

If you’re feeling extra motivated, you can purchase a 25-pound bag of rice, beans or quinoa and divide it up with your friends or neighbors. (If you are a member-owner at the French Broad Food Co-op, you can get 20 percent off your purchase by doing this.) “That’s how co-ops started,” remarks Sullivan. “People were getting together and buying bigger proportions of bulk items and hanging out on the porch and splitting it up.”

This and other waste-saving practices seem to go against the convenience-driven consumer culture to which most Americans have grown accustomed. “We want someone else to make it so that it’s easy for us,” says Batshira, who points to the example of the coconut. “We humans are taking products that have their own natural wrapper, that don’t need plastic, and we’re sticking them in plastic, and it seems so counterintuitive.”

Prenatt thinks the environment for conscious shopping has improved in Asheville over the years. Now, she says, “I’m mostly met with appreciation for making the effort. I think people are more conscious of the value of it than they were once upon a time.”

Inspired by my interviewees, I decided to bring my own containers to do some bulk shopping, and I could see how the change of habit does take some effort and planning. It can also involve a little bit of discomfort at doing something new. At the store, I had to learn how and where to weigh and mark tare weight on my containers. But then came the satisfaction of not having to throw anything in the recycling or trash. The next time I go, it will be easier since I will have the tare weights already marked.

It all comes down to priorities. “Could you save more time getting all packaged stuff?” asks Prenatt. “Of course! If the question is, how do I reduce my impact as a consumer, then taking a little bit more time at the store to weigh your containers or label your bulk bags … for me, it’s just worth it.”

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About Carla Seidl
Carla Seidl is a writer, independent radio producer, and singer-songwriter based in Asheville, North Carolina. Read and listen to more of her work at carlaseidl.com. Follow me @carlaseidl

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