Envision this: You step out of a time machine in the year 2033 at the VFC. Shoppers representing a diverse mix of the community fill their baskets with healthy food sourced nearby, and responsibly sourced food from around the world — that much hasn’t changed. But one noticeable thing has: you barely see any plastic.
Many of the packages are made of familiar materials such as aluminum, glass and fiber. But now you see new and unfamiliar materials that did not exist in 2019, such as a futuristic-looking biofilm that rapidly biodegrades after use. Return-and-reuse programs are commonplace for products of all types because suppliers have adopted circular models. Pallets and cases now come in durable wraps that are returned and reused hundreds of times. Staff go about their work, completely oblivious to how incredible their plastic-free food co-op would seem to their colleagues back in 2019.
The scenario above is one interpretation of how the future could look if food co-ops embrace a “Plastic Free by 2033” vision. This vision is based on the reality that each year, more plastic is produced than the year before — driven in large part by the rise of single-use items.
While access to recycling is widespread, just 9% of plastic in the U.S. is recycled. Much of it instead ends up as debris. Plastic does not biodegrade; rather than breaking down into harmless substances, it breaks into increasingly smaller pieces of plastic that linger almost indefinitely. Recent research has found microscopic plastic in 83% of all drinking water, in rain, in snow, in soil, in our food and in our bodies. A dump truck’s worth of plastic enters the oceans every minute, and if we continue on this path, the oceans will contain more plastic than sea life by 2050.
As leaders in the natural products industry, we know we can do better. Items designed to be consumed within minutes, days or weeks do not need to be packaged in material designed to last forever. We know that it will not be easy, that the path to plastic-free is not clear, and that it will require partnering with every group of co-op stakeholders. Yet we believe solutions exist, and we see packaging innovation proceeding rapidly.
This year, eleven NCG food co-ops from across the country convened on our behalf. A “Better Packaging Solutions Committee” assembled to discuss this vision, interpretations of the concept of plastic-free, and what exactly it would mean for suppliers, shoppers, co-op staff and the packaged food industry. The group has weighed in on challenges, existing solutions, milestones, and many areas where innovation is needed over the next 13 years.
As our peers on the Better Packaging Solutions Committee work to define a strategy and goals to guide progress toward our vision, we can do our part by making some changes now in our co-op. VFC’s efforts include removing PFAS from all paper containers/bags, using washable dinner, drink, and flatware, and stocking paper bags in all departments (done!).
We removed plastic grocery bags in 2006 and have a recycled shopping bag program, as well as reuse boxes from our deliveries at the checkout stands. We’re working to totally reset our bulk department; we’re adding more bins for dried fruits, reducing repacked items, and making more products available for purchase in your reusable containers from home. Similar to our program for glass milk bottles, our upcoming fresh juice bottles will be part of a return-and-reuse system with a deposit exchanged for returning and reusing them.
We recognize that the work must begin today – even without knowing every step along the path to success or having all the solutions now. We know new technology and materials will emerge when demand increases. By articulating our biggest, most-audacious goals, we’re helping to create a vision of the world we want to see. We hope each shopper will join us.