Allison Hanes: Zero-waste revolution arriving — slowly — in Montreal
Sometimes it’s not that easy to reduce our environmental footprint — no matter how much we try to put our money where our mouth is.
Case in point: I recently ordered some reusable produce bags to take to the grocery store to fill with apples, green beans or tomatoes. It was a snap purchase made in response to a Facebook ad. When the merchandise finally arrived, the bags themselves were fine — but I realized they had been shipped all the way from China, generating extra pollution in transit thereby defeating the entire purpose. Face palm.
Nevertheless, these drawstring sacks are one small change I’ve made to reduce my family’s waste output. Keeping reusable shopping bags handy, scrubbing aluminum foil or rinsing old Ziplocs to get multiple uses out of them and replacing cellophane with beeswax food wrap are a few others. (Though I’m far from perfect).
As for trying not to buy food at the grocery store that comes in excessive or difficult-to-recycle packing, unfortunately it’s not always so simple. Between shrink-wrapped broccoli crowns, fresh berries in plastic tubs and meat on Styrofoam trays, sometimes there’s no way around it. Try as eco-conscious consumers may, we are often thwarted in our efforts.
But it seems like things are about to improve in Montreal. Quebec-based Metro grocery stores announced Monday that starting April 22, it will allow customers to bring their own containers or resealable plastic bags for items they buy in the meat, fish, bakery, deli or prepared food departments.
For the moment there are strict rules: The containers must be clean and plastic; no glass is allowed due to the possibility of breakage; and the receptacles cannot have brand logos or bar codes to avoid confusing the checkout scanners. The program was studied during a pilot project and will roll out in Quebec City, Drummondville and St-Eustache first before arriving at all Metro stores in Quebec (though not Super C).
There are a few flaws in Metro’s bold plan. Why no glass when so many other glass containers are sold in supermarkets and bulk food stores allow customers to fill Mason jars? And why no food packaging containers when repurposing them would help cut out single-use plastics? But it’s still an important step in bringing the long-overdue zero-waste revolution to Montreal.
That a grocer of Metro’s size and scale is embarking on such a program will provide options to a much broader clientele. And, hopefully, it will eventually prompt an expansion of the chain’s own offerings while motivating its competitors to follow suit.
Metro told La Presse the move is a response to customer demand, but it’s probably also taking note of the proliferation of smaller zero-waste stores and markets popping up around Montreal — not to mention consumers gravitating back to traditional butcher shops or fishmongers that wrap their fare in ol’ fashioned newspaper.
Whatever the reason, it’s a welcome step. Our mindless consumption of single-use plastics is suffocating our oceans. Plastics contain the kinds of fossil fuels we must wean ourselves off if we are to stave off the worst effects of climate change. And both locally and internationally, the waning effectiveness of recycling programs means waste is piling up and being dumped in landfills or incinerated. Better to cut the supply off at its source than allow the stockpiles of trash to accumulate.
The burden of reducing waste can’t fall to shoppers alone. And not everyone has easy access to purveyors offering more eco-friendly alternatives. Grocers, as well as the food and beverage industries, must innovate, cut unnecessary packaging and work in lockstep with consumers to reduce, reuse and recycle.
This is already starting to happen. Some of the biggest global brands — like Tide laundry detergent, Quaker Oats and Häagen-Dazs ice cream are about to test market sturdy, reusable metal containers. During the pilot, these items will be sold online, picked up afterward by a company named TerraCyle for cleaning, and then returned to the manufacturers to refill.
A Dutch grocery store has also introduced a “plastics-free aisle” — although environmental groups have criticized it for using compostable single-use plastics rather than finding alternatives altogether. And the idea of bringing back the milkman — who a few generations ago made rounds dropping off and picking up milk in reusable glass bottles — is being discussed in the U.S. as well as Britain.
The public has been driving the push for more sustainable practices and businesses are finally taking up the charge. But we need to go much farther, much faster, in changing our planet-destroying habits.