I absolutely adore going to a farmers market, whether in Ireland or abroad. In fact, when I travel somewhere new, I usually seek out the nearest farmers’ market to have a look around as I feel it really connects me with the food culture. In Ireland, there are plenty of markets around the country, from Midleton Market in Cork to Milk Market in Limerick and Rock Farm Market in Meath.

What will be missing at a farmers’ market in comparison to your weekly shop in a supermarket, is fruit and vegetables wrapped in plastic and food labels with expiry dates. We are so used to walking into supermarkets and seeing food (often ready-prepared) wrapped in plastic, telling us when to eat it, how to cook it and what it’s going to taste like.

The chain of problems starts when we have to tackle the problem of waste disposal. We see how much plastic we have accumulated from our shopping when we start unpacking it for storage – the very process making it glaringly obvious that we’ve just paid for something we don’t need and now have to pay to dispose of. Fresh vegetables and fruit are generlly purchased wrapped in plastic bags, wraps and covers, but for what purpose?

That’s a wrap

Food preservation is the main reason for using plastic to cover or hold food. This isn’t completely untrue in some cases, however in 2022, the results of an 18-month study carried out by UK sustainable charity Wrap were released and looked at the sales of some fresh fruit and vegetables in plastic wrapping to see if it did in fact prolong the life of the items. They studied five items – apples, bananas, broccoli, cucumber and potatoes – stored in the original packaging and loose, and at different temperatures. The study looked at how if these items were sold loose, with best-before dates removed, it could save more than 10,300t of plastic and about 100,000t of food from being wasted each year – the equivalent of 14 million shopping baskets of food. They found that when the plastic and best before dates were removed, people were buying the right amount for their needs and using judgement rather than looking at labels.

Health risks

The other negative side of plastic food packaging has been that it is mainly produced from a non-renewable resource, which is not recyclable and designed for single use only. Thankfully, the EU and our Government have implemented regulations around single-use plastic and also there have been advancements in using more recyclable plastic on food.

Unfortunately, there is still a lot of food being wrapped in plastic that is ultimately not good for the environment or for our health. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical used in polycarbonate plastic, a transparent and rigid type of plastic used to make food storage containers and reusable beverage bottles. The substance is also used to produce epoxy resins found in protective coatings and linings for food containers and beverage cans. BPAs are known endocrine disruptors, which are synthetic substances that, when introduced into the body, either imitate or block the effects of the body’s natural hormones.

In April, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), published an article stating that from numerous studies carried out, the combined conclusion was that BPA posed health risks to consumers from dietary exposure and “potentially harmful health effects on the immune system.”

Recycling and reusing

In 2021, it was announced that all soft plastics can now be put in your recycling bins in Ireland, however, this does not mean that all plastic can be recycled. It only means that the companies now have advanced their sorting facilities to a point that they will sort all of our plastic into recyclable and non-recyclable. If it can’t be recycled, according to MyWaste.ie, “it is sent as Solid Recovered Fuel (SRF) to replace fossil fuels at cement kilns.” In other words, it is incinerated as a fuel to create energy such as electricity. While this is a good step, it is better to buy products where the packaging is recyclable and consumer demand can put pressure on all companies to ensure that this is standard.

There is also a proposed deposit return scheme for plastic drinks bottles which would be a very positive step towards increasing Ireland’s collection of plastic packaging waste for recycling. We’ve all played party to a linear economy for years in that we buy something, we bring it home, and we dispose of it. Now with recycling widely available, we are doing our part in a circular economy, which is working towards helping the environment. Unfortunately, plastic is still being disposed of incorrectly by consumers and we must undertake to do our part.

Statistics published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in their 2019 National Waste Statistic Summary Report show that less than a third (28%) of plastic packaging waste was recycled in 2019. The data shows that many recyclable plastic items, like drinks bottles, are still being put in the general waste bin which means they end up being incinerated. Improving how we separate waste at home, in businesses and on-the-go can help Ireland meet future challenging plastic packaging recycling targets.

According to the EPA’s Plastics - Attitudes and Behaviours Report 2019-2021, “only a fifth of the population (20%) state that they ‘buy products packaged in reusable or recycled containers whenever possible’, 70% of the population state that they do this ‘sometimes’ or ‘most of the time’ whereas 10% state that they ‘do not do this at all’.”

Also encouraging is that two-in-five (40%) have “switched products for environmental reasons” and nearly half of the population (46%) state that “they will not buy a product if they know that the company that sells it is socially irresponsible”. Finally, over a third of the population (38%) have “paid more for environmentally friendly products when there is a cheaper alternative”.

What can you do?

1. Shop in farmers’ markets or local markets, where possible, as you are supporting local economy, you can meet producers and ensure they get a fair price for their product and food will not be wrapped in plastic.

2. Bring reusable bags with you for vegetables, fruit and bread. In the supermarket, buy loose fruit and vegetables. Take plastic off your fruit etc at checkouts and use bins provided, most retailers have them at point of sale.

3. Ask your retailer for more natural fresh produce displays. Demand will encourage change.

4. Be aware of what plastic your food is wrapped in and try to only buy if wrapped in recyclable packaging.

5. Switch from clingfilm to reusable wax wraps. While cling film does tend to get a bad (w)rap (excuse the pun), it isn’t damaging to use on food. However, most are still not recyclable and therefore a single-use plastic.

6. Store leftovers in glass containers rather than plastic and never heat your food in a plastic container.

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