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26 Oct, 2021 - 6 min read

Making your trip to the supermarket more eco-friendly


We can all find the supermarket rather overwhelming, whether it’s the sheer quantity of choice, the lengthy lines at the checkout, the suspicious lack of natural light, or the extreme level of food packaging that we all know will eventually head to landfill.

However, many of us can’t avoid going there – so to address at least one of these factors we can aim to make our supermarket visits more eco-friendly, in any way we can.

This is more than just bringing reusable bags, buying less processed foods and selecting proven eco-brands – consider those the gateway… how can we take it to the next level?

This next level means it can’t just come from the consumer’s end. Food producers must, and are, looking at ways to make their packaging and products more sustainable. As consumers our role is to encourage this shift faster, and we can vote through our product and brand loyalty.

Let’s start with a few things to guide our choices when it comes to more sustainable packaging options.

Refillable packaging & bulk bins

This one is a great option for anyone who is trying to make their food shopping more eco-friendly. Brands supply their product in bulk and you bring in and refill existing packaging. This is really popular for cleaning and personal care products, as well as baking supplies, nuts, grains, etc. 

Although the benefits are boundless, there are two key barriers when it comes to this approach: cost and convenience. In many refilleries you end up paying more for packaging-free items, which not only doesn’t make sense but will often deter a lot of budget-conscious shoppers. This increase in price is a combination of refilleries being newer players on the scene and therefore requiring more profit margin to be sustainable in themselves, as well as many of the products being more sustainably and ethically sourced. Due to these factors, according to the Global Web Index, approximately 61% of Millennials are happy to pay more for environmentally-friendly products. It’s really about scale, so the more people who can get behind it, the more cost effective it can become for all the rest of us.

On top of this, often the refilleries are not part of our main supermarket chains, and having to visit a different store puts people off, especially if this requires more time in the car, producing more carbon emissions, and so on. For the bulk-bin sections of supermarket chains the options are often limited to nuts and grains, however we can see this area growing in the coming years as consumers look for it more. We just need to make sure we’re vocal enough about the demand!

So all in all, use refilleries when you can. Plan ahead, bring your containers or reused ziplock bags. Talk to your local supermarket owners about providing more eco-friendly options, and understand you may be paying more but consider it a donation to the planet and our fight for a more sustainable future. 

Problematic plastic and packaging designs

It seems simple, but it’s time to really think about it. When we’re choosing between items, why not look at the packaging design and type of plastics used? 

WasteMINZ recently conducted a national audit for Aotearoa and the resulting report “The Truth about Plastic Recycling in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2020” indicates that there are steps we can take to make our plastic recycling more efficient. In particular we can start by avoiding packaging manufactured from plastics 3, 4, 6 and 7 and choosing the plastics that are easier to recycle like 1, 2 and 5. What does this mean for your supermarket shopping? You’ll be the person in the supermarket aisle looking underneath the products to find the type of plastic used! 

On top of the type of plastic, it can help to choose simplified packaging. Often food products come with sleeves made from a different material to the main packaging, and research has indicated this often contaminates collected recycling. So start looking for packaging that is simple, stripped back, or at least made entirely from the same material where you can.

Disruptive reformulation and redesign

This is where we look to food producers to lead the way, and we can (and will) follow. More and more products will be developed in packaging that overall reduces the need for plastics at all. Refill bottles are part of this, but also things like tablets where you ‘just add water’ – rethinking how the product is given to you reduces the packaging required overall. It may require a new way of doing things for us, but once you get used to it many of them are simple to use and much more environmentally friendly!

Breaking down the biodegradable barrier

Although this is an extremely popular phrase, ‘biodegradable’ often falls into the green-washing category and doesn’t always mean what you think it means. To truly be more eco-friendly, do a little research on what biodegradable plastic means when it comes to the environment, and how to select the best options in the biodegradable world. 

Biodegradable plastic means it can be broken down in an organic way (eaten by microbes) and turned into biomass, gas or water. This term can be used loosely and manufacturers often avoid giving you timeframes on the “degrading” process, meaning it could still take a really, really long time to break down at all. Do the research and find out if it takes longer than a year to degrade, if it breaks down into micro-plastic instead of biomass – or if it requires a special facility to do so. These are red flags, and the product is simply not as eco-friendly as you might expect. 

Don’t go soft on your soft plastics

We know a lot about plastics 1 through 5, but what about soft plastics? These are any plastic that can be scrunched into a ball, and broken by hand – and are widely used for food packaging, shrink wrap, large plastic bags and even bubble wrap. Another one difficult to completely avoid at the supermarket, especially for products like chips and pasta.

However, with slightly more effort you can recycle your soft plastics too. In New Zealand, soft plastic recycling is not a government funded effort, but is instead an initiative run by The Packaging Forum. The scheme collects from selected locations in Auckland, Waiheke Island, Northland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Hawke's Bay, Taranaki, Christchurch and Wellington. These locations are most commonly local Countdown, Pak’n’Save, New World and The Warehouse stores, but there are also other locations. You can easily find out which one is closest to you by visiting the recycling kiwi store locator, and if it’s not in your region, start lobbying your local government to get one!  

However it’s not as simple as just dropping them off, preparing your soft plastics for recycling before you take them to these locations is really important. Dirty soft plastics can not be recycled, and have the potential to contaminate the whole bin. Therefore, when you’re dropping off packaging to these recycling bins it should be ‘empty, clean and dry. When you’ve finished using it, give it a quick rinse, turn it inside out to air dry overnight or dry by hand before popping it in with other collected plastic packaging. Easy as that!

We hope these tips help you approach the supermarket more confidently, and can be added to the list of activities you’re probably already doing to live a more eco-friendly life. 

It just requires a little bit of planning ahead, and also being vocal about the things that are important to you. Feel free to jump on the social media channels for some of your favourite brands and ask questions to create higher consumer demand, we have to speak up!