Reality Check to Aisle 3

Earlier this month, a short-lived debacle involving pre-peeled tangerines and their plastic packaging has thrown a harsh light on the supposed environmental friendliness of high-end grocery stores. Customers are drawn to supermarkets like Whole Foods, Fresh Market, and Trader Joe’s by the promise of quality food which isn’t oozing with preservatives and artificial colors, even if it means paying more for everything from pork chops to bok choi. The recent viral backlash in response to a photo of pre-peeled citruses sealed in plastic cartons at one such store has revealed a growing trend of customer disillusionment, which at first glance might seem justifiable. After all, these premium supermarkets portray themselves as wholesome, eco-friendly, and even a bit rustic. Their focus on aesthetic makes shopping more pleasant than a trip to Wal-Mart, which helps ease the sticker-shock when it comes time to check out. Amidst all the wood-paneling and earthy tones and reminders to ‘support local farmers,’ it’s no surprise that the proliferation of plastic packaging could seem a little contrary. But it is ludicrous for customers to expect the best food from around the world without involving the industrial evils of plastic.

For starters, plastic is nothing new. It has become a ubiquitous material used for everything imaginable; its unique mix of malleability and strength make it perfect for use in packaging, whether sealed or permeable. A huge amount of the food we consume would be impossible to create and distribute without the air-tight resiliency afforded by plastics. Tortilla chips that aren’t soggy and stale? Forget it. Fresh pasta? Better get tickets to Italy. Hot dogs, deli meats, peanut butter, breakfast cereal, sandwich bread, if it doesn’t come out of a glass jar or a metal can, there’s a good chance it’s wrapped in some sort of plastic. In short, we’d be stuck with canning and refrigerated trucks as the only means of keeping food fresh until it reaches our local market. Chips and bread and hot dogs would be moldy and dry and infested with larvae before we ever saw them. Having local production centers for all the products we take for granted would be incredibly inefficient, but without them perishable products would be out of reach to all but the wealthiest circles of society.

Now, remember that the selling point which allows these high-end supermarkets to remain viable in an industry with notoriously thin operating margins is the unadulterated nature of the foods they sell, which means chemical preservatives are not an option. Air-tight or vacuum sealed packaging therefore becomes imperative to keeping supply costs and spoilage low. You can’t very well maintain a vacuum seal with a paper bag or a cardboard box, which leaves metal and glass as the only non-plastic alternatives. Glass is fragile and expensive, and food which comes out of metal cans is not exactly known for its freshness. Moreover, decades of reliance on a modern supply chain has made the average consumer largely unconcerned with the race against time inherent to producing and selling food without it rotting or becoming infested with insects. Without protection from the ambient air, preservative-free foods spoil in hours, not days. Just ask our forebears, who survived winters on buried stores of potatoes and onions, who had to salt their meat if they wanted to have any protein in their diets come February. Strict health guidelines required in all food production zones exacerbate the problem of spoilage, especially since these guidelines almost always err on the side of caution. Anything even suspected of being past its peak freshness is tossed out, rather than risking a lawsuit over food poisoning or negligence. Did I mention the razor-thin margins under which grocery stores operate?

To continue the discussion of costs, the transportation of all this pure unadulterated foodstuff is in itself more expensive than the transportation of more conventional products which can unabashedly rely on chemicals to maintain ‘freshness’ in un-refrigerated cargo containers. The trendiness of locally produced food has diversified the number of client companies which ship their product to a given store. Basic macroeconomics advises us that increased scale of production and shipment results in a decrease in per-unit cost , and this holds true for the inverse as well. Consumers are glad for a chance to support local businesses, but these local, small-batch products cost the store more to acquire. To take another example, the popularity of organic produce has created a system of certification which requires strict separation of organic and conventional product at every stage of harvest and processing and distribution, meaning a truck full of organic strawberries cannot have other, conventional strawberries in it without jeopardizing the organic status of the first batch. This is to satisfy consumer demand for accountability, it doesn’t just amuse the store managers to abide by such strict (and expensive) guidelines.

The final and perhaps most critical reason that plastic packaging is ubiquitous is the issue of sanitation. American consumers in particular are revolted by anything that looks like it’s been touched by someone else. Just try offering someone a free cookie, then add “but someone took a bite out of it, still want it?” They won’t want it. As a result, any kitchen bigger than a ball-game snack stand will require workers to wear rubber gloves and even hair nets at all times. This is to satisfy consumer demand for high standards of sanitation, as well as to prevent transmission of disease and infection and thereby avoid the inevitable lawsuits which follow. Just ask Chipotle.

Plastic is easily disposable, which helps when customers will only pay for a product that hasn’t been mixed in with all the others, and which can’t have been handled by any other customer who wandered in before them. Plastic is transparent and allows easy inspection of the product inside. Plastic isn’t absorbent and won’t alter the flavor of the product inside, whereas paper packaging risks seepage if used with moist or oily foods, which in turn creates a contamination risk. If packaging touches the floor or anything less than completely sanitary, workers are required to dispose of it, often with whatever was sealed inside, simply because the customers want peace of mind that everything they buy is untainted. With plastic, it’s easy and cheap to maintain this wide margin of safety.

Let me be clear: plastic isn’t great. It’s linked to carcinogens and known to be complicit in altering hormone levels in the population due to its prevalence in our food supply chains. But customers who want affordable, perishable, preservative-free food must be willing to accept plastic as a necessary evil. After all, it is the consumers themselves who demand convenient packaging, high sanitation standards, and freshness. While a pre-peeled tangerine is a little silly, it’s hardly different from a plastic carton of watermelon cubes or pineapple spears, which manage to avoid consumer ridicule on a daily basis. And it wouldn’t seem so silly to someone with severe palsy, or an amputee with only one dexterous hand, to whom a tangerine is a treat to be remembered but not so easily peeled and eaten. So many things are done behind the scenes to keep customers satisfied, singling out one instance of over-packaging is almost laughably quixotic in a developed world which would quite literally collapse without plastics.

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