The persistence of plastic
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.
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?
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?"
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.
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
Sterility — contaminated food = discarded food
Extended shelf life — perishable foods can be safely stocked up in the freezer or fridge
Protection from heat and humidity — sweltering Singapore weather is not to be taken lightly
Protection from bruising — cosmetic imperfections affect commercial value
Convenience — it's easy to grab-and-go with individual packs