IMG_6934.jpg

Small steps

one day at a time

The persistence of plastic

IMG_9657.png

The Persistence of Plastic

To the market we go!

 

Last weekend I visited a local farmers' market. I've put it off for a while, but I was seduced by the thought of organic vine-ripened tomatoes, and decided to visit the special pre-Chinese New Year edition held at the Singapore Turf Club on Saturday, February 10th. I didn't do much research beforehand and expected it to be similar to a wet market. Besides my heavy DSLR, I also brought along an extra produce bag. It turned out to be unnecessary.

Plastic to-go

The event was organized by the AVA and to be fair, their tagline is "Safe food, healthy animals and plants for Singapore," not "Sustainable packaging for Singapore." A disclaimer: the SG Farmers' Market is about bringing fresh produce from local farms to the public. It is not promoted to be about sustainability in the context of plastic-free or zero-waste packaging. I had just assumed and hoped that it would embody the same package-free spirit of the recent Earthfest. Let's begin with the swag. It takes every ounce of self-control for me not to shove shiny and unnecessary trinkets into my bag.

 
 

Do I really need another free pen/bag/notebook? Not really. But in the past, I'd greedily grab whatever I can because it's FREE! Attendees were generously offered swag in the form of plastic fans, recipe flyers, and black cooler bags. Cooler bags are smart and practical, but many people visit markets intending to shop it's not unreasonable to encourage them to come prepared with their own tote and cooler bags.

 
 

Cute, anthropomorphic, handheld plastic fans are a practical marketing collateral choice for an outdoor event, but could the free recipe flyers work just as well as makeshift fans?

 
IMG_9709.png
 

All the vendors I visited used some form of plastic packaging. The most common types at the event were PET clamshell boxes and flexible PA/PE vacuum-sealed bags. These vendors have made a commitment to sustainability - this is obvious from their marketing jargon, the way they cultivate crops or farm animals, and their participation in events such as this. I didn't visit every single stall, but for the vendors I was able to talk to, I asked them the same questions: "Your company is committed to sustainability, so why do you choose to use plastic as packaging?" For those who seemed willing to share, I followed up with:"Have you considered or tried using an alternative material?"

 
Plenty of black cooler bags to go around

Plenty of black cooler bags to go around

 

While their responses were unanimous — they couldn't find a suitable alternative — their attitudes varied. Most openly wished for another compostable material that was as cost-effective and protective as plastic. Pamela Neo of Edible Garden City shared that they experimented using biodegradable plastics, but it wasn't durable enough to keep their edible flowers fresh. However, they encourage their restaurant partners to return the containers for reuse.

 
Beautiful edible flowers and microgreens by Edible Garden City

Beautiful edible flowers and microgreens by Edible Garden City

IMG_9654.png
Sprouting Red Amaranth

Sprouting Red Amaranth

Buah Long Long and bananas

Buah Long Long and bananas

 

When it comes to raw seafood especially, anything less than aseptic plastic and ice breeds unease. While a majority of food packaging is single-use and disposable, it's good to know that many vendors, such as Kuhlbarra, try to reuse crates and boxes.

 
 

Some vendors truthfully answered that they hadn't considered switching from plastic. A few seemed defensive and unwilling to continue conversing when I broached the question. One seafood distributor firmly stated that there was no other way — vacuum-sealed plastic kept his fish fresh for up to a week, and food waste was the bigger issue here in Singapore.

Why plastic for food packaging is preferred

  1. Sterility — contaminated food = discarded food

  2. Extended shelf life — perishable foods can be safely stocked up in the freezer or fridge

  3. Protection from heat and humidity — sweltering Singapore weather is not to be taken lightly

  4. Protection from bruising — cosmetic imperfections affect commercial value

  5. Convenience — it's easy to grab-and-go with individual packs

Many of the vendors supply to supermarkets, and in a commercial setting each SKU needs to have a printed barcode. Packaging also offers an opportunity for branding and marketing to shine, and it helps products "look presentable" in order to be accepted by customers and stand out against competitors. For future farmers' markets, perhaps vendors can follow bulk, package-free setups similar to wet markets. Waste can be reduced by encouraging consumers to bring their own reusable bags/containers, and plastic is only available as a last resort.

Paper marketing collaterals

I will confess that when I was offered a flyer or name card, I immediately jumped ship and abandoned my initial plan of refusing them.

 
My market haul

My market haul

 

I'm hesitant to print business cards for AFOG because I'm afraid that they'll just be tossed into a drawer or the trash. I'm also afraid of exhibiting bad etiquette. At work I dare not refuse or withhold a business card, but in the future I'll endeavour to politely decline printed material (flyers, name cards) and instead offer to take a photo or save the individuals' contact info directly into my phone.

So fresh & so green

The market was separated into two lanes and each vendor occupied one booth. On the right were mostly vegetable, egg, or mushroom vendors. Seafood (fish, crab, oysters etc.) vendors flanked the left side.

 
IMG_9705.png
 

Divide and conquer

I don't want to invalidate the good work these farmers have done. For those who felt like they needed to defend their use of plastic, maybe next time I can begin by sharing that I understand how difficult it is to find a compostable alternative that doesn't stretch time, money, and resources. Perhaps the question should be aimed at packaging suppliers and it can be rephrased to, "Can we find or create a plastic alternative that can withstand a tropical climate?"

This way, farmers can focus on sustainable agriculture while inventors/material manufacturers/designers can work towards compostable packaging solutions. Hopefully, these two industries can collaborate to create foods that are fully sustainable from seed to soil.