The Grocery Dilemma

Kirsten Calder-Sutt is a third year student in SFU's Environmental Science department. She has a passion for waste reduction and learning how best to coexist with the natural world. When she has a free moment, Kirsten enjoys hiking, jamming on the sax or violin, and watching stirring documentaries.

In the pursuit of sustainable living, buying food can be a nightmare. Our modern food-shopping experience is plagued by the issues of conventional agriculture and globalized food systems. However, there are always more sustainable options around if you know what to look for.

As someone relatively new to weekly grocery shopping, I’ve been contemplating how I can create lasting habits that maximize my own and my planet’s health when making food-based decisions. In this post, I’d like to lay out what I see as two of the more prominent issues revolving around the food on grocery store shelves, both which I address by understanding sustainability basics and voting with my fork.

1. Packaging Overdose
Are a few extra days of freshness worth their weight in trash? There comes a point when you have to wonder if that loaf of bread really needed a bag for its bag, or whether all that packaging was for naught.

I’ve quickly become aware of how many different ways there are to package the same product. Some bananas, for instance, are sandwiched between non-recyclable Styrofoam and plastic, whereas others are simply loose. Yogurt can be purchased in larger quantities or in snack-size containers, but the latter equate to a much larger surface area of plastic. With my sights set on using less resources, I try to make decisions based on both the packaging and its contents.

As a general rule, I look for cardboard and stay away from Styrofoam and plastics labelled as type ‘7’, which are essentially non-recyclable.  However, some recent research has told me that plastic milk jugs are more readily recycled and less energy-intensive to make than the coated material of milk cartons; thus there are some exceptions to my rule.

Ultimately, I’m coming to see that buying in bulk and taking full advantage of one’s freezer are the best ways to handle concerns of freshness and reduce various costs. For example, landfills would be spared from 72 million pounds of waste per year if all Americans bought their almonds in bulk! Whether we want it or not, we are paying for that extra packaging in terms of environmental effects as well as in straight up cash.

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2. Food as Freight
The globalization of food systems has been miraculous yet problematic. Sure, we can enjoy foods like fresh tropical fruit in Canada, but at what cost?

There is no easy answer, and this is due to negative externalities – the consequences of food growth, processing, and transportation that aren’t considered in the cost of our food. 

My first resource and environmental management class taught me about the enormous amount of carbon dioxide emissions released just from processing and transporting our food, which is far from sustainable. Food transport also goes hand in hand with excessive packaging and thereby waste, as food that travels farther needs increasing amounts of protection to maintain its quality.

Along the thread of ‘quality’, I find it disconcerting that a large portion of transported food is picked before it’s ripe and then ripened artificially using gaseous ethylene. This explains why the insides of our imported strawberries are white and not red as they should be; they haven’t ripened naturally, and are actually less nutritious as a result. Ethylene use is also an externality because it potentially endangers the employees administering it.

Taking care to buy local produce, dairy products, and other food items whenever they’re available generally saves me money and also cuts down on the negative externalities. Although smaller markets carry more local food, I’ve also found some at chain supermarkets like Nesters and Safeway. Buying local and organic would be even better, but like most students, I can’t afford to invest fully in organic foods.

Embark’s Local [Harvest] Box is an even easier way my roommate and I go about finding locally grown, healthier foods and embracing seasonality. We simply order a box online and pick it up right at SFU Burnaby. You can learn more about the Harvest Box here.

I can vouch for the fact that a few weeks of consciously trying to make more sustainable food choices will result in long-term habits you will not regret. That being said, I challenge you to spend less money on plastic packaging and more on local food. With little to lose and a lot to gain, it’s definitely worth a shot.

  • Kevin Chiang
    followed this page 2016-02-17 17:28:16 -0800

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