Is it better to waste food or buy plastic?

Filed in Blog by on May 13, 2011 16 Comments
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is it better to buy naked and waste or buy half in plastic?

is it better to buy naked and waste or buy half in plastic?

Inspired by something one of our readers, Teresa, said the other day I wanted to pose a question to you.

As you’ll be aware weighing up one ‘eco credential’ against another one isn’t easy, especially when, as consumers, we are not privy to the whole story.

The other month we asked whether you felt incineration in the UK was better than recycling abroad.

Then there are other aspects to sustainable food shopping – is it better to buy something that is organic from New Zealand or non-organic from the UK?

Last month, in our ‘return to sender‘ collection we had a plastic cucumber wrapping. It’s only Little Miss Green that indulges in the pleasures of this particular food so I tend to buy halves unless I can get a whole one from my local farm shop.

During February I bought half a cucumber but it was wrapped in film which stated ‘not currently recycled’.

Teresa pointed out that I should have bought a whole cucumber and risked composting half of it rather than buying half a cucumber wrapped in plastic.

That’s certainly food for thought (boom boom) and I’d love to hear what you say about it.

Is it better to buy more than you need without packaging and compost the food you can’t use, or is it more important to reduce food waste by purchasing only the amount you need?

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About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (16)

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  1. Hazel says:

    I had a similar discussion about cucumber wrapping with my mum, and she’d read an article claiming that if cucumbers weren’t wrapped in plastic for supermarkets, they’d dry out so quickly that far more would be binned.

    This year I’ve been tough and not bought cucumber over the winter- lots of grated carrot in sandwiches until my salad leaves grew under the cloche!
    I did buy some UK ones in the autumn, but then another dilemma is UK grown under (heated) plastic, or grown outside and imported from warmer countries?

    Interestingly I read a US article about local food the other day, extolling US grown over Central American states. The writer is in Montana. It’s 2000 miles to Florida, where her US oranges came from ( and almost 900 to California where much other produce comes from). It’s 785 from London to Madrid. I’m not suggesting we should all start buying Spanish vegetables, but maybe because of the relatively smaller sizes of European countries, we have a much smaller sense of ‘localness’ than other parts of the world.

    So, I don’t know or don’t buy either is my answer! Not very helpful…

  2. Julie Day says:

    I’m not sure. We now and then buy a fresh cauliflower but don’t eat all of it and put what we don’t use in the compost. I am inclined to go with it’s best to buy a whole one that isn’t in wrapping and throw what you don’t want in the compost. At least nothing is going to landfill, which is what you want.

  3. Cate B says:

    This is tricky. Whilst it seems on the surface to be better to compost food waste that philosophy doesn’t take into account the wasted resources spent in producing and transporting the item in the first place. IMO it would be better to buy ‘sans plastic’ and if that means buying bulk then find a way to preserve the excess. Caulis can easily be blanched and frozen and cucumbers can be made into chutneys or raitas. Might save some money too 😉

  4. Kate says:

    I buy the whole, unwrapped item and try to remember to stick the rest in the freezer before it goes bad. Then, periodically I make ‘freezer leftover soup’, in which I cook whatever produce I’ve rescued from my compost until very soft, add lots of spices (usually curry-ish in flavor, which seems to cover a multitude of sins). For example, right now I need to make some with broccoli, grated zucchini, red bell pepper, onions, potatoes, apples, and something orange and pureed (possibly pumpkin from last fall?). The last and very important step is the immersion blender, which turns my pot of somewhat freezer-burned veggies into creamy soup. This is a winter staple in our house.

  5. Sandy says:

    Hi Julia you could always freeze the left over cauliflower, I agree with Kate, freeze any left over veg and use in a soup, any veg or salad produce will do (although I have not tried lettuce) I know you can do soup with it, but to freeze it. well ? who knows

  6. Sooz says:

    I would go with buying a whole one, and if I couldn’t eat it all I’d put it into the compost, at least it would dissapear into soily goodness, rather than hanging around forever like a plastic wrapper would. Logically it would be good to find someone to share your cucumber with…could you give half of it to someone else, then they buy the next one and give you half? Does your bunny like cucumber, I’m sure he’d appreciate it!

  7. CarSue says:

    I buy unpackaged and compost the leftovers, though we rarely have any! I look at it like this: no one is growing half cucumbers, or half peppers, or half anything. While yes, energy does go into producing & shipping food, I think it must take FAR more energy to grow the same food, then cut it into smaller portions, then package those, then ship them (perhaps in bulky, inefficient packaging, like foam trays/tubs that further increase the footprint of the shipping). Plus there is also the associated packaging waste, which takes additional energy to be transported & processed (in the case of recyclable materials) or transported and landfilled.

    I believe that, unless there is a truly gross case of waste (i.e. buying an entire basket of fruit and not eating a single piece), a bit of fodder for the bin here and there is far from sinful!

    Great question,and very interesting to read the responses!

  8. Jannet says:

    Obviously better to try and avoid in the first place but failing that Sainsburies plastic bag recycling bins will accept all types of plastic-bag type packaging, so their website says. They say they sort it all and redirect to appropriate facilities and end up with only a small amount that can’t be recycled. I certainly put magazine wrappers, frozen food bags and any produce wrappings that I can’t easily avoid in their bins.

  9. joddle says:

    Dicing the cucumber and putting it in yoghurt with mint makes it a lot more palatable. It will keep for plenty of days in the fridge and is a good dipping sauce.

  10. Dicing cucumbers in mayonnaise with dill leaves or dried parsley and onion makes a palatable condiment for fish and chicken dishes or a dip for raw vegetables…any small leftovers can be cut in strips for finger food snacks and salads… wash in cold water to which a few drops of lemon juice has been added and they will keep for days in fridge.

    In the central US, we receive veges in crates from Mexico and El Salvador or even Chile in winter when their hemisphere blooms and fruits away…as their pesticide and fertilizer regulation is often quite lax, we do not consume anything “out of season”. instead we opt for standard root vegetables which can be kept in cold rooms…and is transported shorter distances in frigid climate…and then then we pounce hungrily upon the first brave green things to poke above snow.

    Lettuce of all sorts is sweet and delicious cooked, but do not attempt freezing it–it will liquify into a sloppy inedible mess for the wormery…

  11. Alyson says:

    I wish I could buy a cucumber that was plastic free. I have only managed to buy 1 last year. My father in law grew them last year and they were lovely and lasted a long time in the fridge, so I dread to think how old the cucumbers are in the shops.During the winter, our salads consisted of alot of grated carrot and shredded cabbage, just so I could avoid the plastic wrapped cucumber.

  12. Bernalong says:

    Perhaps you could grow your own – then you are eating what is in season, not importing, organically grown and zero carbon footprint to buy from the shop – and you save money 😉 (and they taste better)

  13. Kelly says:

    In a lesser of two evils world I guess you should take the risk on composting any that gets left over BUT oy if you then use said compost to grow so food!!! If you use your compost to grow expensive food stuff or foods that are often imported then its probably worth losing that 20p woth of cucumber 😉
    Personally I don’t often have this trouble, over/gone over salad and fruit gets wizzed up for the chickens, wo turn it into eggs!
    Left over veggies are cooked up for the dogs, so the only things that go into our compost regular are things like tea bags and banana skins and stuff 🙂

  14. Kate says:

    @Kate: @Kate:
    I tried a soup last night with some new freezer ingredients and have a couple more comments :
    1. Romaine lettuce works just fine in pureed soup.
    2. Leftover beef broth from brisket served at a party will make your soup taste vaguely like pot roast. This is a good thing if you enjoy pot roast.
    3. If someone in your house (your husband, for example) doesn’t like the taste of brisket, he will not enjoy said soup and may even look quite relieved if you try to find someone to share some of the (several liters of) soup with so he doesn’t have to eat it for weeks.

  15. Sonja says:

    Just wanted to say thanks for your fantastic blog-I have taken up the challenge to turn our home into a zero waste home here in Portugal where we live. I feel quite alone with our big project and we need all the help we can get! I have just recently come across your blog/site and am now referring to it on a daily basis.
    I have started a blog to try and get a zero waste dialogue going here where we live and of course to talk about our journey towards a zero waste home.

  16. Mrs Green says:

    @Hazel: thanks for sharing your thoughts; grated carrot in sandwiches sounds yummy. It sounds like you’ve really been thinking about some of these dilemmas – thanks for sharing.

    @Julie Day: good point Julie; thanks

    @Cate B: I never knew you could put cucumber in chutney – I find raita goes off if not used quickly. You never really understand the huge resources that goes into producing food until you grow a little of your own…

    @Kate: Sounds like a great solution; so you freeze even things which can go mushy such as zuchini or cucumber and then add them to the soup too? I hadn’t thought of that; thanks for the inspiration and thanks for coming back to share your findings with us!

    @Sandy: I think frozen and then made into soup lettuce would work; it would probably be best to add frozen at the end of cooking and just let it defrost in the mix before blending.

    @Sooz: Bunny hates cucumber! Maybe giving half to a friend would work; one of my friends in particular has two kids who are crazy for cucumber…

    @CarSue: thanks for sharing your thoughts on this; I always love reading your thought provoking responses 🙂

    @Jannet: Yep, we use the sainsburys recycling for polythene, but cucumbers often come in that crunchy plastic; like cellophane (well the ones from the co-op do )

    @joddle: You find it lasts for a long time like that? Mine seems to go soft in there… Hmmmm

    @nadine sellers: thanks for all your ideas and advice; ok, point taken about the lettuce turning into mush! And cold water and lemon juice is the key to preserving cucumber – I shall give it a try…

    @Alyson: I’ve found that home grown cucumbers (or those bought from my favourite farm shop) last ages too. I heard Tesco once say on Countryfile that a cucumber would last 3 days without plastic wrap which I found astonishing. Like you my first question was ‘how old is it?’

    @Bernalong: We did indeed do this one year; the season isn’t very long for my cucumber-munching girl though 😉 Good news though, this week we bought a naked one in our local farm shop, so things are looking up for Summer 😀

    @Kelly: well, we are looking into getting chickens, so perhaps this will be our future answer 😉 Turning cucumbers into eggs !!

    @Sonja: Hi Sonja – great that you have taken up the challenge over in Portugal; good luck with that, and you know I’m here to support you. Will check out your blog 🙂

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