On plastic packaging

I’ve been here long enough that I no longer trip over my jaw on the ground as I say, “Wowww, I’m in France!” The supermarket, however, is one place that continually reminds me that I’m American. I haven’t gotten over mentally comparing and contrasting American and French supermarkets: prices, products, people, but most of all, packaging.

When I shop for groceries, my highest priorities are price and the planet. I try to make the most eco-friendly choices I can afford. In my real life in St. Paul, my habits included:

  • biking or walking to the store
  • choosing items from the bulk section at the co-op to reduce packaging waste
  • buying milk from a local dairy in returnable glass bottles
  • choosing locally grown produce (this was the part where price often intervened)
  • choosing local, Minnesota-brewed beers

Here in Angers, few of those options are available to me. My current eco-friendly habits include:

  • biking or walking everywhere
  • buying French-grown produce at the Farmer’s Market and trying my best to intervene before the vendors automatically put each item in a plastic bag

I won’t give myself bullet points for choosing French wines and local cheeses, because, I mean, come on, that’s obviously no sacrifice on my part.

I don’t mean to be self-righteous. I’m far from perfect. I’ve made some simple, non-sacrificial lifestyle choices because I sleep better at night knowing that I’ve cut back slightly on the amount of carbon dumped into the atmosphere and trash dumped into landfills on my behalf. Recently, I’ve been very inspired by this blog on eliminating plastic from your life. (Readers, please take a look and figure out two or three or more pieces of plastic you can do without.)

So maybe that’s why I can’t sleep without medication here in France: because I would have to live off the grid for years to make up for the disgusting amount of plastic packaging I’ve used here in the past seven months.

The ridiculous plastic packaging here drives me nuts. I thought Americans were bad about that, so I was surprised and disappointed to discover that the French are even worse. (One thing to be said for America’s obesity epidemic is that big packages result in less packaging overall.)

So how about a tour of my supermarket, eh? I’ll show you what I’m up against. (Incidentally, it will be an amusing glimpse at the cultural differences between French and American supermarkets.)

In the produce section, I’ve noticed that most French shoppers feel the need to put every piece of produce in a plastic bag. Seriously, they’ll put a single lime in a big plastic bag. Ironically, the French have been carrying reusable market bags to the supermarket years longer than Americans have, and I’m always tempted to stop strangers to say, “Don’t you realize it defeats the purpose if you put six plastic bags inside your canvas bag?”

This is just the first of two cheese sections. It disgusts me that they are all sold on styrofoam trays wrapped in plastic. If you're going to wrap them in plastic anyway, you could at least skip the styrofoam tray.

The French are thoroughly convinced that they will die for lack of protein if they do not eat pig products several times per week. Telling them that meat production accounts for even more carbon emissions than cars is a waste of breath. Further contributing to the waste is the outrageous way they package meat.

This is the deli section, where sandwich meats are packaged on a hard plastic tray, and sold in increments of 2, 4, or 6 slices (about a whopping half pound).

Nearly every supermarket in the U.S. offers a deli counter where your meat is cut to order. In that system, you can buy more at once, which saves packaging. (Added bonus: it creates employment.) You could even skip the usual plastic baggie by bringing your own container. My supermarket here offers no such option.

These 100 gram packages of bacon are handy if you're only feeding one person, but ridiculous if you're feeding a family.

In the second of two cheese sections, the preferred packaging is double wasteful. The wooden rounds are at least biodegradable--oh but wait, they're made of tress---and again, why use them at all when the cheese inside is wrapped in plastic anyway?

Shelf stable milk is a weird idea to Americans, but the French are very proud of having invented Pasteurization. I suppose they probably waste less milk this way, considering the store doesn't have to throw it out every 48 hours. Oh but wait--the biggest package is only 2 liters! If you're feeding a big family, you'd use a new plastic bottle every single meal. And if you prefer the organic variety, it only comes in 1 liter plastic bottles, which kind of defeats the ecological purpose of going organic...

Let’s talk about coffee. Coffee is one of the most wasteful items that I buy on a regular basis. (Chocolate and my occasional meat purchase are also really bad.) It can’t be grown locally, of course, so it has to be shipped from the tropics, which makes a gigantic carbon footprint. In Minnesota, I can cut back slightly on the waste by buying organic, shade grown coffee in bulk in paper bags from a local company that delivers it around the Twin Cities by bike. (First World white-guilted liberal triumvirate, right?)

American supermarkets offer coffee in bulk, of which at least one variety is often organic and/or fair trade certified. Here in Angers, there are a few artisan roasters around town that sell expensive coffee in bulk, but no such  option exists even in the bougie-est supermarket.

Of all of these coffees, I estimate that about 15% of them are fair-trade, of which about half are organic. Few if any of them, however, are labelled as rainforest safe. They all come in bags made of what I think is plastic-coated aluminum foil.

Only the poor quality juices come in 2 liter cartons. If you've got a big family (which many people in my area do), you could easily go through at least one plastic 1L bottle of juice with breakfast every morning.

Not a food item, but what I consider to be the most depressing and irritating use of dead trees that I’ve ever seen except for maybe junk mail:

pink toilet paper. It's pretty commonplace here. (Why, I don't know.) And black toilet paper? Just disturbing.

Ironically, there have been several occasions that I’ve wanted one small package of something and only found big packages. Ketchup, for instance, or

lemon. I don't have time to use up two bottles of lemon juice before I leave, yet for some reason, the option to buy one small bottle on its own did not exist yesterday.

One French habit that is definitely less wasteful than our American habits:

Fountain pens. Replacing an ink cartridge uses far less plastic than replacing a whole pen.

I’ve saved the very best (by which I mean worst) for last. The award for the most ridiculously, absurdly, infuriatingly, stupidly, selfishly wasteful package goes to…

individually packaged slices of ham. Whoever buys these must be the laziest people in France, if not the world.

Looking back over my entry, I realize it sounds very disparaging of French people. I don’t mean to accuse every individual French person of intentionally wasting big quantities of plastic. Au contraire, my point is the opposite. The French have many more ecologically sound habits and resources than Americans do: public transportation, extensive rail networks, and smaller homes, just to name the big ones. Thus, I’m sure that the vast majority of French consumers would be perfectly content to buy food less wastefully, especially considering it would save them money. So why don’t the options exist?

Whatever the reason, I know this much: the first time I go back to an American supermarket, everything is going to seem HUGE.

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14 responses to “On plastic packaging

  1. ahhhh!!!

    do they charge you for plastic bags at the check-out counter? they do that in budapest.

    • They don’t charge you at this particular store (though that is common practice in France), but you do have to ask for them–but only at the check out. You can easily cheat by grabbing one of the free bags in the produce section.

  2. You know the jaw dropping you expected to get out of me by taking me to a French supermarket? Well, in addition to my awe at the selection of pates and mustards, the meat case did drop my jaw. I still can’t believe that someone at some point in time decided it was a good idea to package two slices of ham in a stiff plastic tray.

  3. Great post! Thanks for including link to my blog. Would you be interested in posting a version of this on My Plastic-free Life? It’s always great to learn about the plastic challenges in other parts of the world. Email me if you’re interested. beth [at] myplasticfreelife [dot] com.

  4. This is a really interesting comparison–on the individual bags for produce, I think it’s because they have a ‘weigh it yourself’ policy where you need to get the sticker print out for the checker to scan. Cuz, you know, the checkers never get off their asses to do anything. Also, the French long-standing obsession with perfume means more fragrances in everything, including toilet paper. Yuck! It is nice how everyone brings their own bags/baskets, though.

    • Interestingly, this particular supermarket doesn’t make you weigh your own produce, but perhaps because so many of them do, customers are in the bad bag habit. Even if you did have to weigh your own fruit, though, you could put a sticker on a biodegradable paper bag or even on the fruit/veg itself.

      True about the checkers never getting up, though ;-)

  5. Oh wow. I am shocked! I thought America was bad, but wow I didn’t even think that much plastic waste was possible in one store. Single packaged sandwich meat slices? Who would need that?

  6. This post was fantastic, I had no idea there were places in the world that had worse packaging problems than the US! Although from looking at your photos, I don’t know if I’d survive in a European grocery store…plastic packaging tends to give me a headache. Major props to you for keeping your head! :)

    When did our world become so over processed and over packaged? :(

  7. Check out the conversation your post has sparked on My Plastic-free Life’s Facebook page:

  8. I rarely went to the supermarket when traveling in Europe. The smaller charcuteries, butchers and cheese shops were more fun and you could ask for small or large amounts. They will still wrap it in butcher paper but that’s a step away from what you’ve posted here. I also noticed that people in Europe would buy fresh food for the day with a little more leg work, unlike what happens in America where the trend is to stock up from one big box store.

  9. Pingback: Pomme de plastic | EJ in Angers

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