Be a Waste Conscious Supermarket Shopper

waste conscious shopping

In the past when I have gone into my local supermarket to restock my fridge and cupboards, I have to admit that the waste I was generating as a consumer was not the first thing on my mind – instead price and taste seemed more important.

Since starting my journey to a more sustainable existence, however, I now try to keep half a mind on what might end up in my bin when I traipse around the aisles looking for something to have for dinner. For one reason or another it’s not always easy to base my buying decisions on the waste potential but there is good reason to try…

Why reducing household waste matters

I’m going to throw some quite staggering numbers at you to show just how important it is that we, as consumers, try to cut back on the rubbish we put in our bins:

  • Britain could run out of landfill space by 2018 unless we send less there in the first place (or of course we create more landfill space which is not an ideal long term solution).
  • £12 billion is spent each year in the UK on food and drink which then gets thrown away – this equates to around £600 on the annual shopping bill of an average family.
  • In weight, this wastage amounts to 7.2 million tonnes, of which around 4.35 millions tonnes was avoidable.
  • An estimated 20% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come about because of the production, transportation and storage of food and drink.
  • Household waste leads to as much as 20 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions each year.
  • 4.9 million tones of household related packaging created each year.
  • Only 33% of this packaging is recycled in the UK when around 73% is able to be recycled.

So you can see that waste is not a trivial issue – the figures speak for themselves. They do, however, represent a big opportunity for improvement though and both consumers and companies can contribute to reduction in waste being sent to landfill.

What You As A Consumer Can Do

Starting in the supermarket itself and going through to cooking and rubbish, you can make some simple changes to your habits that will reduce the amount of waste you produce:

  1. Look out for the reduced items – food items that have reduced stickers on are probably close to their sell-by dates but they are 100% safe no matter what meat, fish, dairy or savoury item it is.

    To prevent these items from ending up in the supermarket bins out back, why not see if you could use any of the produce in a meal that night. Failing that, check to see if there is anything that could be frozen and used at a later date.

    I would do a lot more of this if I didn’t have a tiny freezer compartment, in particular I eat quite a lot of toast and frozen bread is perfectly fine for this while I’d happily freeze and then defrost meat if I had the capacity.

  2. Look at the labels to find out what parts of the packaging are recyclable and which are not – avoid products that are primarily packaged in materials that would have to be binned.

    The problem is that I wasn’t too sure what all the different recycling symbols meant. After a bit of searching I found this handy guide which has actually thrown up some interesting things.

    green dot recycling

    For one, I always took the green dot shown to the right as a meaning that item can be recycled but this is simply not the case. It is a logo commonly used in Europe indicating that the producer is helping to fund a system of recycling. In Germany such items are collected separately for recycling but this is not the case in the UK.

    I’m really not sure what I’m supposed to do with these green dot items. Some probably are recyclable while others are not (at least in the borough of Westminster where I live). If other recycling logos are present then I’ll go by them but if not I think I’ll try to get some clarification from my local council.

  3. Look for opportunities to use refills – several product groups have some sort of option to use refills instead of buying a whole new bottle/jar and these allow for much less waste and indeed much less energy expended on production of new materials.

    Kenco ran an advertising campaign this year promoting their new Eco Refill packs which they say has 97% less packaging weight and uses 81% less energy to manufacture.

    Ecover run a similar scheme for their laundry products and washing up liquids.

  4. Buy concentrates to save on packaging and storage space – concentrates use less water and so save on packaging and reduce the cost (both financial and environmental) of transport.

    I can think of the following products that come in concentrate form: washing detergent and fabric conditioner, hand wash, fruit squash, puree (tomato, garlic, etc). If you know any more, let me know using the comments below.

  5. Don’t buy/make more than you can eat – I often go shopping after getting back from the office and inevitably I am pretty hungry at this stage so I tend to overbuy somewhat. I’ll often cook more than I can physically eat too which just means more goes into the bin so I’m taking this last tip very seriously from now on and will try my best to only buy and cook food that I will actually eat.

    Pasta and rice are my two biggest stumbling blocks on this front, what are yours?

What I Think Companies Should Be Doing

Companies also have a big role to play in bringing down the amount of waste going to landfill and while many are starting to wake up to this fact, I still think more could be done. Here are some steps that can be taken:

  1. First things first, every effort should be made to reduce the weight of the packaging used in products and the amount of energy required to produce it.

    A good example is the GlassRite initiative which aims to reduce the impact of wine bottle on the environment. It says an incredible 630,000 tonnes of glass is added to the UK’s waste stream each year from the consumption of wine – not all of which gets recycled.

    With moves towards different forms of packaging and new lightweight bottles the reduction in waste can be significant and I think other industries should be following GlassRite’s lead.

  2. Give consumers better information about what can and can’t be recycled – it seems to me that some supermarkets are better at using the new standard on-pack recycling labels than others. In my experience, many Tesco products lack this information while nearly all products from Waitrose have them. I think all supermarkets should implement this clear labelling as fully as possible.

  3. Research packaging changes to extend shelf life – behind closed laboratory doors there are many developments being made into better packaging that reduces spoilage and allows shops to stock fresh produce for longer AND consumers to do the same in their fridges after purchasing.

    This means we could be seeing much longer use-by dates in the future should these new forms of packaging reach the market. This report highlights some of the possible changes on the way from spoilage sensors telling you if something is safe to eat, to antibacterial wrappers that fight off the effects of bacterial growth.

    I think more could be done by major food companies and supermarkets to investigate these new technologies and ensure that they are used as and when they become available.

  4. Finally, I think more products could use the refill model and that this could stretch not only to refill packs but also refill stations within supermarkets.

    My vision would be for these refill stations to be manned by a member of staff much like a meat, fish or cheese counter – if enough people bought things in this way the savings made on shelf-stackers would compensate for the extra staff needed on the refill stations.

    If the savings on packaging were passed to consumers who chose to refill then the incentive to adopt this approach is clear and with every penny counting, I don’t see why consumers wouldn’t to shop this way.

So there you go; my take on the problem of waste and what consumers and food companies can do about it. I think the numbers shown in the first section are quite scandalous and we need to act now or face the consequences in the near future.

But what do you think?

Steve (152 Posts)

I am chief writer and editor on Green Steve. Blogging since 2011, I like to delve into a wide number of topics to help people reduce their carbon footprint. You should follow me on Twitter here. And add me to your Google+ circles here.


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