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Hello green shopper: good-bye waste problem.

Last year while visiting Geneva, Switzerland, I went a small diner for a cup of tea. I wanted to get drink for the road, but realizing they had no "to go" containers, took a seat. As I sipped from my ceramic cup and saucer over the next few minutes, I considered the implications for a restaurant that doesn't make styrofoam, plastic, or paper cups an option for customers. It was hard for me to imagine the scene in an American establishment as I sat there feeling somewhat perturbed by the lack of convenience made available to me. I noticed, however, that the Swiss diners didn't seem the least bit put out by having to slow down and exchange conversation with their neighbors over a hot beverage. I then started to wonder how much more waste I produce--because of my shopping habits and need for convenience--than these average Swiss citizens, not just in my morning routine but throughout my day. I've recycled my containers for years but wondered if I could be doing more. As for reducing the impact on the landfill, my efforts were proving to be just a drop in the bucket.

Americans throw away an estimated 25 billion styrofoam cups every year. Scientists say that the same styrofoam cups we used this morning will be sitting in a landfill 500 years from now. (1) Consuming 25 percent of our landfill space, styrofoam and other petroleum-based products are difficult to dispose of Burning styrofoam releases over ninety different harmful compounds including dioxin, which raises cancer risk. While it might seem obvious that paper cups are a better alternative, life cycle assessment studies of the two indicate otherwise. After considering the inputs and outputs of materials and energy as well as all of the associated environmental impacts of paper, it is estimated that styrofoam cups release 35 percent fewer toxic chemicals into the environment and require half the energy to produce than paper cups. (2) Life cycle assessment studies of plastic bags versus paper bags produce similar findings on this paper product, proving that neither is an enviromnentally sound choice. See http://www.

There are other problems with plastic. When certain plastics deteriorate, they release chemicals that may act as endocrine disruptors and interfere with normal hormone functioning in animals and humans. Many plastic water bottles, baby bottles, and other food containers contain bispbenol A (BPA), a compound that can leach out in small quantities and, based on animal studies, can cause reproductive and developmental abnormalities. (3) Further studies are needed to better understand the risks to consumers. As for recycling, glass and cans are more recyclable than plastic but also require significant amounts of energy to process. Only ten percent of all plastic containers produced are recycled, mainly because most types that are manufactured are not recyclable, including #3, #4, #5, #6, and #7 containers. These end up in landfills and in roadside .ditches. There usually is a good reason when responsible, companies choose to sell its food in non-recyclable containers. For instance, Stonyfield Farm says, after studying the issue, that distributing yogurt in #5 (polypropylene) containers instead of recyclable #2 (HDPE) saves it from manufacturing over 100 tons of plastic each year (polypropylene containers are much lighter). It hopes, as do many other companies, to soon package its product in containers that are 100% biodegradable.

Products--like cutlery and cups, trash bags and take-out containers--that look like regular plastic but are one hundred percent biodegradable are available today. Leading natural food stores, including Whole Foods, offer corn-based biodegradable plastic to-go containers manufactured by NatureWorks. Some stores use both corn-based containers as well as recyclable plastic containers. Earth Fare uses recyclable #1 plastic containers for foods from the hot bar, but has corn-based containers from NatureWorks available to customers in its bulk foods department. Unfortunately, says Dave Williams, president of BioGroup USA, the corn used by NatureWorks is genetically modified (GMO). Williams, whose company sells one hundred percent biodegradable food storage bags and trash bags from non-GMO sources (, says that natural food stores have compromised somewhat on the GMO issue, at least for the time being. A wider selection of biodegradable options will soon hit the market, including those made in Asia from non-GMO sugarcane.

The good news for the consumer is that the cost of biodegradable plastics is affordable and increasingly more available. The bad news is that in the same way that a banana peel takes decades to degrade in a landfill, biodegradable plastic needs to be composted to breakdown. While most Americans do recycle, very few practice composting. For more info on composting, visit:

Green shoppers recycle, compost, and more importantly, precycle (consider packaging options before purchasing). By choosing wisely, avoiding certain products, and reusing containers, the green shopper sharply reduces packaging waste.

QUIZ: Are You a Green Shopper?

Test your green shopper skills with the quiz below--score one point for each YES--and consider ways to become even greener.

--Do you choose #1 (PETE) and #2 (HDPE) plastic packaging instead of those that aren't recydable: #3 (PVC), #4 (LDPE), #5 (PP), #6 (PS), and #7 (Other)?

--Do you clean containers and dispose of plastic lids before recycling? (Dirty containers are sent to the landfill and a small amount of the wrong plastic ruins plastic recycling).

--Do you avoid aseptic packaging (juice boxes, soymilk boxes) because they are not recyclable in your area?

--Do you take reusable coffee cup/beverage containers into cafes, coffee shops, and other places?

--Do you use a canvas or cloth bag when grocery shopping? Add an extra point if you go bag-less on days you've forgotten your own bags.

--Do you shop regularly at the farmers market? Add an extra point if you take your own bags.

--Do you buy eggs in recycled paper cartons instead of styrofoam or plastic? Give yourself an extra point if you return paper cartons to local farmers for reuse.

--Do you buy grains, beans, nuts, and other foods in bulk? Give yourself an extra point if you reuse bags and bring your own containers.

--Do you buy in larger quantities to reduce overall packaging? (Stonyfleld Farm says that their 32-ounce yogurt containers require 27% less energy to produce and distribute than their eight-ounce containers).

--Do you compost yard waste? Add another point if you compost food scraps.

--Add two points if you use no plastic bulk or produce bags but bring your own or reuse them until they wear out.

--Do you sit down to eat at a restaurant instead of ordering take-out to avoid waste?

--Add two points if you buy biodegradable plastic products, like trash bags.

--Do you regularly skip on a purchase because of excessive packaging?

--Do you have a green shopper kit in your car? It may include a box, canvas bags, reusable mugs, sturdy plastic cups, cloth napkins, inexpensive silverware, clean bulk containers.


1-4 Sprout

8-12 On the Green

13-17 Lean and Green

18+ Green Machine

(1.) Article (2.) Budiansky, Stephen. "Being Green Isn't Always What It Seems." U.S. News and World Report. 26 August 1996:42 ( archive_O34562.htm) (3.)

Greg Hottinger, MPH, RO, is the nutritionist for the Duke University Center for Integrative Medicine and author of The Best Natural Foods on the Market Today: A Yuppie's Guide to Hippie Food ( He is a regular contributor to New Life Journal.
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Title Annotation:environmental protection
Author:Hottinger, Greg
Publication:New Life Journal
Date:Oct 1, 2005
Previous Article:Letter from the editor.
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