Plastic-Free, Polder Living…Coming Home!
By Kim Hay
There is something exciting about returning home. I am Dutch but have spent my entire life abroad, ‘far away’ abroad, where my languages were Korean, Spanish or Bahasa instead of my native tongue. When the opportunity recently came to move my children to Zeeuws-Vlaanderen on the Dutch coast, we took it. Reconnect with my kin, my history and live in an area of Holland where there is space, sea, no traffic and kilometres of enviously clean sandy beaches.
We bought a house in a community orientated village, 1800 years after the Romans decided it wasn’t for them, the temperature in Rome a more enviable one. My direct neighbours are an independent green grocer, a specialist butcher and a bakery which has been family run since 1845. I was excited by this lifestyle of low carbon potential – the school being walking distance and cycling in Holland is like breathing. I was going to buy all my locally sourced cheese and meat wrapped in paper and purchasing a fresh loaf of bread, wafting it home under my arm for all the neighbours to smell! There is a small supermarket around the corner, but what would I need with that having everything I could want next door? What a shock when I realised that this dream of living ‘plastic free’ as much as I could was very quickly turning into a nightmare.
My family’s post war arrival in this area and their subsequent business meant that people knew who I ‘belonged’ to. This can make a difference in a place where family ties are strong and WWII is still something that defines the landscape, architecture and people. I may be ‘foreign’ but at least I wasn’t an outsider and I felt I could open up more freely. So, with the autumn airing of the BBC’s Drowning In Plastic fresh in my mind, watching with dropped-jaw at my Jakartan memories now wading in consumer waste, it spurred on much of my conviction. Having made my introductions as the new kid on the block and clearly stating excitement to have such local sources on my doorstep to prevent waste, they looked at me kindly, nodding in a way a mother would a child who’s made something arty but not really Royal Society of Arts.
The realisation was my free-range chicken from the farm up the road was plopped onto a Styrofoam looking dish and wrapped in plastic cling film. Delicious homemade soups in (quite usefully re-usable) tubs also wrapped further in cling film. The cheese wrapped in a plastic film, the deli spreads also in plastic tubs. When I bring the tubs back to refill they prefer not to accept them because of hygiene standards, even if I am happy to take the risk and the tubs have been cleaned. The bakers’ bread is put into plastic bags as are any buns, croissants etc. My grocer next door does do paper over plastic but the price of an independent grocer is eye watering, especially with children who need snack and lunch boxes made up each day. 9Eur for my bunch of grapes turned me as green as the product I as buying. As for low emissions, living in a remote part of the country means after-school activities are all car-reliant.
So what to do? The regulations around food standards seems fair:
The packaging needs to be clean
It should be suitable to carry food products; some packaging even has a logo to make is clear for this purpose
The packaging should be suitable for the purpose and compatibility ie carrying warm products or aluminium packaging not chemically conflicting with the product.
The consumer needs to be aware that they are doing this at their own risk and the provider has the right to refuse it. They (butcher, baker, wholesaler etc) is obliged to say that the reused packing may bring personal risks.
General research found my questions have been raised in forums and blogs by unsure shoppers like me for years. All wanting less plastic, all trying to create less waste and all actively trying to do this. The final response on one group about butchers packaging was “would you go to the baker with your biscuit tin and see how that works out? This environmental awareness can go a bit too far”. I see both sides, one actively accepting responsibility for their actions by bringing containers to reuse and the other not wanting to risk hygiene standards or worse. One suggestion was coming to a written agreement with the store owner. Indeed, Elisah Pals in Breda in 2018, began a council-supported initiative for shop owners to have a sticker in their window (see above) which allows customers to bring their own tubs, mugs and bags. A means whereby the customer can be responsible for their packaging.
So, ‘Think Global Shop Local’? I will continue to shop and support my local community, farms, orchards and shops. Menu planning, buying less meat but better meat will reduce the packaging and continue to persuade them to reuse their pots and tubs. Buying locally harvested fruit that is in season at the grocer means it will be cheaper and I can avoid the supermarket. I will insist to the baker that I will carry my bread, unwrapped down the street as indeed it’s so delicious, by the time I’m home, there’s often only half left anyway. I can also bake my own. The supermarket, oddly, does allow me to buy loose wrapped fruit, veg and bread and throw it into my own shopping bags, and it’s there when I inevitably do need it…wine isn’t grown in my garden…yet!
For me I’ve realised it needs to be a realistic, happy medium in a busy life, where I do my bit using the local recycling services, talking about packaging to anyone that will listen and being a conscientious shopper. If I can pass that onto my kids too, then we’re on our way.
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