Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

SocietyJuly 1, 2019

Plastic bags are just the start: The paralysing guilt of supermarket shopping

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Today the law against single use plastic bags goes into effect. One less thing to feel guilty about? Well, maybe, writes Pallas Hupé Cotter.

Trips to the grocery store have never been my favourite thing. I’m not someone who flips through cookbooks as a pastime, dreaming of what I can create in the kitchen (I know and envy people who do). I’d much rather sit at my computer and create word concoctions instead.

But increasingly, my reluctance about going to the grocery store is compounded by guilt whenever I do.

Not, as you might expect, guilt about buying pre-prepared, processed foods. Or about stocking up on too much Pinot. I’ve pretty much tackled those bad habits. Now, it’s guilt about the plastics that I just can’t seem to avoid every time I dash in, laden with my reusable bags, for a stock-up.

I have found in-store as well as online sources for some low-waste and zero-waste household basics. But there’s so much more that doesn’t come with those options. Take the plastic wrap required when you buy meat. I literally exhale with relief when I find Bostock chicken because it comes in compostable packaging. But I don’t always want chicken.

Of course, I’m trying to balance my diet with more plant-based food (but you already suspected that, didn’t you). There are, therefore, lots of herbs and vegetables that I really want but aren’t sold loose. And yeah, yeah, yeah, I know what you’re about to suggest – just go somewhere else. Be aware that I no longer live in an urban setting with several choices of food outlets, but in a small-ish rural town. There are options here; I’ve been impressed. But they are still limited. I had a regular subscription to an organic box of veggies (a little shout-out for my friends at Bounty Box) when I lived in Wellington, and now I have a plan for a kitchen garden. But it’s winter, we just built and moved into our new home, outside it still looks like a gravel pit…and my attempts at growing things have all been very mixed.

You hear it, don’t you? All those “reasons” just become justifications and excuses. Sound familiar? Bottom line, I know that I’m guilty of giving in to the lure of convenience. I’d much prefer to spend my time at my computer, writing and working, instead of doing my own sustainable sourcing or micro-farming.

But I am doing my level best to not use or buy so many plastics. I rinse and reuse bags that ingredients come in. Just last week on Twitter, I shared, in a retweet of someone else’s struggle, that I have a special wooden drying rack for my bags. She wanted to see a picture of it because she might 3d print her own version. I decided not to point out that it would be printed out of plastic, because obviously it would be constantly re-used itself. But this right there is the issue! There’s always more you could, or should do.

Bales of mixed plastic in Wellington awaiting export (Photo: Nina Fowler/ Radio NZ)

I also have reusable bags, of course. Most are stashed in my car boot, where, alongside my earthquake supplies and rubbish to take to Wastebusters, it looks like I have a bit of a hoarding problem. I carry into stores little bags for coffee beans and any other ingredients sold from bins, as well as bigger ones for heads of cabbage, lettuce and loose fruits you buy by the dozen. When I shop at delis and ask if they can use alternative packaging, the answer is, “Sorry, no, because of health and safety”. I see improvements, like compostable cardboard containers, but they still have plastic lids. And yet I still end up buying the fancy olives.

I have read and try to apply lessons learned in No. More. Plastic. by Martin Dorey. I emceed a local workshop on recycling to help clear up confusion about what you can and can’t do (hint – ask your local council about what to do about plastic bottle caps). I have adopted another r-word, “rethink” into the mantra “refuse, replace, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot.” And I have finally invested in a proper composter and am getting excited about seeing the results.

But despite all of this, I fall far short. I know, because I befriended and interviewed Waveney Warth, who has lived waste-free for more than a decade! I know I’ll never measure up.

And that’s where the danger comes in. When guilt gets too heavy, it can be paralysing. Either you throw in the towel, or you are constantly anxiety-ridden.

Do you feel any of this?

I asked a millennial I happen to know if his generation felt overshadowed by this constant cloud of guilt, and his answer was “no, because we didn’t cause the problem…”. But then he added, “…we are self-conscious about everything we do”. And that’s why he and many of his friends have become vegetarians, only shop in Op Shops and don’t own cars.

And maybe that’s what I (and you too, if you nodded your head to my question) need to do. I I don’t mean become a vegan, no matter what James Cameron is suggesting. I mean choose to reframe the guilt, as self-consciousness, awareness.

Awareness is always the first step, isn’t it? As long as we’re feeling something, aware of the impact of what we’re doing, it’s a step in the right direction. The next step is always to take some sort of action. Even if it’s imperfect action. Even if it’s two steps forward, one step back, and realising the misstep. (I’ll figure out how or where to get those fancy olives in reusable jars). At least it’s doing something.

Keep going!