It’s the same story in Caprabo, Carrefour, Lidl. So forget about a plastic-free paella. I could just about make them rice with fish and vegetables if I shopped at Mercadona or Jespac. All spices and flavoring are heavily packaged. No onions in the paella if I shop at Mercadona, so the Valencianos will be happy. If I go to Jespac, I can at least use a cleaning rag to dust the place.
Organic products were plastic fantastic, and often in arbitrarily small portions. Rice for example. Who the fuck decided no one ever needs to buy more than one kilo of rice, a product that civilizations have risen and stabilized on, due mainly to their ability to produce and store it for crazy long times? But according to our supermarkets a family of four cannot possibly see into the future far enough to guess they may want rice for more than 2 meals for the rest of their lives. There are stirrings of awareness, but poco. The organic range at Jespac was clearly anti-plastic and even Estrella are trialing cardboard beer can holders, but Lidl organic was a 50-50 mix.
Fruterias, butchers, and fishmongers can be found in every neighbourhood, from your local mercado to independent shops. Grains and spices are harder to find sold loose. I decided to check out some ‘granels’ which appear on zero-waste lists for the city. The first, Jaime J. Renobell, had a good selection of grains, spices and dried foods but the bags available were plastic and everybody used them. An assistant preparing an order double bagged everything. Shelves were stacked with sweets. My supermarket hell tour had already taught me that the further you go from real food, the worse the packaging gets. Desserts, sweets, chocolate thingammies with plastic toys inside, crisps, banana-shaped neon sweets, all divided into individual portions, wrapped, then double or triple bagged in hard to recycle plastics. The less you need it, the more care the manufacturer took to ensure it survives the apocalypse.
Casa Perris had less packaged food and, once again, a great selection of rice, grains, cocoa and spices. The plastic bags proudly announced their recycled origins and urged you to recycle them after use. My fingers punctured the bag while rooting about for a pen. Not even single use.
I visited Yes Future, a zero plastic waste shop in Sant Antoni, and spoke to Alejandro Martínez who co-founded the shop with Olga Rodríguez. It’s the kind of shop someone sets up to solve the problems they themselves have encountered trying to shop zero waste. This becomes clear as you spot solutions to problem products you’ve been unable to substitute yourself:
- Detergents and cleaning products on tap
- Beer and kombucha on tap
- Cloth produce bags, jars and bottles to buy and reuse
- Paper bags if you’ve come without
- Guilt-free cookies and sweets
- Veg stock in powder
- Pasta – the first loose pasta I’ve seen and they’ve got several varieties, with some cheap staples. Macaroni at 0.47cents/100gms anyone?
- Compostable coffee capsules, or even better, refillable capsules. (Capsule coffee is the devil. Boicot George Clooney and anything made by Nestle if you have hope for the future.)
I ask them what the biggest challenge setting up a zero-waste shop was. “Finding the suppliers. We spent a year and nine-months researching suppliers to prepare our business plan. We try to use local, organic, and small-scale suppliers. For products like spices, which aren’t grown here, we look for fair trade products linked to NGOs or charities. And we’re still searching, always trying to find more products.”
Have suppliers changed their packaging habits to adapt to Yes Future? Alejandro nods, “We do have some suppliers who have changed how they supply to us. The tooth brushes, for example, are already in a box, and maybe ten of them would be packed into another box. We asked them to send us the quantity we requested loose. There’s no need for those extra boxes. And we send the containers back to our supplier of cleaning products to be used again. That’s a Barcelona company, by the way. They reduce the packaging, because they know it’s important to us. Do they do this with their other clients? I’m not sure.”
So, what needs to happen for near zero waste shopping to become the normal way to do things? “We work long hours then rush to the supermarket, grab what we think we need and fling it in our basket with no thought. It’s convenient but we need to change our way of doing things. We need to go back to spending more time, buying things with care.”
Their work is inspiring, and it’s a start, but as the scientific world a.k.a. Twitter memes say, ‘We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.’ Enter the supermarkets.
Mercadona is the only supermarket which got back to me. According to their 2017-2018 Environmental Report, they’re conducting a global study with ITENE (Instituto Tecnológico del Embalaje, Transporte y Logística) to analyse the sustainability of packaging options. Based on the findings they’ll establish criteria for their suppliers to design containers. They’re also testing compostable produce bags and cardboard or cellulose (cane-based) containers for takeaway food in some shops.
I asked Remei Uz, Head of Communication in Catalonia, what the brand sees as the main challenges in reducing plastic waste. “For Mercadona, today, the biggest challenge lies in the development of innovation, finding alternative packaging or sales and transport formulas that always guarantee food safety. We’ve already got some of our brands and services giving us good results with alternatives such as wood, paper, or sugar cane.” So I ask if they are considering offering refill services in their shops. “We’re studying it,” Uz said, “keeping in mind that our main objective is always to guarantee food safety.” Okay, but what about cleaning products? Wouldn’t that be an easy win? No food safety issue and imagine the waste revolution if they installed a wall of detergents on tap in every shop. Imagine 5.1 million Mercadona households start refilling cleaners because it’s cheaper than buying a bottle.
They seem to have good intentions, but this also serves as a reminder of the limitations of supermarkets. While they may be powerful entities, they’re also very much children of the ‘constant growth’ cult. Sustainability needs reduction, not just in waste, but in consumption. We can’t just swap out materials and carry on with our insatiable and wasteful demand. Where is the land to grow that wood, sugar cane or corn packaging? Whose arable land are we going to turn over to this new demand? Whose food production could drop because it’s more profitable to grow raw material for packaging than it is to grow food for the local market? Who pays? When you take more than you need, there’s always someone who pays. And for what? A packet of crisps? A neon banana-shaped sweetie?
That’s the maddening thing about trying to go zero waste, and why it’s so effective. To do it right you need to change a lot of fundamentals. You have to start with the right intentions, and then you need to devote time to living, to taking time to plan, shop and cook. It forces you to eat more real food, and less shit. Busy stops being such a self-aggrandizing word. And. if at first you need to serve the in-laws rice with meat and vegetables instead of a paella, that’s okay. They won’t know if you got it wrong because it’s your own recipe anyway.