Greener groceries: Solution or pollution?

Departments - Waste Watch

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October 7, 2020

The seamlessness of ordering all of my sustenance online via food delivery service equally enthralls and concerns me. Recently, I was inspired by my coworker’s spread from a local food rescue delivery service, and I decided to exchange my conventional supermarket shopping routine for greener groceries that would come to my doorstep.

Six weeks ago, I subscribed to two such services that provide meats, cheeses, eggs, vegetables and even hazelnut chocolate crepes that would otherwise be landfilled due to cosmetic imperfection, overproduction, low demand or best-by-date expiration. Often, these groceries are not sold in grocery stores because shoppers desire uniform goods in perfect condition. My elation to save landfill space through the consumption of off-spec scallop pieces and upcycled cookies is only surpassed by the organizations’ dedication to eliminating hunger in local communities by providing access to affordable food.

Unfortunately, I was confronted this week by an unforeseen circumstance: The cold packs that keep the contents of my delivery boxes to a federally regulated temperature have now exceeded my freezer’s capacity. Both of the food service websites were clear and direct with their packing and delivery processes; however, the plastic and chemical wastes of food safety only became clear to me when it was too late.

Many food delivery services, along with some medication delivery services, rely on cold packs to keep perishable goods cool. Every week, I receive two cold packs, one per cardboard box of food, that are approximately 9 by 12 inches in size and weigh about 6 pounds each. Most cold packs have an LDPE (No. 4) plastic exterior package filled with sodium polyacrylate—the gooey, sometimes blue interior. Sodium polyacrylate is part of a family of superabsorbent polymers called SAPs. SAPs are also commonly used in disposable diapers due to their ability to absorb up to 300 times their weight in liquid. Cold packs can stay cold for long periods of time because sodium polyacrylate, when mixed with water and frozen, thaws much more slowly than ice.

Unlike the cardboard boxes that are used for my food deliveries, most cold packs are not easily, or completely, recyclable. To recycle the No. 4 plastic exterior package, the cold pack must first be emptied of its contents. Unless certain of the inner contents, it should not be assumed that the cold pack’s filling is recyclable or compostable, and this filling should not be flushed down the drain or toilet because it can cause major clogging and plumbing issues. Instead, the inner goo should be disposed of in the trash. Next, the plastic exterior should be rinsed and dried before being recycled at a facility that processes plastic bags and other LDPE No. 4 plastics. However, these types of plastics often suffer from low recycling rates and can have a low market value, further limiting the recyclability of a cold pack’s exterior package.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, one of my food delivery services had a return and reuse system in place for both the cardboard box and the cold pack, but the program has since ceased due to public health concerns. For the same reasons that food delivery services are not taking back the cold packs, I am having difficulty donating them to food pantries, animal shelters (for vaccine storage and animal surgeries), and/or selling them on community lists such as Craigslist and Freecycle.

Without a safe reuse method or straightforward recycling option, the convenience of food rescue delivery challenges my intentions of sustainability. These food delivery services serve a good purpose, but not without putting a material burden on those who participate. It seems to reinforce the notion that something cannot be all at the same time sustainable, delicious and convenient. Perhaps the next challenge for SWANA’s International Solid Waste Design Competition could be to solve this problem that plagues those of us who want to have our imperfect cake and eat it too.