The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

May 24, 2011

Irritated with Plastic Berry Containers? Give Them Back.

plastic strawberry basketHow do you buy berries and cherry tomatoes without plastic? Most small fruits come in those green plastic mesh baskets or increasingly in clear plastic clamshells. If you shop your local farmers market, it’s not a problem. The farmers want their containers back!

Save Plastic, Help a Farmer

This weekend, at my local Temescal Farmers Market, I brought back my cherry container (which happened to be cardboard) as usual to ask the farmer to reuse. I’ve always thought the farmers were making an exception for me and my plastic-free ways. But wandering around the market, I realized I was doing them a favor. Every farmer had a stack of baskets and containers that had been returned to them.

The egg vendor has always taken back his molded pulp egg cartons.

return containers to farmers market

But I noticed the strawberry vendor had a stack of used green baskets collecting behind her stand.

return containers to farmers market

The blueberry vendor told me he doesn’t even give his plastic containers to customers. Instead, he dumps them into a bag — either a paper bag or preferably a customer’s own bag — and only uses the plastic containers to measure out the right amount of berries.

return containers to farmers market

And my own cherry vendor was collecting back her cardboard cherry containers.

return containers to farmers market

It seems the cherry vendor still uses plastic containers as well, and by the time I got to the market, all the cherries in cardboard containers were sold out.

return containers to farmers market

So I just dumped my cherries into the container I’d brought back with me

return containers to farmers market

and added the plastic container to the pile of returns stacked up on the table.

return containers to farmers market

Farmers survive on a tight margin. We can help reduce their costs by returning their containers and keeping packaging out of the landfill.

Supermarkets, on the other hand, have no incentive to take back containers and, I was told, wouldn’t know what to do with them if they did. They don’t generally deal directly with farmers but with distribution companies and don’t have channels for getting containers back into the right hands. The best they would probably do is recycle them (if fruit container recycling is even available in their region), which is far less desirable than reusing perfectly good containers to package more fruit.

My thought? If you don’t have a year-round farmers market and find yourself buying grocery store fruit for part of the year, save up your containers to give to the farmers in the summer. They’ll thank you for it.

Plastic-free fruit containers

I’ve also noticed that increasing farmers are switching to plastic-free containers. A few options are:

1) Molded paper pulp baskets

2) Chipboard cardboard baskets

3) Wood berry baskets

4) Corrugated cardboard baskets like the one my cherry vendor uses. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find this type of basekt online. The next time I visit the market, I’ll have to ask where they buy them.)

Why not ask your berry vendor to switch to plastic-free packaging? It probably costs more, but they can save money by encouraging customers to bring them back.

Related Post:  How to Buy and Store Produce Without Plastic

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7 years ago

I’ve been researching how to recycle produce packaging, and I recently came across an article that stressed not to reuse the plastic clamshell packages, as they are impossible to decontaminate without chemicals, and have been known to leech carcinogens. Have you heard this before?

8 years ago

Thank you for sharing! Giving the containers back at a farmer’s market never occurred to me before :)

12 years ago

I buy my salsa (in glass jars) at my farmers’ market. There’s no plastic, but the lady who makes it wants her jars back so badly that she offered to drive to my house to pick them up. Returning packaging of all kinds is not only environmentally friendly, as you point out, it also saves farmers and other food vendors money. They’ll thank you!

Betsy (Eco-novice)
12 years ago

Checked on Saturday with my favorite farm stand at the Farmer’s Market — they DO take back the berry containers AND they give you a discount when you do! I have a big stack in my garage I was trying to figure out how to reuse (since they don’t have a number or recycling system, and I wasn’t sure if I could recycle them) — now i’ll take them back!

Sharon Rowe
12 years ago

I buy eggs from a friend of mine. Not only is she glad to get the cartons back but will take any other egg cartons I have.

12 years ago

gotta love it that the farmer’s market vendors will take the stuff back. Only one that couldn’t do so around here was the honey vendor. They said KY state law requires new jars for their product. I can see why if high heat might affect the jars but *sigh*

12 years ago

Thanks so much for the reminder! Our market just opended & I bought the last container of feta. I will make sure the farmers get it back. I’m sure regulations are different on egg contianers according to where you live. Here it is legal but not a ‘best practice’, which is bull. I find that once people start saving them, it is Really hard for them to stop. When I sold eggs, people would return all sorts of cartons. Some, their kids colored (which was great) and some that were nasty dirty (not great). All of the clean cartons went out for imediate re-use. The styrofome (sp?) nasties I washed by hand which was time consuming but I didn’t want to waste them. The paper ones were recycled, but I never turned down cartons. Recently, my Granny got one of my used cartons (with an old label) and I’ve been out of eggs for 4 years! (My hens went to folks with back yard flocks.)
Our market re-opened after being shuttered for several years. It seems like people are finally starting to tune in and vote with their dollars. It’s great to see the market vibrant and enthusiastic. Out in the boonies, people should cherish the incredible abundance that is all around us and act accordingly. I think green is finally main stream!

Kelly Garriott Waite
12 years ago

Good ideas, as usual.
I’ve passed along the Versatile Blogging award to you from my site.

Betsy (Eco-novice)
12 years ago

Brilliant! I will definitely try this. I buy Glaum’s eggs sometimes too. : )

Brenna @ Almost All The Truth
12 years ago

Love this! I am going to have to check with our farmers market vendors once it gets started for the year and see if they do something similar. I am going to make a real effort to visit more often this year!

In the past we have also utilized an organic produce delivery service and they always take containers back to reuse. It never hurts to ask and look around for a service or vendor that will do so. Of course, not everyone has the luxury of such choices. Those of us that do should try to take advantage though.

Green Bean
12 years ago

Thank you for the reminder! Not only is returning containers – plastic and cardboard – to farmers at the farmers market and to the CSA a great way to reduce waste, it helps them save money and keeps our wonderful local farmers doing what they do best, farming! Yay for a win win situation.

12 years ago

We put our berries into a rigid plastic container to travel home, leaving the baskets usually. I’ve been bringing my own cloth bags long enough it’s routine and the vendors expect it. I don’t think I’m the only one with cloth produce bags, but I still see a lot of plastic and bioplastic bags being used. It was raining yesterday at farmer’s market time and we sure used a lot of plastic at market time. I have two big bags that pillows came in to waterproof the sides of my cart. The top and bottom have pieces I laminated from old bread bags. I got talked into a produce bag around the white flour at the grocery store (the bag was coming open so he wanted to contain it to protect my car. I stopped arguing since I had to walk and it was raining). I took the same bag to the farmer’s market to tuck my whole wheat flour into for travel. All this plastic can be used again and again, but is it the only way to shop carless on a wet day?

12 years ago

I’ve made a habit of bring a sturdy couple of reusable containers to the farmer’s market or co-op with me when I go shopping this time of year. I know they’re plastic, but for transport, a yogurt container with lid is a safe way to bring your berries and cherries home without the risk of squishing them! That said, what little plastic is at home, gets used again and again as a transporter.

Eve Stavros
12 years ago

Sigh..berries…I don’t have anyplace to buy them w/o plastic packaging here. Same goes for some of my favorite vegetables…but I’m learning to adapt and buy what I can without or with minimal plastic (like those annoying little labels).

Sarati, I have finally found a use for those vegetable elastics – at least for some of them. I use cotton crochet yarn and a fine hook to crochet over the elastic to make my own hair ties.

12 years ago

Last year, I tried to return my empty plastic fruit baskets at the local organic farmers market and they wouldn’t take them!

I was told that they couldn’t be sure that the baskets weren’t used for non-organic produce and they didn’t want to contaminate their products. I am still hanging on to loads of these baskets…

and what do you do with all the elastics that vegetables come bundled up with? I will try to give those back and hopefully they will be accepted.

Great post and blog!

12 years ago

Our CSA takes back containers, and I save them during the winter to the extent that I get them (including if I see them in good condition in recycling bins at work or church)…but we don’t “find ourselves buying grocery store fruit” in containers in the winter because the fruits (and little tomatoes) that come in those containers are not things we feel entitled to eat in the winter in Pennsylvania. They’re coming from South America then, which has huge environmental impact AND means they weren’t ripe when picked so don’t taste as good AND, if not organic, can be sprayed with a wider range of chemicals than are allowed on U.S.-grown fruit.

I realize that avoiding plastic means you have a severely limited selection of frozen and canned foods. For me, weighing various environmental and health impacts, New Jersey blueberries frozen in a plastic bag and trucked 400 miles seem like a better choice than Chilean blueberries in a reusable box trucked 6,000 miles. Or we could just not have blueberries for a while. Local organic apples are available well into the winter here, but they are usually sold in a plastic bag.

I don’t mean to argue against the plastic-free life, just to give your readers some other angles to think about.

12 years ago

Boxes galore with my supplier here
but none exactly like the fruit boxes you want.

Luck for me at my coop we can reuse and return anything.

11 years ago
Reply to  Tracey sells the dreaded plastic clamshells, BUT also has a fair selection of pulp (biodegradable) berry tills, at a reasonable price. A group of us split the cost of purchasing an assortment. We kept some for ourselves, and donated the rest to vendors at the local farmers market. Our berries and tomatoes travel squish free, and if the containers get soiled or damaged, it is into the compost pile–not the landfill!

12 years ago

haven’t seen those green baskets for years; everyone’s switched to those clamshells. I hate those things. My pantry is filled with them because I don’t know what to do with them. I wish someone around here would take them back.

Jan Foselli
12 years ago

I just joined our local CSA & I was happy to find that they take back the plastic containers & give you a 25 cent credit for each one you return. Now that I found your blog, I’m trying hard to eliminate the plastic in my life too, so I need to ask the owners if they can just dump the produce into my own containers (which I’ve yet to acquire, but I’m working on it!).

Thanks for your blog – you’ve opened up my eyes to the toxicity in our lives!

Sarah "Angry Butterfly" Schumm
12 years ago

I remember when I first started trying to reduce my plastic use by going to the Farmer’s Market instead of the supermarket how I was at work and said something about how I was out of food because I didn’t make it to the Farmer’s Market that week, and one of my co workers teased me by saying “you know, they sell food at places other than the farmer’s market.” I have to explain to so many people why I can’t shop at Trader Joe’s anymore and nobody gets it!

Lara S.
12 years ago

This has nothing to do with this post, but I want to tell you…
Last night I read your blog late at night, then went to bed. I dreamt that I met you somewhere like a university, and you gave me your book!! It was thick, with a creamy colored cover and I must confess it looked kind of like The Story of Stuff book…
Anyway, I hope this is a sign that your book will be very successful! :)

12 years ago

New York City, luckily, has a few year-round farmer’s markets. I bring my own bags for everything, but I run into difficulty with eggs, meat, and cheese. The eggs come in cardboard so I can recycle the container, but they’ve had a sign saying they’re not allowed to reuse the containers for health reasons — I think some people were trying to give them back. Most of the meat comes prepackaged, except for the fish, but he wraps it in plastic to weigh it. I was able to buy meat at Whole Foods today, with my own tin, so I will probably switch to that more in the future. I think the farmers at the market probably can’t sell unpackaged meat. Finally, a few of the hard cheese sellers allow me to take their cut cheese home in my own container, but the goat cheese seller has everything pre-packaged. I asked last year and this year and both times they said the best they could do with the plastic container, if I brought it back, was recycle it — they wouldn’t reuse it.

So vegans wouldn’t have any problem with the farmer’s market, but for non-vegans, we have to find creative ways to get around the plastic!

12 years ago

Either you read my mind or you read my blog… I was just saying how upsetting it was to buy produce in plastic containers and not having a choice. I do most of my shopping at supermarkets, but this summer I am determined to find some locally grown, plastic free produce, in addition to what is growing in my backyard. Thanks for this post… it’s was thought provoking as always :)

12 years ago

Well, I’m on a mission to try to grow more of my own fruit. It’s a rather slow mission, but after 10 years the grape vines are finally turning out a reasonable amount of grapes each fall.

Last year I planted a raspberry bush and was totally shocked at how it took off. Seriously, I stuck one tiny twig in the ground about this time last year and it’s now spread to an area about 2 feet square. I got a few cups worth last fall – at least I think so… to be honest they pretty much went straight from the bush into my mouth so I didn’t get an accurate measurement. My neighbor says that once they get established you get two harvests each year, one in the spring and one in the fall. So I’m hoping to never have to deal with the plastic berry container conundrum again (I suppose it helps that I’m allergic to strawberries).

Next on my list… apple tree!

12 years ago

The farmers market in the city where we lived last summer dumped fruit from cardboard into plastic! Which was fine to just put the apples, pears etc into my own basket rather than a bag I didn’t need, but the berries always came home in plastic bags :( I’m interested to see what kinds of packaging I’ll see this summer now that we live in a smaller city. I’ll bring glass tupperware containers with me once there’s fresh fruit available- can’t wait!

12 years ago

Excellent post, thank you! Another idea for the berry baskets, use them to organize small items in your cupboards & drawers.

12 years ago

Sometimes it makes more sense to take a container of your own and never take the little plastic containers home at all. On a side note, here in Malta they call plastic shopping bags (at least the ones with handles) baskets. One size of plastic berry container is called a funnel.

Fresh sheep’s cheese is a traditional staple here and at some point the tiny handmade baskets that were used to hold the cheese as it ‘set’ have been replaced with plastic. The cheese sits in these small plastic baskets until they are sold to the end user and at that point the shopkeeper dumps them out and the container goes into a stack of others to go back to the farmer. If you are having trouble picturing that here’s a video

12 years ago

Our organic grocery takes back all containers. I am also a member of a CSA who has containers but won’t let you have them – you have to bring a bag or your own container to dump them into. For eggs, they let you take the carton but ask that you bring the empty back the next week (or whenever you are done with it).

12 years ago

In France, we would take strawberries home from the market, wrapped in old newspaper … Thanks for writing about this. It is a pet peeve of mine. Also, please remind your readers to support Senator Frank Lautenberg who has just brought legislation before Congress that would regulate toxic chemicals. Jessica Alba just signed on. I hope that will motivate more celebrities to join this cause. If you know any, please suggest it to them. Thanks!

12 years ago

love this …i too give them back..i hate ot buy berries in big box stores for the same reason..wonderful and very thoughtful post!!

12 years ago

I do most of my non-farmer’s market grocery shopping at a food co-op, and they’re setup to take back berry baskets and egg cartons.

Farmers at markets will usually take back any baskets similar enough to the ones they use which you get at a grocery store as well.

For berries and other soft produce, I like to bring my own hard-sided container to the market with me – I find that otherwise it often gets crushed before I get it home.