The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
June 22, 2009

Organic food in plastic packaging: Isn’t it ironic?

Arriving late to the Elmwood Theater Saturday night for the film Food Inc, Michael and I were stuck in the front row with our necks craning to see the screen. Believe me. It was worth it. Even if you’ve already read The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Fast Food Nation, seeing images of downed cattle, abused chickens, and mistreated factory workers up close brings the subject home on a visceral level.

But in addition to needing a reminder of why I should avoid fast food and support our farmer’s markets, I had an ulterior motive. I wanted to see if the film addressed any issues of plastics in the environment and in our food supply. And it kind of did, in a very subtle and ironic way. One of the interviewees in this film is Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield Farm Organic, the third largest producer of yogurt in the U.S. A glimpse of the Stonyfield plant as well as a walk through the Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, CA showed row after row of plastic containers. And it makes you wonder:

Why do producers and consumers of organic products, who are concerned about pesticides, herbicides, hormones, and antibiotics in our food, ignore the packaging encasing the food after it’s produced? How can Muir Glen canned tomatoes, for example, be certified organic when the lining of the can contains BPA?

And avoiding packaging that contains BPA is not enough! That’s just one ingredient we happen to know about. How about what we don’t? We demand full disclosure of ingredients from food companies. How about possible ingredients leaching from the containers? Plastic is not just plastic. It often contains additives that affect its strength, flexibility, color, and even resistance to bacteria. And there’s no labeling law requiring disclosure of any of that.

When our current Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed in 1976, 62,000 industrial chemicals were grandfathered in, meaning they were never required to be tested for safety. Since then, another 20,000-30,000 chemicals have gone on the market. And in 30 years, only 5 have been banned. The law is so weak, that the EPA has not even been able to ban asbestos.

How do we know that the chemicals added to plastics are safe if they are not required to be proven safe before entering the market? How can we make decisions if we don’t even know what these chemicals are??!!

And how can manufacturers of organic products tell us they want to protect the environment and “save the earth” when they are relying on plastic wraps, plastic containers, plastic bottles, and plastic bags without question?

I want to see safe product packaging added to the criteria for organic certification. I want producers to ask what “food grade” really means and for manufacturers of plastic products to be required to reveal all of their additives. I want all manufacturers to follow the principal of Extended Producer Responsibility and plan for a practical cradle to cradle life cycle for their products and packaging BEFORE putting them on the market.

So what can we do? Today, I’m going to share my thoughts with the following organizations:

1) Organic Consumers Association

2) USDA National Organic Progam

3) My senators

4) My representative

5) Stonyfield Farms. To Stonyfield’s credit, they have extensively researched their packaging and are working on finding a more sustainable solution. You can read what they have to say about their plastic yogurt containers here:

http://www.stonyfield.com/EarthActions/Environmental%20Practices/EnvironmentalPackaging.cfm

Still, I didn’t see anything in their packaging statement about what chemicals are in the plastic, so I’ll be writing to them as well.

Several Bay Area farmers markets have already taken the initiative to purge themselves of plastic. I’ll be writing about them later this week. And I plan to pursue the issue of organic food in plastic packaging on an ongoing basis. Plastic may be the lighter weight alternative. But unless we are told what chemicals are in the plastic, how can any of us know if it’s safe?

This is my post for the Green Moms Carnival for the month of July where we’re talking about Food Matters. Check out the full roundup of posts at The Milkweed Merchantile on Monday, July 13th.
 

39 comments
Michael13
Michael13

Yes, the general consensus is plastic should not be used, either in for organic product or other. I'm sure if a new 'see through' safe product was invented, ALL organic producers/retailers would use it. Give them a break!....at least your not getting all the pesticide, fungicide, herbicide, organo chlorines and everything else on the food!...some products have to be packaged, it's not the fault of those dealing in organic certified products, they can only use packaging available to them.....your choice! 

green cat
green cat

Beth, your blog is terrific and so inspiring. Thank you for all your hard work and devotion. Yes, it is ironic -  all the organic food in plastic. I am also always wondering why it is mostly wrapped. Even in organic stores. In Europe you can at least easily find yoghourt in glas jars. But not in Montreal. What a pity.  So possibly I will buy a yoghurtmaker, since the method with the thermos flask didn't work out.

Mike Brisebois
Mike Brisebois

We should be eating like our great grandparent ate. Read some old books and relearn the way the world got along before this epidemic. Hate to say it but our past generations were much smarter than us. Lets admit it, eat our slice of humble pie, and turn this ship around. For the sake of our kids if not for us.

kartik
kartik

Dear Emily, Great Article ! I would like to introduce to my organisation which makes Organic Paper. Kraft Veda is a sustainable paper manufacturing organization based in India. We make paper using the traditional techniques to make the paper 100% Natural, Eco friendly and Chemical Free. As now Organic foods must meet standards with regard to the materials used in packaging and labeling, now organizations are moving towards sustainable packaging. Organic Companies are considering recycled paper packaging as a solution but even recycled paper manufacturing process infuses chemicals which get transferred to the organic food products due to which the entire philosophy of Organic is endangered. We have launched our “Organic Paper” which we make from Certified Organic Cotton. This makes the paper 100% Organic, 100% Recyclable, Biodegradable, Acid Free & Chlorine Free. We have set-up Centre of Paper Innovation to carry out R&D activities for paper centric innovations to minimize packaging costs at the same time evaluate Eco friendly & Sustainable alternatives. We have gone a step further with Eco printing on the product packaging with Vegetable Inks/Herbal Inks which makes it 100% Eco-friendly & Chemical free.

Kitchen Stewardship
Kitchen Stewardship

I'm totally with you on that one. I probably alienated Stonyfield Farms forever by giving Yobaby yogurt a negative review, much because of their no. 6 containers: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2009/07/02/yobaby-organic-yogurt-product-reviewand-giveaway/ And check out the link to the plastic reuse company(such a cool idea!) in this post: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2009/07/13/monday-mission-targeting-plastic-bags/ Sorry to toot my own horn, but I'm passionate about plastics too! :)

Anna (Green Talk)
Anna (Green Talk)

Beth, you brought up a really important point. Why shouldn't the packaging matter when an organic label is put on the product? I did not know about Muir Glen, who I love their tomatoes used BPA in their lining. Why can't Stonyfield use glass containers for their yogurt like baby food?Plastic and organic are odd bed fellows.

Lisa Sharp
Lisa Sharp

I have never understood why organic produce is almost always in plastic! I was so happy to find organic grapes (from the US!) with no plastic at Whole Foods. It was so exciting for me to put those grapes in my cloth bag.

Mindful Momma
Mindful Momma

Another great post about a controversial topic...fun reading all the comments too. BTW - my TJ's switched to bulk for some fruits & veggies. Still lots of room for improvement though. (That pet store spam comment cracked me up - the nerve!!)

Joost Hoogstrate
Joost Hoogstrate

Thanks Beth, for that eye-opening revelation. Yes we are so particular about what ingredients go into our food stuff, but we don’t really care much about what our food stuff goes into. Organic food in inorganic plastic containers is certainly ironic and http://climatarians.org also mentions this topic. A great point that you’ve brought out there. Keep you posts coming.Great workJoost Hoogstrate

Fake Plastic Fish
Fake Plastic Fish

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Abagale
Abagale

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Condo Blues
Condo Blues

I'm with Maggie. WhenI come acrossed plastic shrink wrapped organic veggies vs. loose non organic veggies I opt for the loose veggies. This is more of an issue during the winter when I have buy everything at a grocery store. During the summer, I shop at a local farm market. It may not be organic, but I can talk to the framer how he grew it - and I have to supply my own bags!Clif - 2 good things came out of the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire. 1. It convinced Congress to pass the Clean Water Act of 1972 and form the EPA 2. Great Lakes Brewing Company named their pale ale Burning River Pale Ale w/ a rendering of the River on fire on the label. All of their beers reference something about Cleveland and even through their pale ale has a cheeky name, they are an enviro-minded company. All of their spent brewers grain is used as compost to grow items for their brewpub at Hale Farm & Village's (living history center)Pint Size Farm. Actually it is amazing and interesting that the Cuyahoga River is coming back much sooner than anticipated. Although it's still dangerous to eat the fish that live in the river.

Clif
Clif

Emily - I'm reminded of the auto parts repair place I pass when out walking. As often as not there is an entire front or rear plastic bumper from a car thrown in their dumpster, sometimes with only a small piece broken off. There is more plastic in one of those bumpers than would be used to encase millions of food items (granted not the same kind of plastic).The difficulty we face is in getting the option to not use plastic. I doubt we'd ever be able to get car makers to stop making bumpers of the stuff but there is a good chance that grocery shoppers could prevail on grocers to lay off the wrapping. Another factor is that a car bumper will sit in a landfill for centuries in one big mostly inert lump. Small amounts of plastic like we get in the mail and on groceries are what spread from here to the moon and get into everything.It's a simple thing to go to the store manager and ask why everything must be in plastic and to fill out those little customer satisfaction cards. Little bitty steps, as you mention, can have an effect since grocers are always looking for ways to get a leg up on the competition.By the way, I have to laugh at the dispensers of antibacterial wipes at the entry of groceries. People carefully wipe the handles of their shopping carts to kill germs and then go in to pick items off the shelves that have been handled so many times by so many people. God help these folks when they go to open their car door and have to touch the handle!I think it has been well said that a man's first emotional reaction is often anger and a woman's, fear.

Emily
Emily

All of the organic veggies at my local chain store are wrapped in plastic but put on a compostable tray - I suppose that is worlds better than foam. Especially for someone who will compost the compostable tray. I wonder why they need to put them in trays and wrap them with plastic at all - if the store is afraid that the checker will not notice the organic skew and charge you for conventional...? My feeling is - and please don't throw rotten tomatoes at me - that we need to put our money where the good is happening... even if they aren't entirely perfect. Ultimately our society needs to move to avoidance of plastic however most people are not even remotely there nor is the infrastructure - the most good will be done with the masses supporting small steps. Like organic produce in a compostable tray... even if it is covered in plastic wrap. That's my personal opinion.

Hayley
Hayley

True, very true.Sadly, I can't place this at the top of my issues list when I have to fight my parents tooth and claw just to buy the organic stuff, plastic and organic is better than plastic and not organic....Oh, yeah, on a more general note-I'm back. I'm posting before I've gotten a chance to read back a while to catch up on stuff, but I figured I should ask the non-existent Environmental God for some forgiveness before I set off to do that. I didn't ditch my tree-hugging completely, I haven't bought or used a new plastic bottle in forever (I do take sips and gulps out of the ones my Dad carries around-and typically refills a few times, though), I wrap gifts without tape and in newspaper...I've kept up with those sorts of things, but have gone lax on snatching plastic bottles out of family members' hands as they are about to dump them in the trash or harping on bag-fillers and my parents at grocery stores. Graduation and a new obsession with House (yeah, I know-that's not an excuse, Mr. God, but I'm explaining here, not excusing) and philosophy took over life, but now I'm going to try to get back on track.Starting with campaigning for a composter again, because our pond is having a string-algae bloom and produces like forty pounds of the stuff for our trash daily. (Oh, by the way, apparently Firefox doesn't think "composter" is a word)And, in comment to the other comments-the plastic thing also becomes a bit of an issue when stores have produce free, but insist on putting it in a plastic bag, weighing it, and slapping a price tag on it before you leave.

Pure Mothers
Pure Mothers

AMEN! I became very aware of the conflict between organic and plastic when I had my baby and purchased organic washes, lotions, etc. Then I started realizing that all of the good organic food choices always contained some plastic, yet a bottle of conventional ketchup came in glass with a metal lid. This has been frustrating me and I was about to write a post about it too! Full disclosure of the ingredients in the various plastics would be a start - but I don't want any wasteful, unnecessary plastic near my food at all.Berry - you could get a tray - like the cardboard ones used at the farmer's market for 6 pints o berries and bring a little tea towel and put the greens on it. You could store the greens in a salad spinner. I do own a *gasp* plastic salad spinner that gets a lot of use (and was purchased PPA Pre-Plastic Awareness.) But then again, you may not want to store food in plastic. I don't think a cold spinner will leach on your lettuce though - but then again, what do we really know about plastic?Beth - This should be a Green Mom's Carnival topic: plastic and organic - the dichotomy.

Tonja
Tonja

I have been having the same issue at the store- especially in GA where we are a little behind the times environmentally. I would prefer the organic frozen raspberries, but they are in a plastic bag just like the nonorganic ones. we don't really have the bulk bins here like in CA, so which is better- the organic black beans in a can, or non-organic in plastic/"bulk"? Tom's of Maine's deodorant is in a #5 container, rather than the #1 or 2 we can recycle here. It is tough...

AJP
AJP

Wow, just yesterday I was starting to make a list of the things that I could buy at Whole Food for cheaper organic but in plastic, versus more expensive and conventional not in plastic. I was talking to my boyfriend about writing a blog post about it, and he suggested instead writing a letter to Whole Foods, and encouraging others to do so as well. Your post has similarly inspired me to do so.I agree with the Trader Joe's comments. I don't even shop there anymore because, even though their produce is so well priced, I don't want to deal with all of the plastic wrap. A single cucumber comes on a polystyrene tray covered with plastic wrap! WHY??Also, regarding Tracey's comment, you can buy Earth Balance (both the "butter" and the shortening) in sticks. You can't find them everywhere but they have them at Whole Foods, and I switched to sticks after getting fed up of having so many Earth Balance containers floating around my kitchen.

SusanB
SusanB

This one irks me also and one that affects my decisionmaking. Plastic clamshells for organic vegetables and BPA-lined cans for organics are two great examples. But as the Stonyfield discursion shows, it is a terribly complicated issue and so on a product by product and producer by producer level. And as I'm sure you are aware Beth in many instances deeply institutionalized at many levels, government, shipping, industry and consumer preference (both real and advertising induced). I buy in bulk by mail organic fair trade coffee beans from a very IMHO aware roaster/importer. The beans are packed in brown paper that is backed with a fine plastic layer. They used to use just a paper bag but in shipping the bag would break. If the issue was plastic touching food, maybe they could use a paper bag with a plastic layer on the outside but I guess it would have to be a heavier plastic layer. The only other plastic they use in shipping is plastic tape on the outer box. Froghair is right that TSCA was not really intended for the purpose you suggests. The issue probably however is one that falls between the mandates (or ideal mandates) for the EPA, the FDA and the CSPC.

Trina
Trina

One of the things I miss most from my study abroad time in Germany was yogurt in returnable glass containers. They had a 15 cent euro deposit (beer bottles and the like were 8 cents). I wish we could have returnable glass yogurt containers.

Berry
Berry

I have recently joined a CSA. We have to provide packaging for transport home. I have a bit of a drive (under and hour) and worry that the greens will wilt in cloth bags - any tips?Also, how to store veggies and greens once I get home? Obviously some things can just go loose in the fridge, but what about loose salad greens (mesclun mix, etc)? HELP!!!

OneHealthyGirl.com
OneHealthyGirl.com

Oh, Beth, thank you, thank you! This has been one of my biggest pet peeves about eating well. What good will it be if I am optimally healthy but the Earth is drowning in plastic? Oftentimes I choose conventionally grown over the organics in plastic because, all things considered, I feel it's the better choice for all involved. Please develop this mission so that we can all be guided on how to help move organic companies to use/create packaging that matches the integrity of their food.Be well, xo-Carla aka OneHealthyGirl.com

Crafty Green Poet
Crafty Green Poet

very good article! I try to buy veg loose wherever possible and use paper produce bags where necessary. Shopkeepers here are beginning to accept that some people might be happy buying their veg loose and don't necessarily try to force wrap my loose veg... My pet peeves though are organic mushrooms that are shrink wrapped in plastic (so i now buy the local mushrooms, knowing they've probably been covered in pesticides but at least there's no plastic wrapping and the food miles are less....

Clif
Clif

In a book I read about Thomas Edison, it was mentioned that back in the late 19th century when power cables were being laid in New York City the electrical conductors were buried in a gooey rubbery glop that acted as insulation. The workers would routinely take some of the glop and chew it like gum! I was revolted by the thought.But, at the same time, I was cooking lunches in a microwave oven in Tupperware, making the plastic hot enough to bubble. So what was I eating and who was I to criticize!?Progress is being made, slow as it is, but it's hard to imagine staying with all the new chemical concoctions that come at us.To brighten our day just a bit, readers might enjoy reading of the recovery of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, the river so loaded with petroleum products that caught fire in 1969.

Natural Mamma
Natural Mamma

Excellent points! As a society we need to care more about what contaminants we are consuming without our knowledge. If people start demanding full disclosure these rules you posted can become a reality.

Laurie
Laurie

Thanks for bringing this up Beth! I drives me nuts. Until food producers & distributors do away with all the plastic & styrofoam our best alternative is the local Farmer's Market, bulk bins and bring your own reusable bag of course. In the meantime, while withholding our dollars from these companies by not purchasing their products we need to voice our concerns and call for change! Thanks for all you are doing to lead the way Beth. Everyone, be sure and go see Food, Inc and get everyone you know to see it. Once people see this movie I think it will motivate a lot more of them to take action and demand change.Power to the people!!!

Robj98168
Robj98168

Yup. And why does Trader Joe's have to put plastic around 4 apples? I don't get it.Why are some apples so special and others can be sold loose? and why does Safeway (and other markets) feel that we need to put produce in little plastic bags? These are my peeves.

Maggie
Maggie

this is the irony every time I visit my locally-owned grocery store. local pesticide-grown veggies are placed in bins, free for you grab and put in your reusable bag.organic (often not local) veggies are placed on foam trays, covered in saran wrap. so, which one is healthier? the pesticide veggies or the organic ones in plastic? you trade one evil for another...

Ruth
Ruth

Great point! It is ridiculous that it is so difficult to eat healthy without accumulating a ton of unnecessary plastic. Thanks for bringing up this topic and searching for ways to make changes. I appreciate the education I get from reading your blog.

froghair
froghair

Beth -- While I agree with you wholeheartedly on this matter (and avoiding plastics has gotten me nearly entirely off of cheese, I'm making my own yogurt, and I have ceased to shop at TJs precisely over what Kathleen mentioned), as someone who has worked in environmental regulation, I feel compelled to highlight the word *control* in Toxic Substances Control Act. The idea of TSCA, is to regulate toxic substances from their manufacture to their disposal -- not to ban them. This means they have to be labelled a certain way, shipped a certain way, disposed of a certain way, MSDSs have to be available for them, etc, but it was never meant to protect the health of the consumer. Don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not dismissing the problem here, it's just not what TSCA was meant to do. Remember, EPA is for protecting the environment (air, water, soil), not consumers. While the EPA has a role in the greater plastic problem, this particular argument needs to be taken to the Consumer Product Safety Commission -- the folks who recall baby cribs and cars when these products end up hurting someone. Good work! Carry on.

Kathleen
Kathleen

Right on Beth!After collecting plastic from 12 people for 2 weeks, I can add to your list of vendors who use excessive plastic to package otherwise "healthy" food. At the top of the list is Trader Joe's. At their store, you can win a prize for bringing your own re-usable shopping bag and then fill it with healthy fruits and vegetables covered in PLASTIC!!Why do they need to package tomatoes and apples in firm plastic clam shells? The apples take a few days to eat and the plastic shell lasts for EVER (well, 10,000 years). My guess is that it is to protect them during their long journey from South America to California. Buy local! Buy in bulk! Use less plastic!

Amber
Amber

It is really scary to consider how little we know about the substances that are contained in food packaging. And the lack of concern that exists at the governmental level. This is why voices like yours are so important. I really believe you're making a difference and raising awareness.

Anarres Natural Health
Anarres Natural Health

ALL plasticizers are harmful for 10,000 YEARS probably. I used to say 575, but this weekend a cancer resaerch scientist corrected me!

Anarres Natural Health
Anarres Natural Health

Right on the mark.I have this conversation every day.I refuse food samples explaining that I boycott plastic.Luckily, I don't have to buy it...except for my Earth Balance margarine in the giant tub. Shhh secret vice.Simply put: Plastic is the hardened resin aka bakelite. Plasticizers make the plastic "plastic" aka maleable. ALL plasticizers leach. ALL plasticizers are harmful for 10,000 probably. Eat it, drink it, or wait for it to come around in your food supply and eat it, drink it. It's a f!@#$%g apocalypse is what it is. I took on the director of Addicted to Plastic about this when I sponsored the film screening here. He's hopeful of a solution. I merely hope that we don't grow into nations of mutilated zombies.What happens when you package in glass?Costs go up in favour of locally produced products.What happens when you offer items in bulk?Consumers become aware of the cost of individual packaging.Vivia la RRRevolucion!Tracey

Mike Brisebois
Mike Brisebois

It's called "paper" dummy. Every one of your ancestors used it. If it was good enough for them it's good enough for you. Don't be so lazy and take more of an interest in your health. Paper! It's not a new invention.

Michael13
Michael13

@Mike Brisebois Your the bloody dummy....read it again or are you illiterate....I said 'see through' since when can you see through paper!.....it's morons like you that give organic growers a bad name....

Mike Brisebois
Mike Brisebois

Ya now your just reaching. Your one of those know it all, can't admit when your wrong, change your tune when your caught douche bags. I know your type. Your a micro managing controll freak. Bet your partner would agree.

Michael13
Michael13

@Mike Brisebois Mike Brisebois Are you on drugs?.....people don't buy without seeing!....I'm talking about pre-packaged items in trays or bags like snow peas, tomatoes and anything else sold in small quantities. I'm not talking about items you pick yourself and then bag in paper. You are obviously dumber than most

Michael13
Michael13

@Mike Brisebois Are you on drugs?.....people don't buy without seeing!....I'm talking about pre-packaged items in trays or bags like snow peas, tomatoes and anything else sold in small quantities. I'm not talking about items you pick yourself and then bag in paper. You are obviously dumber than most

Mike Brisebois
Mike Brisebois

You want see through! Wtf for? Are you well? Why not use whatever it is your underwears made of!? Ya fruit cake!