Outside of your comfort zone is where the magic happens: ZERO WASTE


A lot of food products do not have to be wrapped in plastic (photograph: hellomagazine.com).

The new Albert Heijn, next to the Praxis has finally arrived. As if the other six Albert Heijns in a radius of 2 km of the new supermarket weren’t sufficient enough (not even taking into account all of the other supermarkets in this area). Even though I enjoy the new supermarket, I do not feel like there was a high demand for the new Albert Heijn, and my environmentalist heart ached a bit at the thought of all the extra waste that would be generated by this new supermarket. Supermarkets are big generators of waste and by building a new, extra large one in an area with already 6 supermarkets close by even more waste will be generated. Throwing away perfectly fine food because it has passed its expiration date is a very big problem in today’s society, but is not the topic that I will address in this blogpost. I want to discuss the fact that supermarkets account for “more than 40% of all plastic packaging” and are forcing their customers to buy all this plastic by wrapping it around their products.

Let me repeat some of the horrible externalities that come with the use of plastics: the plastic soup, micro particles in our food chain, and animals going extinct. Although putting plastic in a different garbage bin is widely accepted and encouraged nowadays, the positive environmental results are minimal. Since the division of plastics in our waste has minimal benefits and there is little knowledge of the impact of plastics on our health, I think we should use the effort that is put into recycling into other solutions. Therefore, in this blogpost, I will review the most successful option of reducing plastic waste: the zero waste lifestyle and how policies can support the rise of zero waste.

The zero waste lifestyle can be divided in two categories, which can also be combined: 1) Not producing any waste or 2) Producing waste that is compostable, so after the waste has been composted, there no waste left. (Notice the difference between compostable and biodegradable. If a product is labeled as biodegradable, this does not imply that the product is actually ‘good for the environment’, as every material will eventually biodegrade. For example, plastics will biodegrade into micro particles).

The first category, also called going ‘back to basic’ results in producing no plastic and little or no other types of waste. This lifestyle resembles the way our parents grew up, with, for example, a milk delivery service that would bring milk in glass bottles, which would be picked up again and be reused. These services are expensive and seem less efficient than supermarkets, but waste collection by the municipality might be even more expensive and all the waste that is produced by supermarkets less efficient. Personally, this going back to basics lifestyle and living zero waste charms me. I don’t think that the milkman will come back any time soon, because or lifestyles are completely different than one generation ago. There is no time anymore to wait for the milkman and every product has to be available every time of day. The use of plastics has become essential in our lives, because they meet the needs that come from this lifestyle.  People have become addicted to plastics and, unfortunately,  bringing your own reusable cotton bags, jars and other containers to the supermarket is not that socially accepted ‘yet’, or should I say ‘anymore’?

The second category is producing waste that is compostable. Cutting waste out of your life does not have to be the only option of going zero waste. The use of different packaging materials for our food could be another solution to create as little waste as possible.

“For decades shoppers have been sold the lie that we can’t live without plastic in food and drink. A plastic-free aisle dispels all that. Finally we can see a future where the public have a choice about whether to buy plastic or plastic-free. Right now we have no choice (Sian Sutherland).”

More than 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste is created by major supermarkets in the United Kingdom each year and MPs are taking action and urging big supermarket chains to get rid of plastic packaging. To get rid of plastic packaging, A Plastic Planet, is reaching out to supermarkets to support them in creating plastic free aisles. The Ekoplaza was the only Dutch supermarket willing to implement their idea and has created such an aisle in their Ekoplaza Lab in Amsterdam-West to see how people respond to it. In this aisle, there are over 700 products that are packed in compostable packaging. Campaigners from A Plastic Planet claim that the packages will be much more expensive than plastic packages. Ekoplaza’s aisle is only implemented in their Lab, meaning that they are testing it and seeing what works and what doesn’t work without using plastic. For now we can only hope that the experiment will turn out to be a huge success, and that more supermarkets will start to create these kind of aisles. It might seem to good to be true and I think that more research should be done on how all of this compostable material will be treated and how long it will take to compost before we end up having a ‘compost’ soup instead of the plastic soup.

So how can we give the people an incentive to become aware that living without any waste is possible and how can we create an incentive for supermarkets to become plastic free? I think that using market-based instruments will be the most successful option to reach these goals. Firstly, I think that municipalities should change the way they tax people for their waste. People that do not provide any waste should be compensated in some way. This compensation could be done by paying for every bag that you fill with waste, or by weighing the waste that you hand in. The downside to these policies is that if they are not implemented by every municipality, people will probably start to dump their waste elsewhere, so a subsidy for reducing waste might be a better option. Furthermore, supermarkets using compostable packages will probably have more impact in reducing plastic waste, as people are forced to live plastic free when there is no supply of plastic. Incentives for supermarkets could be subsidies for creating plastic free aisles or taxing the amount of plastic they create. 

Concluding, to reduce the amount of plastic waste, instead of recycling it, it seems that a change in lifestyle has to be made. The combination of reducing our personal amount of waste through the reuse of materials and changing plastic packaging to compostable packaging by supermarkets, could decrease plastic waste significantly. I think that living zero waste will be the best option, as a change in packaging still results in compost waste, and I hope that in the near future a package free supermarket will open up in Amsterdam. But, I think this change would be one of the most effective options in reducing plastic waste. Municipalities can give this change a boost by creating incentives for individuals and supermarkets. And if they could start focusing on all of the food that is wasted by supermarkets at the same time, that would be nice wouldn’t it? Oh, if only it would be that simple.



5 thoughts on “Outside of your comfort zone is where the magic happens: ZERO WASTE

  1. Hi! In terms of solutions and inducing lifestyle changes, you seem to favor a local governance level (municipalities). However, as supermarket waste and packaging is such a big and systematic problem, do you think that it could also be addressed effectively on a national or EU level? This January the Commission actually released something called “A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy”, which mentions a lot of the same problems. Of course, there are no ambitious regulations or effective changes so far, but I’m quite hopeful that this is an issue that can -and maybe will- actually be addressed on a larger scale.


  2. I agree with you Emma that changes should be made. Also, I agree with you Nika that it would be desirable to have the issue addressed on a larger scale. However, local success stories (such as the aisle in Ekoplaza that still needs to be proven successful) are needed before more targeted measures can be taken. These improvement strategies can then be extended to a larger scale, which I definitely hope for.


  3. I would love to see a plastic-free super market nearby, but am a tiny bit pessimistic about this happening any time soon… However, your suggestions can really decrease our waste. I know for example that in Swiss you just pay taxes for your garbage bag, which is a simple way to make people aware of the costs of their waste.

    You mention: “Incentives for supermarkets could be subsidies for creating plastic free aisles or taxing the amount of plastic they create.”. However I was wondering if it wouldn’t be more effective to tax producers or distributers (the ones that actually do the packaging) instead of the supermarkets. Because that way you actually tackle the problem at it source, right? This could also potentially solve the problem that Nika and Sofie mentioned.


  4. @Nika&Sofie: I think that addressing this problem on a larger scale would be most effective, as the packaging industry supplies plastic for multiple supermarket chains. However, I do think that these ‘bottom-up’ initiative of the Ekoplaza also helps municipalities to tackle their waste problems, so municipalities will have an incentive to support these initiatives. And that, just as Sofie mentions, if this initiative proofs to be successful, it can be upgraded to larger scale. Also, as Tamara points out, on a larger scale it would be easier to tackle the industry (the source), as one supermarket will not be able to ‘shut’ down the plastic packaging industry. However, I do think that if multiple supermarket chains will reduce their demand for plastics, this industry is ‘forced’ to start looking into more sustainable materials. Sadly, the packaging industry and supermarkets have lobbied together against implementing deposit money on cans and small plastic bottles, showing that they probably will not try to reduce one’s supply/demand. But hopefully through for example taxing/subsidies they will be given an incentive to do so.

    I think you have a good point and I actually took this part out because of my word count. I don’t think that taxing the industry will be enough to reduce the production of plastic, the price of the final product will just increase a little bit. Because plastic is relatively cheap to produce, the consumer will probably not even notice a food price that is a few cents higher, because it is wrapped in plastic. Also, if a tax would be implemented, the revenue coming from this tax should be reinvested in the measures taken against the (over)use of plastics, instead of being used for other governmental purposes. A subsidy maybe leads to a more effective nudge of the industry, as then the industry does not feel ‘attacked’ and start lobbying against the tax. Then there is also a positive incentive to move away from plastic, instead of increasing prices to account for the implemented tax.

    As I said in my comment above, we have to look at the problem in both ways: the demand and the supply of plastic. Maybe a tax on the production and selling of plastics combined with a subsidy on producing and selling renewable materials would be the most effective option. Then the industry has two incentive (positive and negative) to stop producing plastic, and start producing packaging with other materials. And the supermarkets will have an incentive to buy from the industries that work with renewable materials.

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