As I pulled out my wallet, the grocery clerk asked, “Paper or plastic?” She had a plastic bag out before I answered and was packing my bread and milk.
“That’s okay,” I said, finally looking up. “I can carry them without a bag.” The clerk nodded, took the milk out of the bag, wadded the bag up, and tossed it into the trash can under the counter.
Multiply this small thoughtlessness by the Earth’s population-nearly five billion people-and you begin to see why the environment is in trouble.
However, if the message of cutting down on waste seems to have escaped this particular clerk’s notice, it probably won’t for long. The ranks of “green” consumers are growing daily, and grocery stores especially have become a major arena for the expression of environmental concerns.
Most of us will never be the ones to maneuver a tiny speedboat between a giant whaler and its prey, lie down in front of a truck carrying nuclear weapons or scrub the oil off a dying otter, but we all eat and we all use grocery stores. Because supermarkets operate on small profit margins and because what they stock on the shelf directly represents consumer demand, even a handful of consumers can affect store policy by making small changes in their buying habits.
Here’s how you can make a difference with your next trip to the store:
STEM THE WASTE STREAM
With only eight percent of the world’s population, North America produces more than 50 percent of the world’s garbage-about 8.5 pounds per person each day. At the same time, the US recycles only about 1 0 percent of its waste, compared with about 51 percent in Japan. You’ can help reverse this trend by “precycling” everything you consider buying: Think for a moment to see if you can choose a more environmentally sound alternative or if you can reuse or recycle the container.
Reduce: Cut down on the use of disposable plastic and paper materials. Carry a single set of washable plastic containers or plates with you on picnics or in bag lunches, and take a cloth shopping bag with you when you go to the grocery store. Instead of plastic, buy products packaged in glass. Whenever you can, buy in bulk. Buy fresh foods whenever possible, and avoid overpackaged foods, such as single-serving and microwaveable products. Avoid meat and eggs packaged in foam containers. In the produce section, fill up a single plastic bag with your various purchases-the clerk can sort it out at the checkstand.
Reuse: Think before you throw a container away-perhaps it can serve some other purpose, Cut the tops off plastic milk cartons, leaving the handle, and use the remainder for shelf organizers or storage containers for the kitchen, garage or your child’s bedroom (as holders for art supplies or small toys). Coffee cans make great canisters for food you’ve bought in bulk. Save a few squeezable, plastic catsup or syrup containers with a spout as handy containers for other items you can buy in bulk, such as oil and vinegar.
Recycle: All containers made from paper and cardboard, metal, glass, aluminum or plastic can be recycled. You can also support manufacturers who use recycled products. Although many communities have active recycling programs, the market for recycled materials has hit a lull because many manufacturers aren’t geared up to use them. You can encourage all manufacturers to use recycled materials by buying only from those who do. To determine whether a product is made from recycled material, look for the “recycled” symbol on the package. With cardboard boxes, look for a grey interior. If you see the word recyclable,” it doesn’t mean that the packaging is made from recycled material, but that you can recycle it. “Biodegradable” plastic simply means that it decomposes into smaller pieces of regular plastic. Although recycling plastic is better than tossing it into the garbage, our aim should be to decrease the total amount of plastic produced by not buying it in the first place.
Remember, it’s only when you actually recycle products that you reduce the garbage flow. It doesn’t do much good to buy recyclable products if you throw them away. When you’re at the store, try to think about recycling options that are available to you, and choose products in packages that you can realistically recycle. If you can’t recycle, at least buying recyclable products sends a message to packagers that there is a market for recyclables,
PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS
Every dollar you spend at the grocery store provides the manufacturer with funds to pursue activities with which you may or may not agree. Withholding your dollars amounts to a boycott. This tactic works: Look at Star-Kist and other large producers of canned tuna, who finally bowed to public opinion and announced they will no longer purchase tuna caught by methods harmful to dolphins.
Depending on your opinion about cigarette smoking and other issues, you may be interested in the fact that Kraft, Nabisco, General Foods, Calumet, OroWheat, Lifesavers candy, Carefree gum, Sanka, Claussen and Del Monte are owned by RJ Reynolds or Philip Morris, which are major tobacco companies; General Electric is a major contractor with the Department of Defense for the manufacture of nuclear weapons; and Dole is owned by Castle and Cooke, which has been criticized for polluting the environment and discriminating against women and minorities.
On the other side of the spectrum are the companies that were green before green was cool. When you buy Pledge, Johnson Wax or Shout, you’re investing in the SC Johnson Company, which was the first to voluntarily ban CFCs, the chemicals responsible for the destruction of the ozone layer. Quaker Oats and Campbell Soup have received kudos for their sound environmental and social policies by the Council on Economic Priorities.