Plastic waste in the food system: corporations continue to binge on single-use plastic while local shops and hawkers find alternatives

by GRAIN | 23 Feb 2024


These days more packaged food, including ready-to-eat meals or cooked foods, are being sold at convenience stores or delivered to households via aggregated online platforms, resulting in a change of eating culture for young families living in cities that rely on these ready-to-eat meals. This trend has led to excessive packaging and single-use plastic cups, straws, food containers and cutlery, which end up in land fills and lead to widespread pollution.

Plastic manufacturers are inextricably linked to the fossil fuel industry. Some of the world's major oil and gas companies are among the 20 petrochemical companies that produce more than half of all single-use plastics in the world. For example, ExxonMobil is the world's largest manufacturer of single-use plastic polymers that’s commonly used for most food packaging, contributing 5.9 million tonnes to global plastic waste. The fossil fuel industry is looking towards petrochemicals, in particular plastics, as their next major growth market.

Petrochemicals are woven into the fabric of our society and can be found in a wide variety of modern items. Petrochemicals presently account for 12% of global oil consumption, and a higher share is expected due to a rising demand for plastics and fertilisers.

For supermarkets and convenience store consumers, it can seem virtually impossible to escape plastics. Even if a customer brings their own bags to a supermarket, when they walk down the store aisles, they’ll have little choice but to fill those bags with fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastics or processed foods heavily packaged in plastic. This type of plastic is unlikely to be recycled, and it will increase food waste because packaged fruits and vegetables force people to buy more than they need.

Ready-to-eat meals and take-out food packaging are the ‘poster child’ of plastic pollution. One study on ocean litter found that 44% of 12 million pieces of plastic collected were linked to take-out food products. And the rise of online retail platforms has only made the situation worse.

For decades, the oil and plastic industries have encouraged and funded plastic recycling as a means of resolving the single use plastic crisis and of avoiding governmental regulations. But according to a new report in February 2024, the plastics sector has deceived the public about the viability of plastic recycling for decades. The report concludes that recycling cannot be considered a lasting solid waste solution because it only delays the disposal of the products. The problem is that the corporate food system is built on a model of production, distribution, marketing and retail that depends on plastics.

Because governments are not willing to challenge the corporate food system, we are accumulating more and more plastic waste at a rapid rate, with dire consequences, despite a growing number of regulations being implemented on single use plastics. Meanwhile, as we can see in the examples below from India and China, local markets and street food vendors in Asia that operate outside the corporate system are already finding creative ways to reduce their plastic waste and develop solutions that support people's livelihoods and food needs.

Photo: Rice cake seller using banana leaves wrapper at Blora Market, Central Java. Teguh/InfoPublik

Across the region

Street vendors develop a packaging reuse model for India's metro cities

India’s thriving street vendors provide over 600 million affordable meals every day. The sector has long been reliant on single-use plastics for packaging.

In July 2022, India announced a nationwide ban on single-use plastics for packaging, which includes items like plates, cups, cutlery, straws and packaging films. The ban, however, is mostly being applied to small-scale enterprises while the giant fast-moving consumer goods companies have no concrete plastic reduction targets. They continue to use sachets and other multilayered packaging, which accounts for over 50% of the nation’s plastic problem. Implementation of the ban has been stricter for street vendors than it has for consumer goods companies, adding yet another opportunity for municipal officials and police to harass and extort them.

A recent study by the National Hawkers Federation, Zero Waste Europe and Searious Business, shows that Indian street vendors can offer compelling reuse solutions to beat plastic pollution and that they are a potential game changer in the fight against plastic waste. GRAIN spoke to the National Hawkers Federation (NHF) about the study, the costs of implementing a reuse system and their plans for moving ahead.

GRAIN: Why did you do this study?

NHF: In recent years, single-use plastic consumption has exploded across the world, creating a global crisis that impacts nature, people and the climate. Over 99% of plastics are made of fossil fuels, and if the plastic industry was a country, it would be the world’s fifth largest greenhouse gas emitter.

Immediately after the ban, NHF took a proactive step to find a sustainable and affordable alternative to plastics because thousands of street vendors, especially those involved in the cooked food business are largely dependent on it for packaging. They started shifting to paper cups or tin foil bowls but this is quite an expensive alternative and impacted vendors' pockets.

The NHF is closely associated with the Pune-based NGO “PARISAR” as well as with the global campaigns against plastics like ‘Zero Waste Europe’ and ‘Break Free From Plastic’. Association with these groups and campaigns came in handy to think through effective alternatives to all kinds of plastics. The idea for a reuse system for street vendors evolved in partnership with these groups. It was decided to conduct this study to assess its economic feasibility and challenges for implementing it for street vendors in five major cities in India (Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Nagpur, Ranchi) to gain a comprehensive understanding of the economic dynamics at play.

GRAIN: What is this reuse system and how will it be implemented by the hawkers?

NHF: This study proposes a novel reuse system tailored to the specific needs and local realities of street food vendors in India. Reusable packaging solutions are typically made from hardy materials and designed to withstand multiple uses and washing cycles, rather than being discarded after a single use. Among different materials, NHF opted for steel plates which have a long life and can be easily cleaned and stacked.

The people-oriented reuse system model proposed by the study encompasses the following key elements:

1. Setting up a decentralised washing facility at various levels, including street level, vendor level and area levels, with a specific emphasis on area-level washing systems identified as the most promising option. The study expects the city municipality to invest in the decentralised washing facility and provide a permanent space for setting up a washing centre. Vendors would pay 70 paise (less than 1 cent) for each clean plate.
2. Efficient distribution: The optimisation of packaging item distribution through centrally organised and well-managed transportation systems. The study suggests two options, bicycles with carts capable of carrying multiple crates of plates or medium-sized trucks.
3. Convenient collection and return stations: Looking at customer convenience, the study proposes the incorporation of flexible collection and return points for reusable containers.
4. Effective logistics management: The study proposes a logistics management approach with a primary focus on establishing return systems and implementing packaging monitoring. To incentivise returns, the study introduces a deposit return system featuring barcode or QR code-enabled tracking for effective monitoring. Vendors and customers can scan these codes, enabling the system to record who possesses the plate and when it was last scanned.
5. Third-party entity for logistics: To ensure the smooth functioning of the proposed system, the study recommends the establishment of a third-party entity tasked with managing the logistics of reusable packaging. The vendors suggested to prioritise those who are affected by this reuse system, such as the waste pickers

GRAIN: What are the benefits of the reuse system for vendors, municipalities as well as local public?

NHF: The transition to reusable systems benefits the environment and presents a unique opportunity for economic growth and social justice. This modelling study estimates that transitioning about 80,000 street food vendors to this kind of reusable system in Kolkata alone would reduce their plastic waste by more than 86%. This would be a public-public partnership which would benefit the hawkers, the city municipality and the public at large.

The reuse system would also bring a sort of stability to the daily functioning of the street vendors who often get displaced by municipal officials and police. The risk of eviction is reduced if municipalities set up these reuse systems for street vendors and there would be less harassment from the police. For the vendors, the cost of packaging would be reduced to half, and they would save time and resources for purchasing single-use plastics. Hopefully, the reuse systems in street vending would also help influence a change in consumer behaviour and reverse the ‘harmful throwaway culture’.

GRAIN: How and where is the reuse system being implemented?

NHF: The NHF is in touch with the Kolkata Municipality to set up a pilot for this reuse system in one of the street food zones. Under the Eat Right Initiative, a Government of India programme, 100 street food zones are supposed to be set up across the country, where the local municipality would set up water tanks for water connection to the vendors. There are around 20-30 street food vendors in this street who are ready to be part of it.

GRAIN’s interview with Mr. Jayvias, Satyarupa Shekhar and Om Prakash Singh of NHF.

To see the full report:


Da Jiangyou: a zero-waste farm store founded on a sense of community

A recently opened small shop called "Da Jiangyou Farm Store" in Dali City in Yunnan province, China, has caught the interest of many people in the neighbourhood. They discover that, just like grocery stores decades ago, they can buy soy sauce, rice, vinegar, and oil by bringing their own jars and cans. The store, which opened in July 2023, has "re-introduced" zero-waste shops to the local communities.

Owing to its favourable ecological conditions, Dali city has attracted a large number of new agroecological farmers in the last ten years. Zhao Zhiheng is one among them, who turned to farming in 2014. Zhao had previously worked for more than twenty years in a textile factory owned by his family. He became aware of the impacts of industrialised production models leading to excessive packaging and waste problems. His decision to open a zero-waste store in the neighbourhood around his farm was prompted by these encounters.

More than 200 products are sold inside the 65-square-meter shop, including essential food items such as local vegetables, fruits, cereals, and nuts, and a selection of traditional cooking condiments. The shop also sells rice from Zhao’s farm, which is freshly milled inside the store into more nutritious brown rice.

Zhao emphasised his reluctance to sell his rice to commercial millers, which will only process it into refined white rice. With the store, he can now tie the processing and marketing of his farm produce to a principle of local production for local sales, as a way to minimise food miles.

Customers rapidly learn to carry their containers, bottles, and bags to purchase necessities at the zero-waste store. They also start to collect and clean their unwanted containers before returning it to the store. This method of recycling also fosters a sense of community among neighbours.

A few customers said on social media, "You can buy the quantity you need at an affordable price, and you can taste the joy of milling rice and making soy sauce." The great thing about this concept is that not only does it cut down on packaging, but also allows you to measure the amount of something that you need.

Customers also can buy small quantities that are not possible in other supermarkets which would only supply bulk packages.

Zhao believes that the store should, more importantly, inspire customers to live zero-waste. The shop also frequently holds workshops for making toiletries like shampoo, soap and other natural detergents to help customers reduce their dependency on corporate-produced necessities.

Zhao is confident that this operation model is viable given how the popularity of his zero-waste shop is growing.

In the future, Zhao hopes to spread this idea among other young farmers, urging them to cut down on carbon emissions by developing local crop processing and markets, while supporting city dwellers in adopting short-chain, waste-free distribution of their products.

Taken from a longer article by Lin Tao, a food and agriculture columnist with Good Food
To read the full article (in Chinese):

From the news

Collective struggle: LIE (Bangladesh)

Repon Chowdhury, chairperson of Labour of Informal Economy (LIE), StreetNet’s Bangladesh affiliate, shares about the history, achievements and the current struggles of his organisation. There are over one million street vendors in Bangladesh, with a population of 56 million inhabitants. Many of them are internal migrants, moving from the countryside to the urban areas looking for job opportunities or escaping dire conditions due to natural catastrophes or climate change.

Sojitz acquires full ownership of Vietnam’s largest commercial food wholesaler

Sojitz Corporation (“Sojitz”), a Japanese multinational company has acquired full ownership of “New Viet Dairy”, which is Vietnam’s largest wholesaler of commercial food. New Viet Dairy is a wholesale importer and distributor that operates in three areas—commercial foods, foodservice, and dairy ingredients. In recent years, Sojitz has built value chains for manufacturing, logistics, and retail industries in Vietnam to meet the rapid expansion of supermarkets, convenience stores, and other modernised retail stores.

McDonald's is dumping its rubbish in our community

A year ago, the South African shack dwellers' movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, launched the Lindokuhle Mnguni Occupation in Rosherville, Johannesburg to secure lands to establish a commune settlement. Today their occupation faces many challenges. In addition to police evictions and assaults, fast food restaurants like McDonald's and KFC are constantly dumping massive amounts of garbage into their community and even threatening to shoot protesters.

Amazon’s focus on speed, surveillance drives higher warehouse worker injuries, study finds

According to a new study conducted by the University of Illinois Chicago, Amazon warehouse workers are suffering from long-term physical injuries and mental stress as a result of the company's strong focus on speed and surveillance. Amazon warehouse workers frequently need to take unpaid time off due to work-related pain or exhaustion. The company's increasing speed and efficiency comes at the expense of its employees' well-being.

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Author: GRAIN
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