Friday, 17 April 2009

An argument for reusable packaging: resealable containers

Photocredit: Copyright Karen Cannard
featuring Country Farm Meats, Great Barton, Suffolk.

One of the key challenges to Zero Waste shopping has been avoiding plastic packaging. It's universal. However, the last 12 months has seen a personal effort focused on reducing landfill content, where plastic once comprised 30% of my household's waste and significant progress has been made.

The use of resealable containers and a return to a practice before the widespread application of disposable plastic packaging has proved to be the answer for reducing waste when purchasing loose produce of all kinds. The range includes meat, fish, cheese, fruit, vegetables, coffee beans, chocolates, home cosmetics and toiletries as well as take-away meals. There are exceptions for cooking and baking ingredients which are always plastic packaged.

The majority of the items are sold in local shops or specialised retailers with supermarkets having the widest potential for accepting container use, although there can be an awkwardness in dealing with staff there due to corporate practices and health and safety standards.

Superstores should realise that reusable packaging is good for the environment. If taken to a natural conclusion, there would be no packaging waste at all. A truly sustainable system of trading would be achieved, making Landfill and the more recent Incineration activity irrelevant or minimal.

Some leading superstores have proven to be co-operative in packaging fish/meat/dairy produce in reusable containers presented by the customer. Sainsbury's has proved best with Morrison's and Asda slightly more complicated.

While some products are easier to manage than others, the aim should be to increase the range of items, with food commodities top of the list. Unpackaged, a London shop-based business, provides access to the likes of desiccated coconut, dried fruit, rice and many other items. This could be the basis for countrywide trading. A link with other businesses, including superstores, would be one way to achieve that.

I would ask superstores to think "reusable" for their stores. They have non-customer type packages which are reusable, why not apply that throughout the business. After all they often sell food storage containers in the store, so why not encourage customers to buy them and reuse them for their shopping?


Lakeland also offers a wide range of portable food storage containers as well as the more ubiquitous Tupperware. Why not check them out at, or the international site If you prefer to avoid plastic storage systems, airtight stainless steel containers are also available from Canadian company


  1. Good to know that you can start to use reusable containers there!
    In Italy we can only rely on few distributors of fresh crude milk, home detergents and some varieties of peas and rice. But only for milk and detergents you can reuse your empty bottles. In the case of the other loose products they dispense only sacks made by polyethylene, which is recyclable but not good for more uses.
    I really hope that good habits could arrive here too very soon!

  2. Danda, Over here there are plenty of food, and other, items on open display suitable for container, Onya bag or taken loose in shopping bags. We are promoting their use to reduce packaging waste to a minimum.

    Polythene is uses extensively here, as well, with a poor recycling system, in which consumers have to post the material to the plastics industry.

    Is there a consumer based association in Italy which could promote Zero Waste?

  3. I am more recent convert towards taking containers, mainly because we have such an excellent recycling service for the standard type of packaging in the part of Suffolk where I live. As you say John, there are certain complications with retail standards imposed by supermarkets, so I tend to avoid that scenario and use them when I visit the local farm shop\butchers instead. Chatting to the our local farm shop about packaging today, the subject of polystyrene packaging came up, which of course is the hardest to recycle of all the available options. They said they used polystyrene because of ease of purchase, as the other kind of plastic packaging was sold in too high a quantity that a small outlet could sustain. I suggested that they could promote the idea that their customers could bring their own containers. Hopefully that will happen.

    Meanwhile, as I've said elsewhere, I would love supermarkets to promote their own branded containers for customers to use at the deli and fish counters. It doesn't have to be enforced, but the supermarkets do have to have some level of trust that customers who care about such issues will have taken the responsibility to wash the containers throughly and not be the kind that would sue in the event of contaminated produce caused by storage that was outside the retailer's control. Here's hoping that some solution will be found, but at least there is a whole range of retailers who happy accept this emerging trend.

  4. I've recently bought a couple of sets of Onya Weigh bags, which I now use for farmers' market veggies, and bread (which I buy in the bakery I work for) - it feels very liberating to not have dozens of disposable bags going through my kitchen every week. I still need to organise a suitable solution for meat (though to be fair, most of my meat is delivered in my veg box)

    From the other side of the counter, we had our first (that I've noticed, anyway) customer bringing their own box for cakes a couple of days ago - I was most impressed, though the member of staff serving her seemed a little confused!


  5. Karen, Container use is more acceptable to staff away from the supermarket situation. I therefore prefer to shop local or in specialist retailers. The reduced plastic packaging use can save their business costs as well as the contribution to Zero Waste.

    Mel, Good to see you are taking the necessary steps to waste reduction. Meat/fish require sturdy containers. Mine have 4 cliplocks to seal the box tightly. I use them in the freezer as well and wash them when emptied.

    I have not boxed cakes yet, using paper bags or card boxes (without plastic inserts). Reduce includes paper products as well so it is a certainty that cakes will join the list. Staff do get used to the practice though I have seen some "defend" the plastic to the last. In the end, good sense prevails!

  6. Mel, getting my folks to buy sweet stuff from the bakery with a reusable container is on my list too!! :)

    John, great article!!
    I especially like the links to good companies seeling stuff unpackaged & containers to check out! (maybe marketing this effort together with these companies could bring bigger changes? hmm?)

    Also, customers could sign 'proof of faith' or something, I certainly would! to say I wash my containers etc.
    (if anything happened, with today's technology it would be easy to track purchases - eg customer1 and customer2 who bought the same meat/raisins the same day, & ask about their experiences..)

    Even with 'real' (plastic) packaging, sometimes lots of people bring eg walnuts back, & in that case it's certainly a problem in storage etc & the product has to be recalled..

    Danda, I suggest you try to find an eco/health food store, or smaller shops indeed! - maybe it would be easier there?

    Oh, & I just found online organic cotton alternatives, similar to Onya bags - they look exciting!
    & it's inspiring that people seem to be buying & using them!!

  7. Love very much the photo too!! :)

    & now think I need to get us some of those big plastic containers! :)

  8. Layla, Thanks for that. Container use will grow as people see the value of waste reduction. Part of the need for consumer action is the paralysis in other agencies.

    Karen's photo was ace and the containers an impressive size. My containers are smaller, easily fitting into a shopping bag. Choose your own kind to suit your purchases.

    Cleanliness is essential and I cannot really see anyone not washing them. It is the same as washing plates after eating off them.

  9. Sorry, John, for the late reply!

    Yes, In Italy we have a web of Zero Waste associations but they are not really focused on consumers habits. They are more focused on struggles about the building of incinerators, or the opening of new landfills, or they complain about bad local waste collection services.

    But, now, we can start to see few initiatives from some municipalities that give us more chances to involve also consumers in Zero Waste behaviours... I'll surely let you know!

  10. Danda,

    Thanks for the reply. The issues you mentioned do mirror our interests close to the Zero Waste trend.

    Great to read of the emerging consumer side. As you know, consumers can influence the shops/supermarkets where they make purchases. I hope that our experiences can be of value.

  11. Hi John,

    On Saturday morning I took a container round to the local butcher for some of his excellent pork and leek sausages for my boys. He was well impressed and said I was very efficient!! I cheekily said my sausages should be a little cheaper as I was saving him on costs. I got a wink, but nothing off the sausages lol.

    The Co-op are another supermarket that are fine with filling containers, I've never had any trouble at their deli counter with cheese etc.


  12. Hi Carole,

    Great to see your container successes. As more people use them, facilities may develop to miss out the packaging altogether. This is obviously a big step, particularly for supermarkets, so a gradual introduction would be indicated.

    Quickness of completing a purchase is a feature which must be a help to traders. There are pluses on both sides with packaging waste a common saving.

  13. Fantastic post, John - which has produced a lot of interest. Using reusable containers is a no brainer for me, and it can be frustrating when businesses will not oblige. But then your choice is to vote with your money and go elsewhere. This can take courage though - this increases with practise too :D

    My hope is that a company soon arrives in your area for you to purchase your baking needs from large self-service bins. Items such as dried fruit, coconut and nuts are ideal for this type of storage plus the costs are often vastly reduced.

  14. Thanks for that, Mrs Green. The point of refusals at stores, with experience, is to show the power the consumer has. You simply shop on your own terms and refuse to compromise. That is taking personal responsibility for waste

    A local unpackaged source would be ace. Home desiccation is possible for the coconut with 5 minutes oven heating of the removed flesh. This option is Zero Waste after buying loose coconuts. The taste will be much better as well.

  15. Thanks for your lovely comments about the photo. Good to see you here too Mel and Carole....and Carole I just love your story about your container experience. By the way, anyone who chooses to use containers should also measure their fridge :-) Talking from experience you see, I have to place that large container on its side to fit into our refrigerator.

    I was even further inspired today. I attended the launch of a Zero Waste Week with a group of residents from a lovely village, the other side of Suffolk. On seeing the examples of the Weigh bags I took over, they suggested making their own, which I thought was brilliant.

  16. hey. i really liked your ideas about using reusable containers. thanks for sharing such informative and inspiring blogs. will be looking for more such posts.

    Reusable Containers


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